My memories of my grandfather are tinged with the pain of his alcoholism and the pleasure of his tomatoes. Often on brisk autumn days, grandpa would say to me, "It's tomato time. Ready to go to the garden?"
We lived on a long, crowded street with houses lined up like dominoes. But there was a vacant lot, a place where grass, trees, and wild flowers grew about three blocks down the alley from grandpa and grandma's house. The garden was accessible for me too, because we lived directly across the street from grandma and grandpa. Grandpa rented part of this vacant lot for his garden. I am sure he planted other vegetables besides tomatoes, but the tomatoes are as firmly planted in my memories of him as he planted the tomato vines in the ground.
Grandpa picked up his brown bottle of beer in one hand and a tomato basket, which was an oblong wooden, slotted basket with a wire handle, in the other hand. We walked the three long blocks through the alley to what seemed to be a miniature garden of Eden. I smelled those richly red, sunlight kissed tomatoes - solid perfume on the vine. I ran over, picked one, and ate it on the spot. Who needed such impediments as plates, napkins, or even salt?
Sitting his bottle of beer under a tree, grandpa handed me the tomato basket. "Pick me a big basket for your grandma, will you? I need a peace offering."
I understood what he meant. It seemed like grandma was always angry with him. I was certain her anger had something to do with grandpa drinking too many bottles of beer a day. Sometimes toward the end of the day he talked funny and often before I went home for the night I would find him slumped over the kitchen table, his head buried in his arms. Grandma called that "sleeping it off."
Judging from the tone of grandma's voice, "sleeping it off" was something disgusting. I couldn't understand how grandpa or his tomatoes were disgusting. I darted up and down the two rows of tomato plants grandpa had set in the soil with such loving care last spring, searching for the splash of red that told me that the tomatoes were ripe.
Quickly I stooped over and took off my shoes. I loved going barefoot in the garden, feeling the moist dirt crumble between my toes and the grass slither across the bottoms of my bare feet. The sun beat down on my back. I didn't care. I savored the feel of sunshine on my skin and the cool breeze ruffling my hair.
I wanted to be sure that grandpa had a big enough basket of tomatoes to please grandma, so I searched extra hard for the ripest, juiciest ones. Once I dropped to my hands and knees to get a tomato from the bottom of a vine. Another time I untangled a large red one from the strip of bed sheet that grandpa had used to tie the vine to the wooden stakes to keep it off the ground.
Finally, I had the tomato basket full of ripe, succulent tomatoes. I pranced in front of grandpa with the full basket, taking care not to spill any tomatoes out of it. "Aren't they just beautiful? Grandma will like these, won't she grandpa?"
"They look good," grandpa said. I noticed that now there were three bottles sitting under the tree beside grandpa. He must have had the other two hidden in the inside pockets of his jacket. He did that sometimes and brought them to the garden to drink so grandma wouldn't see him.
"I'll carry the basket, grandpa. You bring the bottles."
He put the two bottles inside his jacket and picked up the third one. "Let's go."
I skipped down the alley ahead of grandpa, anxious to get back and show grandma his beautiful tomatoes.
"Not so fast," grandpa called after me. He was walking slowly and occasionally he wobbled on his feet. I slowed down and walked beside him. He stumbled over a rock and I put my hand under his arm, carefully holding on to the tomato basket with the other hand.
Grandma was waiting for us by the back yard gate. I held out the basket of tomatoes. "Grandma, we picked these for you."
She stared at grandpa. "You're drunk again!" she said.
Grandma took one of the best looking tomatoes from the top of the basket, one I had spent five minutes finding. She threw it as hard as she could. It splattered across the concrete pavement and splotches of it dotted grandpa's shoes. I stared at the symbol of his love of growing things and hard work, shattered into bloody pieces on the pavement.
I ran into the house, the tomato basket bouncing up and down. I didn't even care that some of the tomatoes fell out of the basket and joined the one that grandma threw on the pavement.
Today, I can see many parallels between shattered tomatoes and lives shattered by alcoholism. I can understand grandma's anger. But every time I pick a tomato from my garden, I see my grandpa's calloused hands showing me how to tie a tomato plant without damaging its leaves. I still watch him showing me how to pick a ripe tomato carefully so I wouldn't squish it. When I sit at my kitchen table eating a vine-ripened tomato that I grew myself, I see grandpa smiling at me.
Now, it's not so terribly hard to forgive him.