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.
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.