Life, Love, & Homegrown Tomatoes

By Carole Emberton


The day my Daddy weed-eated my momma’s tomato plants, I thought she would kill him for sure. She had set out the little seedlings a week or so earlier, just as the weather got reliably warm in Russellville. They weren’t even big enough to stake yet. 

She had put them in the bed she usually reserved for her four-o’clocks, a sunny spot next to the chicken-wire fence and down the three concrete steps from the backdoor. It was a place of honor in a backyard full of bald patches worn free of grass and paths run smooth from the backdoor to my swing set and round the perimeter of the fence.

My feet had worn out that path along the fence. I walked it back and forth as I would peer into the yard next door to glimpse the neighbor’s kids riding their go-cart or splashing in their above-ground pool. It was a dog run without a dog. There was only a little girl whose older brothers were grown up and gone, and whose mother lived in mortal fear of the omnipresent child abductors who stalked the shadows of every 1980s childhood, ready to snatch you on your way home from school or from the brightly lit aisles of your local Sears. 

So she fenced in her little blonde-headed girl and made her play where she could be seen from the kitchen window. Little did she know that it was her tomato plants, not her daughter, that were in danger. 

My daddy worked hard and drank harder. Usually, he would stop off for a half-pint of Early Times on his way home from the old depot in Guthrie, Kentucky, where he was based as a welder for the L & N, the iconic Louisville & Nashville Railroad. (CSX Transportation would soon buy them out, but it didn’t matter. We never called it anything but The Railroad.) 

Daddy was a railroad man, and railroad men did not always keep regular hours. There were derailments and busted rails and broken signals and stuck switches and tracks washed away by heavy rains. Outside of his normal maintenance of the lines running about 25 miles on either side of the Tennessee state line, he averted catastrophe on a weekly if not daily basis. Surely he deserved a drink?

He kept a bottle under the driver’s seat of his white Pontiac Bonneville, another on the kitchen counter next to the enamel saucepan where Momma brewed iced tea. He never bought more than half-pint at a time, which meant he went to the “ice house” — our county was dry — sometimes two or three times a day.

Given Daddy’s long work hours and even longer leisure hours spent at the icehouse or any of several “beer joints,” as Momma called them, she had a hard time getting him to do man-things around the house, like mow the yard. But when the notion struck him to be handy, he went all out.

He would dash around the yard at the helm of the push mower. like the devil himself was holding time trials and the slowest man got a first-class ticket to the Hot Place. With dirt flying as he hit the bald patches, he flung rocks and twigs every which way. I was not allowed in the yard when he mowed for fear an errant piece of gravel would put my eye out, so I didn’t see him get out the weed-eater when he finished mowing. The deafening roar of one motor stopped, and the sinister buzzing of the other began.

“He’d better watch out for my tomato plants,” my mother muttered to no one in particular as she peered out the kitchen window to see where he was.  

She must have seen him head toward the four-o’clocks bed, but by the time she got out the door, it was too late. He had cut them off even with the ground. 

The next thing I remember was Momma standing at the kitchen sink, holding herself and it up as if the whole side of the house might fall off if she let go. Her head was bent, and her shoulders were drawn up around her ears. I didn’t need to see her face to know she was crying. I heard the Bonneville start up, and the tires crunch the gravel as he backed out and headed down the driveway. As he did, I saw him reach down under the seat to get something, the other hand holding a cigarette and the steering wheel.

I went outside to see the damage for myself. Although I was only 6 or 7 at the time, I remember thinking I didn’t know which sight made me sadder — Momma crying at the kitchen sink, Daddy slinking off to the ice house again, or the decapitated tomato plants already wilting in the afternoon sun.

At around the same time as the Great Tomato Plant Massacre, the late songwriter Guy Clark released his paean to the crown jewel of Southern produce, “Homegrown Tomatoes.” In it, he declared that there are only two things in life you can’t buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes. I was too young to understand it at that time, but that summed up my parents’ marriage.

It’s now that time of year when I peruse the seed catalogs in search of the homegrown tomatoes of my childhood. The growing season is short here in Buffalo, and the weather never gets hot enough to produce tomatoes with the heft, smell, or taste I remember. I order heirloom Kentucky seeds, hoping they won’t miss the red clay dirt their ancestors grew in. This year I’ll try Granny Cantrell and Vinson Watts. Maybe they’ll be THE ONE.  

And always, I think back to Momma’s ill-fated tomato plants and wonder what might have been.