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Transformed by Tomatoes

Spontaneity has never been my forte. As a 14-year-old, I would refuse to go for walks around the block with my friends if I was the least bit behind in my schoolwork. "You're just no fun," my friend Karen would tell me.

Unlike most teenagers, I lived not in my room, but in an unused kitchen upstairs where I sprawled my books and papers on a large round table. I spent an inordinate amount of time there, working continuously for hours, and my mother worried. She would try to lure me away. "Come watch the parade!" she would yell from downstairs. "All our neighbors are out there!"

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She thought of all kinds of enticements - the swimming pool, ice cream, stray cats and turtles - to dislodge me from my studies, but nothing ever worked.

Later, in college, the pattern continued. The library and my college dorm replaced the unused kitchen at home. When spring came along, friends would stop by my dorm or peer into my library cubicle to persuade me to play Frisbee on the lawn outside the main building. "No," I would almost always say. "I have too much to do."

My college study days are gone, but not my need and love for schedules. They keep me focused. Justify my time. My friends and sisters try to pry me away from my plans in much the same way that my mom tried to coax me out of the kitchen, but they're hardly ever successful.

This summer, though, while housesitting for my parents, I was persuaded to change my plans in the most unexpected way. The sight of tomatoes growing in my mother's garden lured me out of my tightly scheduled world. They drew me with the power of a lover's gaze.

Hundreds of them were turning ripe and red by the minute. Large beefsteak tomatoes - some doubled but not yet divided - hung heavily or dropped from their vines. Plum tomatoes - half-green, half-red - and cherry tomatoes, too many to count, decorated the garden like ornaments on a Christmas tree. They begged for attention.

"If I have time, I'll make tomato sauce," I told myself. But my long week in the house by myself was already filled with things to do: writing, building my photography portfolio, and finishing a project that I brought home from the office.

Making tomato sauce was humdrum domestic work that did not contribute to my goals and, more important, wasn't scheduled.

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But there they hung from their vines, dropping to the ground with muted thumps, beckoning me. I picked them and placed them in baskets. I arranged them, adding string beans, peas, and purplish red onions that I pulled from the garden. I turned and moved the basket until the light in the sun room hit it just right.

I ate them for lunch and dinner. I gave them to friends. But they continued to fall to the ground in even-greater numbers. "If I have time, I'll make sauce," I told myself one more time. And again I mentally argued about all the things I had planned and needed to do.

Finally, I gave in.

I picked up the recipe that I had scribbled down from a friend. "Simmer in a little bit of water with garlic and onions for two hours. Add sugar, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary," it read. I rummaged for 20 minutes in the kitchen cabinet and pulled out a huge white enamel pot. I washed the tomatoes, cutting away sections that were spoiled, and sliced and threw them into the pot. I swayed and jiggled the watery mixture as if I were panning for gold.

I tend to work in silence, but at that moment I - yes, spontaneously - decided to turn on the stereo. I sang along with Billy Joel and reviewed a step I'd picked up in my swing-dance class. The tomatoes simmered, their aroma blending with the breeze coming in from the open windows.

THE old voice returned. "You should be reading, doing stuff," it told me. So I lowered the volume but, instead of reading The New York Times Sunday Magazine - as I had planned - I flipped through the furnishings and crafts in Better Homes & Garden. It was one of those rare occasions when I ignored the crotchety old voice that spoiled my fun.

Something clicked inside me. I recalled the moments that could have been. I looked back on my college days when students crowded the front lawn. I wondered where I might have gone and what I might have done had I accepted more invitations to be among them. I thought of the conversations that I did not have, the people I never met.

As I sat there flipping through the magazine, I smiled that I didn't listen to the voice that told me I was off schedule.

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