For the past month, I have been having toasted tomato sandwiches for lunch. And every day, as I sit down to eat, I’ve been thinking of my dad.
Toasted tomato sandwiches became a summer tradition in my house when I was a very young girl. Though at that age I would always cringe at the thought of eating big wedges of tomatoes in a salad or shudder at the prospect of having to eat a chunky red sauce over spaghetti, those sandwiches were always an exception.
When July hit and the tomatoes turned ruby red in our garden, my dad would take his place in front of the toaster. He would slip two slices of rye bread in and pull them out just at the moment they were golden. He’d push butter over one slice and then meticulously place the tomatoes, cut paper thin with the knife he’d just sharpened, on top of it. Then he’d spread a veritable dollop of Hellmann’s mayonnaise over the other piece of toast and crown his creation with it.
I’d gobble it up quickly, tasting the drizzle of butter soaked in the craters of the toast and the mayo blending with the sweetness of the fruit. Even before I’d finished, I’d ask for another and he would happily comply, often going through an entire loaf of bread before my little brother Matthew and I were satisfied.
For my dad, a fresh, summer tomato was not something to be taken for granted. I never asked him, but I bet it was something he learned from my grandma, who lovingly tended to tomato plants she grew in pots on her roof each summer. Given that I could occasionally hear teenagers jumping from roof to roof when I would sleep at her top-floor apartment and that Selkirk Avenue wasn’t the most fertile of streets, those tomatoes grew up, as my dad had done, despite tough, weathering circumstances.
My childhood tomatoes, by contrast, had the sweet life, surrounded by an acre of green lawn, planted in black soil enriched, my dad always told me, by the minerals of an underground river. Around the end of August, my dad would start checking the forecast to make sure there wasn’t a risk of frost. If there was, he would head to his garden, pull the green tomatoes off the vines and line them along the kitchen windowsill. Each day he would watch and turn them until they started to blush and finally turn crimson.
Last year in July, tomatoes were once again growing in my dad’s yard. Throughout that winter, he had built and stained a rectangle, wooden planter, one so big he was unable to lift it when he finally finished it. In the spring, Matthew had helped him move it.
I noticed it right away as I walked to his deck a few days after my dad had his heart attack. It had been such a tough day. Matthew and I had so hoped my dad, that tough, bloody Ukrainian, would wake up. But he didn’t and then he didn’t.
I felt numb and useless, but the planter was there on the deck and it was filled with the most marvelous tomato plants. They were tall, with strong stalks, intricate, feathery leaves and each one was absolutely laden with tomatoes. I laughed when I saw the huge box of Miracle-Gro on the other side of the planter and then grabbed the black, plastic watering can that still had the Costco price tag on it. I filled it with water from the spigot. I went to the tomatoes, rubbed my fingers on a vine so they would collect its green, pungent aroma. And then I poured the water in, making sure this life wouldn’t be wasted.