Proust had his madeleines. I have my Grandfather Nonnu’s tomatoes, large red orbs with pink flesh and a taste unmatched by any other tomato. I haven’t eaten a decent one since he died. That’s a long time to go without a good tomato. I’m still searching.
I was nine when Nonnu died at the beginning of the growing season in New England. There were no tomatoes that year, no Nonnu tomatoes. He died before he made it to Hull, the peninsula that juts into Boston Harbor, and never saw his precious garden again. And I never ate another tomato plucked from one of his vines, still warm from the sun.
I believed I had only the vaguest memories of Nonnu himself, then I saw The Godfather. The family scenes, the closeness, the joy of sharing good food and music, were familiar. When Marlon Brando collapsed in his tomato garden, tears flowed. To this day, thinking of that death scene makes my eyes water.
My memories still aren’t sharp. I no longer hear Nonnu’s voice, though I know he spoke to my father in Sicilian, a language that predates Italian. I remember Nonnu in his green upholstered chair, watching his grandchildren play.
My oldest sister tells of visits to Boston’s North End where Nonnu was treated with respect wherever they went. I remember reading his name on the sign outside the funeral parlor, “Don Gaspare Messina.” Like my grandfather and his green chair, the funeral parlor and the elderly Italian men who treated him with deference are long gone.
It was in his garden that my grandfather was most alive. You can remove a man from Sicily, but you cannot take away his love of the earth. I see him digging the soil, watering his plants, caring for them the way one caresses a cherished treasure.
Nonnu grew much more than tomatoes. He planted beans, squash, peppers, and apple, fig, mulberry (two kinds), and peach trees, grapes for wine, and a riot of mint running the length of his grape arbor.
The last time I was in Hull, I was horrified to see that my cousin had cut down or uprooted each and every one of our grandfather’s trees and plants. So much for my cousin not falling far from the tree. The only possible explanation for his indifference to our grandfather’s legacy is that he was a toddler when Nonnu died.
Why were Nonnu’s tomatoes so much better than everyone else’s? Skill must have been involved, and maybe the salt air and Hull’s soil were factors. For me, this is one of life’s imponderables. I don’t need an answer. I don’t even want one. My grandfather’s tomatoes were the best. Will always be the best.
I guess we don’t get to choose our memories, just as we don’t get to choose our family or where we’re born, or the color of our eyes. Tomatoes are a rather odd object to cling to metaphorically. They squish if squeezed too hard. They turn to mush if neglected. But tomatoes say a lot about a man.
Nonnu poured love into his garden, and he shared that love with his family. It might seem like an odd way to say I love you, but it worked. I guess that’s why tomatoes don’t taste the same. They aren’t worth eating if they aren’t infused with a grandfather’s love.
Paula Messina is a writer and public speaker who lives outside Boston, Massachusetts, close to the United States’ first public beach. Her short story, “The Other Lawrence Hamm”, will appear in the September 2021 issue of THEMA Literary Journal. She is a reader for librivox.com and is currently writing a novel set in Boston during World War II.