It is time to pull out the tomato plants. It is barely past mid-July, they are just reaching their sweet, juicy abundance, and I have to remove them from the garden. We are leaving. My husband has military orders to Texas. The house has been sold. I need to sterilize the home we have enjoyed for the last 6 years for strangers who will come in and make it theirs. I must remove all signs of myself, my family. I must scour away our past, our memories.
And so, at eleven at night I am in the garden, viciously killing red and yellow cherry tomato bushes. The movers came last week, and I have no gardening tools. I hack at them with my husband’s switchblade. It might ruin the blade. The thought causes me to pause, briefly, but bitterly I continue. I need to get these tomatoes out. Tomorrow is garbage day and the green waste is always picked up by 6 am.
The first to go is the red cherry. It is full and lush. Even in the low light of the flood lamp on the side of the house I can see the dense red jewels hanging from its reaching branches. They shake as I pull and chop. I decide to remove the root first, maybe I can extricate the whole thing at once. I must pull the tomato cage back and forth to loosen the root bulb. The cage pulls free of the loose loam, but the thick green base of the plant holds firm. I entwine my gloved fingers among the branches and pull, my foot braced against the side of the planter bed. It holds. I pull in the opposite direction and it holds. I rock it back and forth, twisting and straining my shoulders until they burn. Finally, with the sound of snapping roots it pulls free. The sound evokes wanton destruction and gives no sense of accomplishment. The scent of disturbed greenery fills my nostrils and it smells of living and growing things, which in tomorrow’s heat will be dry and lifeless. I take the switchblade and start to saw at the thick arms of the plant, pulling it from its entanglement around the tomato cage.
As I cut and fold the waste into the green trash bin, inhaling the sharp sweetness of weeping, cut tomato vines, I think of a sunny day picking tomatoes with my three year old son. The sweet orbs are just the right size for his pudgy fingers, and he eats two for each one he puts in the bowl. “The red ones mama?” he asks.
“Yes, my love, only pick the red ones”, I tell him.
“Not the green ones?” he asks, double checking which color is ready to pick.
“Not the green ones,” I answer. “Those are the baby tomatoes, they have to grow still.”
He shoves another tomato in his mouth, the seeds and tomato juice smearing his chin. “Just like me, I’m getting bigger and bigger!” he announces between chews, raising his arms in the air to demonstrate his upward velocity.
I will not be picking tomatoes again with my son before we move. There is no time left in the summer to plant new tomatoes in our new home. Maybe next year. But he will be 4 then, and his sentences more fluid, his understanding more mature, his fingers more slender. Maybe he won’t want to garden with me next summer. This may be my last summer with him and the baby green tomatoes.
I scoop the remnants into the green waste bin and contemplate the other end of the garden. I am sad, I grieve the red cherries. I pause, thinking I could leave the other plant intact. I want so badly to invite my son to pick tomatoes with me the next day, but there is no more time.
Instead of trying to remove the yellow tomatoes by the root I take the switchblade and cut at the branches of the plant. I will de-bulk it first and perhaps it will come up more easily than the red. The branches cut quickly; this plant is less full than the other, less productive, but its fruit is golden sunshine. I think of the friends to whom I have gifted the tomatoes. Between the two plants we had more produce than we could eat, even with my son and I snacking during harvesting. They were gifts of warm summer afternoons, gifts of abundance. I cut the branches away, seeing clusters of green promises not yet yellowed with lazy summer afternoons vanishing into the darkness of the waste bin. I will no longer have tomatoes to provide to my loved ones, and I am angry, cutting with the sharpness of my husband’s knife, hacking into the second half of summer’s bounty. The plant pulls away from its root, its vines easily detangles from the tomato cage.
I clean up, grabbing errant branches and dropped tomatoes to throw away. My hand hits the firm tangle of the root – it has not come free. I start to dig, reaching deep into the soil to pull the plant. It holds so tightly, its roots have spread through yards of the garden, reaching far and deep. I am not strong enough to take it out. I must break the roots one by one, snapping them between my fingers to remove the bulk. I am spent. While picking up fallen tomatoes in the inky darkness I step on a couple, their seeds ejected across the ground. I pick up as much as I can, but I am sure some seeds remain. Some seeds will always be left behind. They are promises for the future.