I am standing at a kitchen table with three generations of farming folk, with a fourth, John, napping in the bakery. Thirty-pound baskets of fresh-picked tomatoes have been distributed over the table, along with empty buckets and serrated knives. The chairs have all been pushed back to the wall, and I am watching Jenny’s mother demonstrate how to remove the stem and then cut the tomato into pieces small enough to fit through the sauce machine.
The others: a grandmother, a father and a grandfather, and a secretary turned friend (or maybe the other way around, but I like her, she wears pink flowers in her grey hair) cut one, two, three with an ease that brings to mind images of years and years of summer days spent preparing for winter. I slice my tomatoes slowly, afraid of cutting my hands, and sometimes whisper to Chris, who is standing next to me, also trying to master a slick knife. The only sounds are the sklooshing of vegetable flesh and the droning of the window fan.
After cutting a basket or so, my upper arms are already itching with drying juice and my hands are wrinkled. I look around at the others (I can’t keep their names straight) and see that their hands are barely wet and that their table sections are clean. Maybe my tomatoes are riper or maybe I grew up storebought, and never cut more than a salad’s worth of anything. I glance at Chris; tomato guts are dripping off of his hands.
Buckets are filled, baskets are emptied and more are brought in to replace them. I am going faster now, more used to the motions and less cautious. Someone asks how many baskets of tomatoes (no, I suppose it’s ‘tamatahs’) are left. Through the kitchen door I can see a skid with a mountain of tamatahs waiting to be sliced. My wrists ache and I am sure I can feel the blisters forming, but I keep cutting and then they start to talk.
"I used to do a lot of canning when my kids were growing up, but now, with only two people..."
"You know, Fancy just puts em’ right through the machine without cutting em’ first."
"I used to can for everyone in my neighborhood. My mother tried to make me can for my sisters, but I finally said no, and then I was at the top of her spit-list. Lotta good people on the top of that list."
Just then, John peeks his head in the door and I am privileged enough to see one of my friends turn into a parent at the sight of his child’s sleepy, well-rubbed eyes. Chris carries his son off, I am left alone with Jenny’s family, and more people I do not know arrive with children in tow: one boy and one girl who dutifully go round the cutting table allowing themselves to be kissed and fawned over by the old women. Their father has come with a truck full of geese with heatstroke that need their wings clipped. Before the men go outside to deal with the birds, they talk through the current state of farm politics. It is getting hotter inside the kitchen.
"Did you hear that someone died at the railroad crossing by Vet’s bakery?"
"I know, hon! They didn’t give a name in the paper and I thought it might be Fred, so I called the Chronicle."
"Ooh, Fred’s wife is pretty. Don’t you think she’s pretty?"
"She asked me about my jelly. I don’t know, but that batch wouldn’t set. I used a digital timer and the raspberry was just fine."
"More pectin. You need a clock with a sweeper hand."
"I remember making preserves on the big stove, with six burners. I could cook dinner while the big pot boiled in back. It was hard to find time, with all the farm-work."
I sit down and rub my hands together. My fingers hurt and there is tomato underneath my nails, even after two washings, both with soap. Most of the ladies (they wear pearls and go to church on normal days, these are definitely ladies) are still chopping as fast as they were two hours ago and the men are back at the cutting table. The little girl has been handing off tomatoes to me and the others, and Chris has taken up the knife again. Skloosh! Little John has gone off to shoot the bad guys with his stick rifle.
"I'm thankful that I never had to do any work on the farm. It was hard enough raising the children and managing the house."
"I was always lucky because Jimmy helped with the cooking. I’d set the alarm most days for four, we’d sometimes can until midnight, then work the farm all day."
"Nothing shameful about a man who cooks. No sir."
"I do most of the cooking," Chris says. I want him to stay quiet, to let them forget that we are there. I want to listen.
"How is Jimmy?"
"Hanging in there. Much better now that he’s back home. It was just that one stone that he couldn’t pass."
"Carol's mother was ninety-two the first time she was ever in the hospital. She had a stroke and she was admitted and then released and two months later she passed on. Just like that."
"Sometimes I wonder about hospitals. They keep everyone alive too long. I just don’t know if it’s right."
The tomato slicers shift and change, the man with the geese goes home and then we are discussing revisionist history and the Holocaust. I do not offer any opinions while the current state of Germany is blasted. No, not until Chris brings up the unpopular theory that humans evolved from sea creatures. I am suddenly orating, going on and on about evolution and whale skulls.
"Hush," Chris says. Everyone is looking at me. I hush.
"Well, now, I don’t know much about that."
"What about seahorses? Horses that live in the sea are mammals, right?" Ba-dum-cha! It’s Chris rebreaking the ice.
"I’d say those seahorses have the right idea: giving the men the babies."
"The only reason that they take em’ is because they know they can do it twice as efficient as the lady-seahorse can. Soon as some fish came along, she’d be running away."
"She can go off and buy little shoes or whatever it is lady-seahorses like."
"That's just what they let the men think. Look at how much better you do it! You’re so big and strong."
"Children do the same thing to mothers. It’s so much better when you make a sandwich, mom. Even works with siblings."
"It's always been that way."
Skloosh. I hush and I listen. Buckets are filled, baskets are emptied and more are brought in to replace them.
Thank you and you. PS- I hate tomatoes