How I Learned to Eat Tomato Sandwiches


The Ones We Love

I was standing in my dad’s—no, my parents’—kitchen on the day of my mom’s funeral. The service, the huge service in the huge church, was over. We were all utterly spent. My aunt, my dad’s sister, was handing something to my dad. “You have to eat this,” she told him. She had a tomato sandwich in her hand. It was early August, and the farmer’s market had been full of big, beefy heirloom tomatoes—reddy-purple ones, green stripy ones, yellow and orange ones. It’s a miracle that tomatoes grow at all in Oregon, with so much rain, but somehow they manage to, and they were at their peak when mom died.

“I love tomato sandwiches!” my dad told his sister. “Tomato sandwiches?” I asked. “You mean just tomatoes?” Well, almost. The tomato sandwich, I was told, is an exercise in simplicity. Bread. Thick-sliced, good tomatoes. Mayonnaise. Salt. I watched my dad eat the sandwich—really revel in its flavor—in his grief.

Six weeks later, my son’s third birthday, it was almost time for the party and I hadn’t eaten all day. We had a pile of lush tomatoes from the farm on our counter. I chose a robust fruit and sliced it thickly, spread mayonnaise on bread, sprinkled salt. My dad’s favorite on a day mom never would have missed.

Heirloom_tomato

This morning, two years later, the boys’ first day of preschool. I stood at the kitchen counter and sliced yellow and red tomatoes (fresh—it’s that time of year again). As my children chattered to each other at the table, I found myself crying as I sprinkled salt onto my sandwich. Grief food. I wish I’d never tasted it, but now that I have, I can’t stop eating it.

In an hour I’d be leaving behind a heartsick little boy, already missing his mama, at the preschool door.

Every time I walk through the hospital door to visit someone else’s mother, or father, sister, cousin, part of me is back in the hospital in those few surreal and terrifying days when my mom was dying. Every time I sit with someone who is grieving, part of me is still grieving my own mama who walked through that door before I was ready. And like tomato sandwiches, I wish I’d never tasted this fruit, never lived these memories. But now that I have, I can’t keep them from being part of me, part of my ministry, part of my understanding of God, of loss, of grief.

We belong to a CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture farm. We buy a share of the harvest at the beginning of the season, and each week during the growing season we receive a big bundle of fresh produce from a farm near our house. That means we always get what’s in season when it is perfectly fresh. This is a good arrangement. It means, however, that in August and September we’re likely to have four pounds of tomatoes lying around the kitchen at any given time. Four pounds is a lot of tomatoes. And of course, some of them become bruschetta, tomato soup, tomato salad, pizza and quiche toppings…but some of them always become tomato sandwiches. I relish them for the season, which always passes too soon.  Next August will come – month of grief and birthdays – and the one sure thing is that it will be full of tomatoes.


11 replies
  1. Sarah K.
    Sarah K. says:

    Oh, this made me cry. I remember trying to sort out lunch after my mother died. . .I think we just ate lipton chicken noodle soup. I felt so overwhelmed and lost and she always made lunch, so it felt very strange and sad. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a tomato sandwich again without thinking of this piece. Beautiful.

    Reply
  2. Teri
    Teri says:

    I have similar tomato sandwich memories–my mother always grew tomatoes (from plants we gave her as mother’s day gifts) and we ate more tomato stuff than most people can imagine. Now my mother’s gone and i tried to grow tomatoes this year (mostly to no avail, though the two or three I managed were REALLY good). And so I turn my CSA tomatoes into sandwiches (though I like tillamook sharp cheddar, mayo, fresh tomatoes, and salt and pepper, on honey wheat bread…OMG). Your story is beautifully told and brings lots of good and hard memories. Thanks.
    Now I’m going to get some kleenex….would you like some too?

    Reply
  3. Jen
    Jen says:

    So beautiful and honestly written…I could relate so much to what you wrote! Even 12 years after losing my mom, I’m still surprised when she doesn’t show up for important times (like my son’s birthday parties).

    Reply
  4. rbk
    rbk says:

    Jenn,
    It hit me about paragraph two: I cried. What beautiful words for such grief. You are such a thoughtful and present person- carefully living and examining life in the moment- and it comes through in your writing. Thank you for sharing.
    Much peace and love.

    Reply
  5. Tara
    Tara says:

    Jennifer,
    Thank you so much for sharing. Your story is beautiful, raw, vivid. I lost my dad just over a year ago and I too find that same feeling every time I visit someone in the hospital, or a church member calls to talk about illness or death, or I’m part of a memorial service for someone’s loved one. I could definitely relate to what you shared and the way your experience changed who you are and how you minister (I could relate to the tomato sandwiches, and CSAs of the Northwest too, being from Seattle).
    Thank you. Your piece was encouraging to my soul.

    Reply
  6. suzanne l. vinson
    suzanne l. vinson says:

    My grandmother (and grandfather) grew tomatoes and taught me to eat them just as you described. So many meals I attribute to her. Tonight I pulled our first harvest of turnip greens, 2 varieties, and toasted her as I sliced and prepared them. While I prefer the turnips fresh and crunchy, I added them to the greens just the way she did. She was a mother to me, and I grieve her loss still. Our hearts connect in so many ways to our loved ones, and I’m glad that you recognize that deep connection with taste and grief. Even the taste of salty tears can take me into places long forgotten.
    You provide soul food in so many ways. I carry your ribbon and thank God for you. Be blessed as you bless others. Sending love your way. Thanks.

    Reply

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