The tips of my fingers smell like tomatoes. Or, more accurately, like tomato plants. Not the actual fruits, but the leaves and vines surrounding them. It is one of my favorite smells. If you add the smell of fresh mint, and sun warmed raspberries, you would have the smell track to one of my happiest childhood places.
My great grandmother, Ellie, knew how to grow everything.
She lived in a buttercream little house, in farm country, across from a huge field where wildflowers and wheat abounded. She had gained permission from the farmer who owned that field, and so we got to run and play in it as an extension of her property at our weekly visits. I can personally assure you that it is very hard to grind wheat into flour, using only your teeth. But, I can also tell you from experience, that there is a particular kind of magic about how the wind sweeps gently through a wheat field, especially when you are lying on your back amidst the rows, looking up, with nothing between you and cornflower skies.
Her own yard seemed just as infinite. It was a place where the miraculous kissed the mundane, and created something sacred through their union.
Wild strawberries hung overhead, herbs and vegetables grew lush and green in defiance of a too hot sun, and the air seemed to hold the constant promise of hope.
This was a place where things grew. Where nature seemed to bow to the sweet artist inhabiting this plot, where sunsets curtseyed and held their orange-pink skirts grandly to both sides, until the sky itself was alight in the tulle ruffles of the day.
This was a place where loud, too quickly growing children were accepted, and encouraged to play.
I remember a circular bit of earth, covered only in grass, and a blue plastic pool. The kind with a molded slide inside, shaped just so in a factory, for small children to spend hazy summer days . This too, became a place where things sprouted. Where life rose, out of the ashes. A dirt streaked 1980’s watering hole, filled and overflowing with enchanted waters.
In these waters, I was formed, again. One day a mermaid, with a tale long and shimmering green. The next a lifeguard, swimming from ocean to ocean, rescuing open water victims that bore an uncanny resemblance to my younger brother. Other days it was a trough, a place we led invisible livestock to hydrate against the harsh prairie life, ala Laura Ingalls, pre Wilder.
When the sun turned white, and came low to whisper her flame soaked secrets to the ears of the earth, my Grammy and Mom swept us inside. There in the shaded quiet of the house, we feasted on the days harvest, and tuna sandwiches unlike the ones my mother made.
We listened to my great grandmother’s stories of growing up spending summers on a houseboat, of coming-out balls, and life as a debutante. It was there, in the living room, where plates held fresh bread with homemade butter, and minds danced with dreams of what might lay before us. It was on the stoop of her past, that my sister and I built the foundation for our futures.
Even the front porch was filled to the brim with life. Dachshunds tittered back and forth, always eager to be petted and loved. Huge aloe plants in painted ceramic containers, lined the porch, in silent anticipation. Grouped together beautifully, they sat, ready and waiting to be broken open so that they could fulfill their destiny. A sunburn, a scrape, even a little hand turning the pages of a book too quickly and wincing at the sudden sting of a paper cut, and crack! Clear gel would spill obediently from it’s borders, and soothe the hurting.
Everything at her house seemed to live at least two lives. The one she bought it as, and the one she created for it to keep living. Which also explains why nothing in her refrigerator was what was actually labeled on its container. Plastic never died, it was just reassigned. This was the hallmark of a woman who had lived through the great depression, and more than one war. Nothing was wasted. And beauty could be found everywhere you looked.
I didn’t know her when she was younger, so only through stories have I met the version of her that had more than one bad marriage. The young mother of two, so sad and abused that she used to turn the gaslight on and put her head into the open oven and breathe. I never saw her cower. Never watched as a man told her what she would and would not do, never saw male hands reach towards her not to embrace, but to bruise her delicate skin.
Even now, I have a hard time reconciling that part of her life, to the parts she spent sharing with me.
I used to carry her black leather purse around grocery stores. I wore the strap as a badge of honor. While the knowledge that it was unfashionable, tickled at my temples, I was too proud of her to be ashamed. This purse belonged to my great grandmother, and she trusted me to carry it. Because I knew who she was, I thought everyone at the store would also know, and they would hold reverence to the fact that I was her armor bearer.
She was a warrior, this woman. She was small in stature, but large in life. So self possessed that it was captivating. So skilled with a paint brush, that it made you catch your breath.
She loved horses, and teddy bears, dolls, and tiny details. She seemed to belong in one of the many books that she read. As if her own skin was just the cover to all the stories bound within.
She loved delicate things, and had hands that looked just as my own mother’s do. She had sad eyes, and a generous heart.
She was a woman who knew how to love.
Even as I sit here, on my own front porch, surrounded by repurposed containers, holding peppers and zucchini, roses, and five kinds of tomatoes, I am amazed. My children play and splash, float and sink, skim and swim, in the waters of their own pool. My Grammy’s namesake, my daughter Ellie, looks over at me with those same eyes. She is smiling in a way that reaches past her eyes, so deep is her joy that it must affect her hairline. “We are explorers!”, she yells, and splashes again.
The water sprays her sister, and into the garden bed. The smell of tomatoes, and growing things hangs on the wind. “Yes, we are.” I reply, just as she jumps back in.