MARY M. DIXON
My mother has the most beautiful hands; not the kind of beautiful you might think of, but beautiful, nonetheless. As she cradles the tomato in the palm of her hand and works the knife, the core pops, a perfect green-streaked cone. Her fingers, pink up to the knuckles from the steaming hot water bath, swell over the gold band, flesh pouched up on either side making a track fifty years old. My fingers dance over the burning liquid, but she plunges hers in and grabs another fruit. The plastic skin of tomatoes slits and slips off in her hands. The water turns a clear diluted ruby red. I think of Proverbs chapter 31, Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. Seeds and pulp plop into a huge kettle. Conversation isn’t necessary but we engage in it anyway. “The tomatoes are ripening fast,” she says, her eye on the next one bobbing helplessly in the steaming waters.
“What are we going to do with all of them?” I ask, hoping she has a better answer than canning them.
“We can make salsa, and can more tomatoes, maybe with peppers and onions. I’ll take some to Father Mentz on Sunday. He likes to have them. Maybe, you could drop some off for Lucille, and Susan, poor thing, her knee all banged up from that fall, could take a few, too.” I smile at her generosity. She never did know how to let anything go to waste. She extends her hands to the poor, yes, opens her arms to the needy.
“Don’t you think we have enough jars of tomatoes?” hopefully my voice isn’t sarcastic. She doesn’t seem to notice; one after another, her two for my one, fill up the kettle. I haul it to the stove.
“Start the burner out slow, otherwise they’ll scorch.” She tells me this every time. A scraping stir of the pot with the big spoon that is so hot it sears my palm seems to satisfy her.
We make another trip to a jumbled mass, she calls a garden. Vines grow aimlessly in a helpless tangle. There doesn’t seem to be a row, or even a path to walk on. She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it; with what her hands have earned, she plants a vineyard. “Maybe we should have staked the tomatoes,” I suggest.
“We never stake the tomatoes,” she says gently without explanation.
We pick up and search under every tomato tendril. The vines smell so much like tomatoes, but there is a green grass-like smell that isn’t on the tomato itself. Yellow blossoms signal more bounty, and tiny green balls with yellow blushes, yellow ones almost pink, and red ones so ripe they fall off. We plunk the blushed and ripe ones into our bucket. I point out ones that have rotted, because they’ve been jammed into the mud in the profuse growth. “If we tied the plants on stakes, we wouldn’t have so many rotten ones.”
My mother doesn’t answer; she continues picking. The bucket is full, and the last tomato I put on top rolls off into the mud. “I’ll get another bucket,” I say to my mother’s back. She is intent on the next prize. I marvel at her stamina. She bends over the row and hobbles slowly checking every spot for recalcitrant tomatoes. She girds herself with strength and performs her tasks with vigor. The hem of her blue print dress catches a piece of sky on the goldenrods as she whisks around them. She never wears pants, except sweat pants, under her dress when the winter winds are too cold for bare legs. Everything she wears, she has sewn for herself. Stubbornly refusing to shop for her clothes, she says she knows how to make them, so why shouldn’t she? I know she has never bought a dress. Often, blood draws to the prick of pins or needles as she sews. She makes herself fine linen garments. The shoes she wears are for gardening, flattened in the back and caked with dirt. Her bare feet in them makes me wince. My mother isn’t afraid of dirt. Instinctively I know, because I’m my mother’s daughter, that she loves the planting, but most of all the exhausting reaping, the on and on of it, until you are about sick of it. No bread of idleness for her.
When we’ve examined every single plant, the buckets are full. The sun is hot and I am feeling faint. My mother’s face is flushed like a young girl’s. Her hair, gray-streaked, is falling softly over her lined brown face. I am looking at my grandmother. I wonder if I am my mother. Her heritage lingers over me, blossoming like the tomatoes in promise of fruit. I am my mother’s daughter. Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last.
My grandmother had this same passion for gardening. I think of her tomato preserves. My mother doesn’t make them anymore, because none of us liked this old German relish. They were so thick, like strawberry preserves, only redder, and sweeter.
I glance up at the pasture beyond the yard and remember when my sister and I used to explore every inch of it. Our hair bouncing in the waves of a great tidal stem, we rode our horses with abandon. There were always plenty of chores: feeding red and brown chickens that pecked at seeds and at us as we cached the treasures under their plump brown breasts; milking cows, rhythmically stripping exotic elixir from pink bags; mucking piles of straw that spewed out fermented steam; bucket-training greedy calves who would suck the circulation out of our slobbered fingers. Many are the daughters who work ably. We did all these things, and more. But when we got to the pasture, imagination captured us in cavalry-mounted Indian raids, Daniel Boone escapades, and deep dark everglades. The places we went came to us like a stream of consciousness. My mother made allowances for us. We grew wild in our ways. She tended us like the tomato vines, never controlling, always inspecting, her fingers snipping suckers that drained the life out of the plants. She keeps good watch on the conduct of her household.
My mother and I carry buckets that are full, brimming over with red marbled globes. We take them to the back porch and sort variations of ripeness onto newspapers. The ready ones are fleshy, not really soft, but yielding to pressure. My hand brushes my mother’s in the swapping of color. I notice how soft the back of it is. “Sure are a lot of them this year.” I remark.
