This Memorial Day weekend I will think of and honor my Grandfather, Paul LaVerne G. by harvesting, eating and caring for tomatoes. Because that is what he did.
Like many young men in the early 1940’s my Grandpa Paul lied about his age so he could join the Army and fight for his country in WWII. He did just that- becoming an expert marksman and spent long months in the Philippines, fighting to take back the islands from Japan. He was a short, square and stout man, who in his 70’s, still routinely broke pliers and wire cutters with sheer strength of his hands. “Pfff. Junk,” he’d mutter. He never talked about any of the war. Though it was a sulphur bomb that made his skin turn a strange shade of purplish-blue, when as a little girl I asked why he was that color, he answered in his gruff voice, “I ate a Smurf.” I giggled. My silly Grandpa.
He had known life without much of anything, through the Depression and being the middle child of 13 in a poor rural area. He often said joining the Army was a relief. At least he got fed 3 times a day and had a bed to sleep in.
He spent many summers at our house when I was a child, living with us on and off between traveling to England, where he spent the other half of his life. He loved my grandmother’s family there, and would stay as long as the visa would let him. During those summers and autumn seasons with us, the thing I remember most is the tomatoes. My parents had wanted a modest little backyard garden. Grandpa planted about 100 tomato plants. And in the heat of August, we would pick tomatoes by the bucket-full and boil, can, repeat, repeat. Until our entire cellar was filled with all manner of tomatoes in jars: sauce, stewed and juice. Sometimes I hated my grandpa’s tomato plants. They kept me from being able to play at the pool with my friends.
And now, I can’t pluck a fresh one from a vine and not think of him. The fresh burst of vine-ripened sweetness in the mouth, the smell that is unique to the leaves of a healthy tomato plant, and the roughness of the stems as they brush my skin while I pick the best ones. I half expect to see him standing square and stout at the end of the row, lifting another bucketful.
So this Memorial Day, as we remember all those who have passed, and especially Veterans, I will be plucking tomatoes. I don’t even have a photo of him, but I don’t need one. I have fresh ones to be picked, and that is the memory he would want me to have.