Monday, July 12

Tomatoes at dawn

Voice of the Nightingale — La Voix du Rossignol
(1923 film by Wladyslaw Starewicz)

You stay with me, Larry. You can carry the basket. I’ll hold the tomatoes in my apron like the little chickens in the henhouse and then you put them in the basket. When it’s full, carry it to Ramón … he’ll box them at the end of every row and pile up the boxes on the donkey cart.
Look, that is one is ready. Just right. Pinch the little stem right next to the tomato, just a little pinch and twist, right off the vine. Good! When the tomato is ready, a tiny pinch and twist will do, no need to yank … Doesn’t that smell beautiful? Those are little green sighs the plant gives off when you find the tomatoes. That smell is green, a little sour, the way green is. True green. Morning green. Just when you think your nose is so full of the dawn grass and dew and couldn’t possibly hold any more fragrances, you shake the vine and touch the tomato, the leaves sigh, and the air turns green. It caresses your cheeks and floats into your nose, right up to your eyes. Breathe it in. You feel how it gets up there right between your eyes? Keep it there awhile. It’s better than coffee this early in the morning. And the damper the plants, the more that fragrance will stay with you. Yes, pinch right there, see? … Right between your green eyes.
Look how they hide under the leaves. Look for them with your hands, shake the vines a bit. That’s it, gentle but don’t be afraid… brush the leaves like you want to tickle them. They laugh and they sigh. We can’t hear them, but our noses can. That’s the way. Good.

Don’t worry about the water, the wetter the better. Dew on glorious days like this is medicine. A tweeting bird told me just before sunup that today was a magnificent day for finding the best tomatoes. The very first thing I saw when I woke up was a nightingale on my bedpost. Singing! Singing for me. He was looking right at me and singing. You know, I said “good morning little mister singing bird”, and he didn’t get frightened or fly away. No, the tiny thing just kept warbling his morning song. And when he was finished, I laughed and hummed a lullaby, an old Asturian lullaby that I used to sing to your mother. The same one I sang to you the other night, the one with the great big crashing thunderbolts when we played games with the candle shadows. Remember? And he stayed there while I hummed. Then he chirped some more and we did a chorus together. When we were done, l laughed and clapped. He took a little bow right there on the bedpost, very respectful, a real gentleman, and then he flew out the balcony. Just flitted away in a blink. So I knew today was special and we had to come. I told your Tía Tutul, “María Jesús, we have to go down to the patch right now with Larry and his cousins and pick tomatoes today”. We can have breakfast afterwards … A glorious day.

This is like playing hide and go seek with the tomatoes, except they really want you to find them. They’re just playing. The leaves aren’t as happy when you find the fruit, but they understand that the tomatoes have to go. It’s not a bitter sigh, just a bit of farewell sorrow laced into the sweet laughs. Just make sure you tickle them. Now the tomatoes definitely want you to find them. They fill up with the sun all day and with the night air and the morning mist and they get so red and plump and full of themselves that they’re near to bursting. And they will if we don’t find them. They’re so plump and proud … they’re just playing silly when they hide. I bet the tastiest ones are the worst hiders.

Now smell your hands. What do you feel? Promise me you won’t forget that smell all day, even when the sun is higher and hotter. You can sigh it out the rest of the day, little by little, breath by breath, tomato by tomato. Then at lunch when you meet that green perfume again in your salad, your smile will say “Hello mister green air and plump red tomato, I know you!” and I’ll see it in your smile. Promise me, alright? I’ll be watching … and I’ll give you a wink.
When you write home later, tell your mom you got up early with abuela today and came to play hide and go seek with the tomatoes down in the north patch just past the apple orchard. She’ll remember that. Oh yes, she’ll remember that. There are days when it seems they all want to be found at the same time… caress and tickle those leaves … she’ll remember. Gentle, don’t squish. Good, good.
No, not yet. Those aren’t ready, but you’ve got a good eye, they will be soon. Tomorrow or the next day, we’ll get them then. They could win a prize. They’re bigger than your hand. Bigger than my hand. Bigger than Ramón’s hand! Remember the spot. Remember.
Our daughter María writing her memoirs at the age of two in Mareo (1995)

This piece is for this week willow’s magpie tales prompt on “tomatoes”. It is inspired by the memories of early mornings picking tomatoes at Mareo, my grandmother’s farm in northern Spain on my first summer there at the age of 11, a summer that changed my world and life. The fantasy world abuela created for me and her six children and large and loving brood of grandchildren and great grandchildren is still very much with me, and I continue reaping those tomatoes and recollections today. The German poet Rilke once wrote something to the effect that the genuine homeland of every man is his childhood. This is the only kind of 'patriotism' I practice. The only one nightingales sing of in the sleepless dawn.

Abuela — four generations illuminated
by Saint John Eve's bonfire (1979)
This memory stroll back to the tomato patch has touched off a gentle riot of reminiscing about the farm … the barn where we sometimes slept as an adventure on full-moon nights … gathering hay and riding the hay wagon … milking cows brought warms squirts of fresh milk arcing to splash teeth, lips and cheeks and run down my chin … the apple orchard was my preferred reading room, I would climb up an apple tree and spend afternoons reading there …

Abuela sunning herself on the terrace.
One of my last photos of her.
 I think I will make this the first in a series …

To see what other magpie tales participants have done with their tomatoes click here.


  1. Lorenzo this is a pure delight of both words and pictures. The picture of Daughter Maris writing her memoirs brought tears of both joy and loss. Wonderful thank you for posting :)

  2. A beautiful posting, Lorenzo. It's wonderful that your memories of your childhood with Abuela are so vivid. One can see that your have never strayed too far from your genuine homeland.

