It was a crisp fall morning, late in the October just past. I had some time
to myself and Q was almost out of oatmeal raisin cookies. After all these years, I know the recipe by heart; in less time than it would have taken to go to the store and buy cookies, the thick raisin-studded batter was ready to drop in untidy little heaps onto an ungreased cookie sheet. But where was my good cookie sheet?
It wasn't in its usual place in the pantry. It hadn't slipped down between the open pantry shelf and the wall. It wasn't in the dishwasher or in the dish drainer by the sink. It wasn't in the oven. It wasn't in any of the kitchen drawers large enough to hold it.
I scanned the kitchen one more time before giving up. What the __? There was my cookie sheet, on top of the toaster oven, one of its corners protruding just a bit from beneath one of our better dish towels, which had been arranged carefully over a bumpy assemblage of round knobs. I lifted the towel to see what lay under it: my good cookie sheet was covered with tomatoes of many shapes and sizes, in varying stages of ripeness -- a good fifty of them. Most of the tomatoes were green. Q had turned my good cookie sheet into a tomato incubator.
Throughout the fall they sat on the toaster oven. When we made toast, we had to move the tray so the tomatoes wouldn't cook. In a week or two they began to ripen, and Q enjoyed a daily salad of them. Here, taste this, he would say, and I would accept on a little red wedge of tomato from his hand. They were delicious. They weren't glorious August-in-New-Jersey tomatoes. But they sure weren't duplicitous produce-aisle-at-the-A&P tomatoes, either, beckoning the unwary with their bright colors and eternal flavorless shelf-life.
I watched the tomato supply, checking it daily. Surely they wouldn't all ripen -- surely tomato season could be extended by only a few weeks at most, ripening a small number on top of the toaster oven and then, surely, the rest would rot. And I could have my cookie sheet back in time for Christmas baking.
But still they came, day after day and week after week. Into November they ripened, brilliant red globes with enough of the taste of summer left in them to evoke sighs of pleasure from Q as he arranged them on his salads, and even from me as I inhaled their lovely aroma.
I began to admire their tenacity. We were born tomatoes and we'll go out tomatoes, too, the way a tomato should -- in a Q salad. We did not come all this way to rot and never be used. Thanksgiving came and went, and still they ripened, on by one, on top of the toaster oven. The Christmas baking began, and I used two old cookie sheets I've never really liked much. They were fine, really; I'd misjudged them. Besides, I was now completely caught up in the tomatoes.
I was rooting for a Christmas tomato. Into the darkest part of the year, when the cold days are short and the colder nights are long, when the light is thin and pale, when snow falls on the garden where once tomato plants stood nine feet tall on their bamboo stakes, reaching for the hot sun and finding it -- would come a tomato, to celebrate a tiny new life that has been born into the world. No matter how cold and dark, the burst of sunshine in that tomato would be a sign. We don't have ripe tomatoes in December, not in New Jersey, not ordinarily. But some things aren't ordinary.
Q had a tomato on St. Nicholas's Day. He had one on Pearl Harbor Day, and one on Jane Austen's birthday, December 16th, which is also Beethoven's birthday. He had a tomato on each of the four Sundays in Advent and one on the Feast of St. Thomas, when they were sufficiently decreased in number for me to transfer them to another platter and get my cookie sheet back. St. Thomas' Day is December 21; things were looking good for a Christmas tomato.
I had been less than thrilled on that day in October when the tomatoes first came inside. They had claimed my good cookie sheet and the top of my toaster oven, and the whole tomato project was silly anyway. Be realistic; let the tomatoes go, I had said silently to Q. But now I was full of tomato hopes. It was almost Christmas, and there were several promising candidates on the toaster oven.
Things usually happen in the usual way, the way we know and expect. Tomatoes in the summer. How shall this be, asks practical Mary, since I know not a man? But sometimes they happen in another way. Something unusual happens sometimes. Tomatoes in winter, carrying the hope of warmth and light into a time of darkness.
Christmas dawned rainy and mild here. Christmas breakfast was a rich array of sweet breads, cookies, one too many richnesses -- by lunchtime, Q was ready for the crisp green of his salad, the red goodness of his Christmas tomato. Things mostly happen in the usual way, but not always. It's best to keep an open mind.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
thy touch can call us back to life again,
fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.
-John Macleod Campbell Crum (1872-1958)
Noel nouvelet, medieval French carol