I used to believe spiritual enlightenment occurred in Egyptian pyramids, on mountaintops in India — or at least in dusty European cathedrals where monks chant in forgotten languages.
I mull this over as I steer my old Chevrolet Citation back to the house where I grew up, through Oakview Estates in High Point, where even the split-levels seem to shimmer mystically on this sweltering July afternoon.
My parents aren’t home to celebrate my arrival, so I let myself in the back door, past the familiar rip in the screen.
Yellow kitchen curtains billow slightly above the sill to reveal a row of homegrown tomatoes. I know they are homegrown because during the summer in North Carolina, no one eats anything else.
At the beginning of the tomato season, secretaries, bank tellers, and every other variety of backyard farmer shares their crops with the less fortunate — those whose vines have withered and those who are forced to shop at Harris Teeter.
Generosity soon overtakes the South, and you can’t leave Sunday school or Bud’s Pool Hall without a sack of tomatoes. Picnic tables, porches, and apartment patios overflow with flaming balls of red.
By August, you can’t give the fruit away. Everyone’s hungry for pumpkins, potatoes, and J.C. Penney’s back-to-school sale.
But as I revisit my childhood home, both body and soul cry out for the cool, clean, and bittersweet bite that only one fruit has to offer. From the plump parade of homegrowns, I select a crumpled one with a greenish-brown splotch. I’ve always had a soft spot for the ugly duckling in any crowd.
I’m relieved to find a loaf of white bread on the counter. Ordinarily, I eat only multigrain kind of stuff — but tomato sandwiches require the kind of bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth.
Instinctively, I reach into the refrigerator and grab the mayonnaise. Dad prefers salad dressing — but Mom insists on mayonnaise, so the two have lived in harmony on the second shelf of their Fridgedaire for 35 years.
I spread the condiment with the precision of a meticulous brick mason — no clumps or uncovered spaces. I peel and slice carefully.
Once the slices are arranged, I douse the fruit with salt and pepper. Without a hint of guilt, I turn the shaker upside down and let it pour. My masterpiece is complete.
As I pull the Early American chair from the table, the sound of wood on linoleum is an ancient drum roll announcing my ritual of rejuvenation.
As I take the first bite, juice runs down my chin, through my fingers, and toward my elbows. I’m not thinking of old-growth timber as I wad a mound of paper napkins on the table.
The messy moment consumes me, and the sticky sensation is perfect.
I can taste the sun. It seems I’ve captured that distant, shining constant between two slices of bread. I am delirious. Dad would say I shouldn’t go so long between meals.
When the sandwich is gone, I take my plate to the sink and look out at the yard. I stand on the same sacred braided rug where my mom watched me play kick the can, where Dad worried when I missed curfew on prom night. A place where I might one day observe my own children raking leaves with their grandparents.
I think of the genetic engineers who have designed a tomato that’s slow to rot, that maintains its peak summer flavor year-round, and how science extracts the natural rhythms from our lives.
A friend who studies genetic engineering says that the new technology would eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers and prevent the runoff from the growing fields that kills the life in our streams. Dad says cow manure has always worked well and tends to stay where it’s dropped.
For the moment, I wish life could always be this simple.
Perhaps that’s what the scientist hoped when he began genetically altering tomatoes — making life simple. Maybe he just needs somebody to bring him a sackful in July and he will forget his quest for progress come fall.
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