Just south of the house a large cement tank extended up eighteen inches from the ground. A heavy round cover fit perfectly over the top. It took a lot of muscle to move the cover, but at a very young age, each of us were warned to never mess with that cistern. It was a deep tank that contained the water for our household use. During a heavy rain, one of the folks would step outside and pull the lever on the downspout that allowed rain water to fill the reservoir. When rain was scarce, we called William and Darlene, a dear couple from Erwin, and paid them to haul in a tank of water from De Smet. Though the cistern held a couple thousand gallons, a family of eight used a lot of water. Needless to say, we never luxuriated in neck-deep bubble baths. As with everything else those days, we did not waste water on our South Dakota farm.
So, it seemed a bit unusual one hot, dry summer, when Dad hooked up a hose and pulled it back to the garden. Carefully he soaked the ground around each of Mom’s dozen tomato plants. “They need to be watered deep.” He lugged in a straw bale from the barn and spread it under the plants to conserve the moisture, but every Sunday, unless it had rained, he watered those tomatoes.
Two months later, Dad helped himself to six tomato slices from a platter on our supper table. He spooned a generous amount of sugar from the sugar bowl on each, then sliced one in half with his fork. Juice dripped onto his plate as he lifted the first bite to his mouth. He closed his eyes as he savored the moment. The sweet goodness must have brought back memories of his childhood. For the next ten minutes, he reminisced. As he spoke, we could feel his need to pass on precious memories of his mother.
She knew how to raise tomatoes. Even in the driest years, she managed to grow enough for their family of six sons and one daughter. As the round fruits turned scarlet, she would tug them from the vines and proudly arrange them on the old picnic table that sat next to the house in the shade. Each day she brought in a few to serve to her family with summer meals. When there were enough, she and her daughter Helen would pack them in jars and cook them in the huge canner. In plenteous years, jars of the red fruit lined pantry shelves to be used that winter for goulash, soup and scalloped tomatoes. But Dad’s very favorite was his mom’s wonderful tomato preserves on homemade bread.
Her name was Mary. She died when he was 17. Though many years later, we heard the emotion in our father’s voice when he talked about his mother. We all listened quietly as we pictured this grandmother we never got to meet.
Summer breezes changed to bitter winds. Weeks passed, and it did not seem long until we sat around the table laden with Thanksgiving bounty. Just before joining us, Mom brought a pint jar from the pantry cupboard. We heard the metallic pop as she used a table knife to break the lid’s seal. She poured the red contents of the jar into a gold-rimmed glass dish and set it in front of Dad.
His hazel eyes grew misty as he looked up at his wife. “Tomato preserves?” He could only manage to shake his head slowly as he gazed at the special gift.
“It didn’t want to set up,” Mom apologized with her gentle smile. “It’s kind of runny.”
Dad lifted the spoon from the dish and let it pour back in. “Smells good.” Then he reached for a slice of bread, spread butter on it and spooned on so much tomato preserves that it ran off the edge. He took a big bite. “Mmmmm. It’s perfect. Just like my mother used to make.”
Nearly sixty years later, I now understand why my dad used precious water to save those tomato plants. He needed to hold on to those memories of the mother he lost too soon.
As I sit here today, gazing at the variety of tomatoes lined up on my picnic table, I suddenly feel the need to make tomato preserves like the kind my grandmother used to make. The grandma that I never knew---My Grandma Mary who knew how to grow tomatoes.
Kruempel’s books, the “Promises to Keep” series, are available at Amazon.com. Watch for her soon-to-be-released book, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, a compilation of the stories from the NOOKS AND CRANNIES column. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and receive free weekly stories, recipes, photos and updates.