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Summer in the tomato field

It wasn't the vacation she was hoping for, but it's one she has remembered for a long time.

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There is no choice; when tomatoes come into season, they must be picked. They especially had to be picked that summer because customers were stopping at Daddy's roadside stand to buy them. Everybody big enough had to help.

We three older children routinely harvested lettuce, carrots, peas, strawberries, string beans the cat had half chewed off the plants, and potatoes Daddy gently tined up out of the soil for us to pick up.

But the year Daddy ambitiously planted 700 tomato plants, picking tomatoes came to outrank everything else.

Tomato picking even followed me into eighth grade in September, creating an unexpected beginning to a new school year.

There are few satisfactions in the world that compare with eating a sun-warmed tomato that has turned the perfect red and is just barely pliant to the touch: plucked, wiped on the inside of your shirt, and bitten into right there in the garden, seeds slurping down your chin so you have to lean over to keep your shirt clean.

But my sister, brother, and I didn't think of eating tomatoes. We were pickers in the field, with no wiggle room for not being finished when Daddy returned from his milk delivery route for Elton Dairy.

The first picks, the easily seen red tomatoes, were sometimes gouged and messy, because birds had seen them easily, too, and pecked out their breakfasts before we even thought about our cornflakes or shredded wheat.

So we turned the vines to find ripe tomatoes that were hidden. We left the stems on because spoilage is faster once the stem is broken away, but, since good specimens were headed for the roadside stand, we placed each fruit into our baskets carefully so that no stem would puncture another tomato.

As we picked, we kept our eyes peeled for tomato worms to be disposed of: three-inch segmented and horned beauties that were a lime-green color that I couldn't relate to the natural world and never saw anywhere else until the fashions of the 1970s.


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