  3. Ah, you are one lucky man to have had the love of nature, your senses, play and fantasy introduced to you by such a wise, loving abuela.

    I hope you do make this a series!

  4. You must write more about these memories, Lorenzo! They are captivating.

    "Doesn’t that smell beautiful? Those are little green sighs the plant gives off when you find the tomatoes. That smell is green, a little sour, the way green is. True green. Morning green."

    A series would be a fine, fine idea...

  5. what a wonderful memory lorenzo...a day with the feel of the smell on your hands after picking as well...magical piece...

  6. I love it! Since we're growing tomatoes for the first time this year it was nice to get a tutorial on how to know if they're ready to pick.

  7. I don't really know how to find my bearings to write, because I feel lost in reverie after reading first your abuela's voice and admonitions, and then your commentary, and seeing little María writing about her life. (And that fantastic cabinet behind her.)

    This is deeply touching, the way memories that get stirred by a scent are touching. The universal experience is down inside somewhere, even though it is not my own in this life. Rilke had it so right. Even scenes from someone else's childhood feel like home.

    I too was struck with the sighs, such a wonderful way to speak of fragrance emitted by the tomatoes. I was reading somewhere today about plants responding to their surroundings, and threats. Loved the bit about your abuela watching you when you recognize the scent in the salad. I think with grandparents there is a loop that gathers in possibilities as well as realities, in ways that what we have with parents doesn't. I did not know either of my grandmothers, so I have to create them out of stories, and my imagination. I wonder if you'd mind if I borrowed your abuela as a mentor for me in my own grandmothering, which will hopefully begin in the next few years. Even if you never post about her again, I would have a great first lesson in this post. But promise you will keep this going.

  8. such a beautiful experience, even reading about it is a pleasure.

    wouldn't it be great if there were community gardens where everyone chipped in? can that ever become reality?

  9. Very moving. I was there, smelling those tomatoes and twisting and pinching as instructed. What wonderful photos, too--the light on these figures--they're paintings waiting to happen, but you have painted them with words. I'm glad to hear this is the first in a series! Bring it on!

  10. Lorenzo--I do hope you continue -- reminded me of 100 Years of Solitude..your writing has the depth and life I found in that novel--keep writing it is a beautiful story...c

  11. Playing "hide and go seek with the tomatoes" and your abuela. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing these memories. Please continue this thread. I want to know more!

  12. Such wonderful memories and beautiful word pictures I am so envious of your writing


  13. A lovely Proustian memory, and so beautifully written, Lorenzo.

  14. Lorenzo

    Yes I agree with "The Solitary Walker" in that it is a charming Proustian note of nostalgia remembering feelings and emotions of your childhood happily spent with Abuela. Nice to know you will post some more in a series.
    It is well written and left me wanting to know more about this wonderful woman and her wise ways.

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed this soft and lovely story, Triple L. That unique smell of tomato vine on the fingers is embedded in my memory, as well. This was the best kind of Magpie!

  16. Lorenzo, this is so beautiful. I also loved the "little green sighs" and all of the wonderful smells again. And again, I am impressed by the details. You don't just mention a smell--you bring it to life. The smell of the tomatoes on hands is perfect! Your Abuela is a very wise person, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to meet her through your words.

    The voice in this piece is also awesome. I knew it was an older person speaking to a young one from the very first sentence. You showed me the scene instead of just telling me. You pulled me gently into the scene, and as a reader, I really appreciate that. Yes, please do continue the story. I'd love to read more.

  17. Superb! This piece has a fine magic which glows long after the last word is absorbed. Oh, yes, more would be a incredible gift.

  18. Lorenzo, this is a Magpie worth reading over and over and over again ... beautifully written and remembered! I can still hear my own grandmother cautioning me to 'twist the tomato Helen Louise - twist.'

  19. thanks for bringing us there, twas a priviledge to visit

  20. This is beautiful piece intertwined with your memories - your writing shouts out More!! - your explanations are written as lovely as the story line....Wonderful Magpie...bkm

  21. A tremedously enjoyable read! Brilliant!

  22. There are so many beautiful and memorable images in this piece: "… milking cows brought warms squirts of fresh milk arcing to splash teeth, lips and cheeks and run down my chin … the apple orchard was my preferred reading room, I would climb up an apple tree and spend afternoons reading there …"


  23. thank you for this gift of imagery, scents and childhood memories and then to top it off...your fabulous photos-especially of the little 2 year old. Lovely lovely Magpie

  24. There's only one phrase for this... awwww...

    Definitely series this one.

  25. Was that four generations illuminated image there before? And am I losing my mind?

  26. Lorenzo this is just beautiful. I am taken with your prose and the dream-like feel to your story. "Now smell your hands. What do you feel? Promise me you won’t forget that smell all day..." That's one of the smells I have carried with me over a lifetime.

  27. Thanks so much to everyone for all the kind comments and warm feedback. I am away from home at present and with limited web access, but will try to get back to all of you soon and continue with the series.

  28. beautyfully composed. thank you for sharing the pictures, the memories, a snippet of you.


  29. lorenzo - such rich warm writing - i tumbled around inside the memories - like being in my own grandma's hug and then reading rilke's words - so true lorenzo so true! steven

  30. Lorenzo ~ I read this a few days ago.. and have just been letting it go round and round , swirling into my soul. It's remarkable.
    Of course look at everyone else saying it so.

    more please.


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