“Some years are good, and others are not. You have to take advantage when you can,” she tells me. She knows that her affairs are going well; her lamp does not go out at night. In the summer garden, amidst all those lusty pollen stems, abundance comes in more ways than one. My mother taught us how to capture summer in jars, pickling cucumbers in crunchy sweetness and puckering sourness. Earth’s arteries open up and spew out tomatoes in a great mass of red. Canning jars from the cellar plunged into hot sudsy baths, kettles of stewing tomato entrails were cues that girls like us knew meant busy hands. In the midst of it, my mother, her apron stained like a battlefield surgeon’s, lifted her hands, flecked with seeds, in a sigh of surrender and signaled withdrawal. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She recognized the strain of the work on our dizzied brains; and sent us out to luxuriate under thick river water. Our eyes and hearts swelled as much from the heat as from the expanse of sky, as we dozed, bobbing like corks, our toes anchors in the silty sand. My sister Julie's hair, red and lovely, floated like seaweed. I imagined that she had mermaid’s hair. Even though she was four years younger than me, we still fed one another rich dreams that lifted us in flight. Airplane horses in pasture skies over bindweed’s delicate white flower clouds carried us over summer. We raced full-out-foolish over ground in which gophers plotted stumbling traps. If we were reckless, we didn’t care. She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs at the day to come. Julie’s bay mare and my brown gelding matched stride. Our hands entwined in whipping manes, both horses knew that speed was a lust born in them, the same as for us. . Their heads tossed restlessly, nodding huge yeses to our desires. We roamed to faraway streams and found hidden treasures on sand bar shores of ancient lands. The arrowheads made us into pioneers scouting unknown trails. Returning to corral ordinary horses, to carry chore-laden buckets that marked our hands with crimson lines; into twilight, we time-traveled.
Then, back in my mother’s kitchen, sizzling steaks and potatoes with white cream gravy, brown flecked by pan drippings greeted us like welcome adventurers. The big black skillet in my mother’s grip made her hands as white as the gravy. Cool fresh peaches had all of us like a batch of chicks surrounding that big table chattering over a tablecloth that looked like the one my mother has in her kitchen now.
The tomatoes we left simmering in the pot in the kitchen are bubbling now, giving off juice. “We need some salt in them,” she says by way of direction.
I get the salt and ask, “How much?” I already know what she’s going to say. It’s never a matter of how much.
“Just sprinkle some in. You can tell when there’s enough.”
I never know when there’s enough. Another scraping stir, we settle down at the kitchen table. There is an assortment of condiments crowding one end: reddish purple plum jam in a half-full jar ringed with sugar crystals, honey dribbling down a plump little bear, the cookie tin antiqued by use with scratched-out pictures of mountain scenes, a sleeve of crackers, spilling out its contents, and a peanut butter jar. The oil cloth on the table is worn around the edges, the plastic flower design with patches of gray from the underside of the cloth showing through. I get us some cups and pour the coffee. The green ceramic cup, I use, has some of the color rubbed off around the rim where too many lips have drunk. The carafe is colored brown around the spout in a permanent hospitality stain. The coffee is so good; better than mine. My mother makes it in a percolator on the stove. She doesn’t measure it; her fingers scoop up coffee and mound it onto a greedy spoon; she doesn’t time the perking. These are more things she knows from experience. When you’re perking coffee, it pops and calls and settles down. The smell grows with each eruption in the glass dome.
She hands me the mountain-scene tin that holds the cookies, the coconut chews that I can’t make as well as she does. I got the recipe from her, and even doubled the coconut just like she said, but they never tasted quite like this, the coconut criss-crossed on them like golden straw. I guess I needed cookie-baking lessons. My husband had urged me to take noodle-making lessons from her after comparing mine to hers, the same with apple pies. The measure and the ingredients were the same, but the handiwork, the way she firmly pressed the pie dough, and her hands frosted in flour making matted yellow noodle ribbons out of hopelessly sticky egg-laden dough, that was the secret. I keep trying; my husband, the critic, who never sacrifices honesty for flattery, says I am improving. Practice is the thing I guess. My mother has had plenty of that, raising seven children from scratch on scratch cooking. Her children stand and bless her. Her husband sings her praises.
My mother is poring over her pickle recipe book, planning the next canning session. “Should we make relish or bread and butter pickles?” she wants to know.
“Either one would be good,” I say looking at the top of her head, as she bobs it up and down trying to focus her trifocals. You can tell the book is old, yellowed and almost brown with crinkly pages that someone had spilled on, maybe my grandmother. Her presence is there in my mother’s graying hair and her gentle manner. The patient presence testifying to the quiet resourcefulness of wild plums made into jelly, mulberries canned with cherries, and even crabapples pickled with handle stems to pull the meat through clenched teeth leaving the core and seeds. Give her a share in what her hands have worked for.
I notice a slight shaking in my mother’s hands, the yellowed book wiggles. I understand why she is having trouble reading the recipes. “Here, let me look,” I take the book out of her hands.
We read the recipes and decide on a plan. “What else have you been working on?” I ask.
“I’m making another baby quilt, but I need some batting,” she says absent-mindedly. She always liked to sew, the same as my grandmother. The beautiful things that came from their hands never ceased to amaze me. She has no fear of winter for her household because all of them are warmly clothed. She makes herself ornamental coverings. She taught my sister and me to sew. We made our own clothes, sometimes successfully. She has an artist’s eye for design, making ridiculous pairings of fabrics that flattered our complexions. She uses creative color combinations and stitching, embellishing everything. Her hands, guiding fabric and batting in embroidered squares in patterned glory, made baby quilts and little girls’ dresses that fairy princesses could wear. And let her own works praise her in the gates.
The tomatoes are boiling, now, and we put the sieve on the top and strain off the juice. I know this routine: washing and scalding jars, filling with hot juice and capping them, then screwing lids down tight. The tomato pulp, we can separately. We never bother to separate the seeds. It doesn’t seem necessary. Cleaning up is the real chore; scrubbing up tomato splotches on her white stove that has so many scratches it looks like a planned design. As we sit there in the kitchen, my mother's hands are folded, her eyes close momentarily now; the task has taken its toll. Jars pop: lids sink in a symphony of sealing. The God-fearing woman is the one to praise.