By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach
When I noticed small yellow flowers on my tomato plants in early June, I was thrilled. I knew that before long, I would see tiny tomatoes. I wondered if I should fertilize so that I could get even more blooms and tiny tomatoes. If so, what kind should I use? How much? How often?
“Oh, how I wish I could ask Dad about it,” I thought aloud.
Dad was an avid tomato gardener. He tended a strip of land outside his assisted-living apartment, and his plants produced so many tomatoes that we had to get down on our knees and lift branch after branch to find all of the tomatoes. Even then, we never could be sure that we had found all of the ripe tomatoes. I hated finding rotten ones that we had missed.
Until I began helping Dad with his plot here in Jefferson City, Mo., I had never tended a vegetable garden. Oh, I had dabbled in flower gardening, but growing vegetables always seemed out of my league. Ditto for my husband. Early in our marriage, he had tried growing cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, and green beans, but he had little success, thanks in part to the neighborhood rabbits.
Dad gardened regularly during my youth in Pittsburgh, but his efforts barely registered on my radar. I was more interested in reading, swimming, dancing, and other activities. He and Mom canned numerous jars of tomatoes, and I enjoyed tomato-rich meals like chili and spaghetti. However, Mom did most of the cooking, something she could do fairly easily, despite her arthritic knees.
Consequently, I was not prepared for the abundance of produce Dad offered when he first planted tomatoes here three years ago. “Take as many as you want,” he would tell me with a wave of his hand. At first, I hesitated, but I could tell that Dad wanted to share his bounty. He was proud of his tomatoes, and at that point in his life, he had so few opportunities to give of himself. My refrigerator overflowed with tomatoes.
Fortunately, I ran across my mother’s recipe for meatballs and sauce.
As the sauce simmered, I found out that heat loosens tomato skins, making them easy to remove. To me, it was an amazing discovery. My sauce turned out well with layers of flavor, courtesy of onions, green peppers, and celery leaves as well as multiple spices and Dad’s homegrown tomatoes. I used the sauce for two pans of lasagna. I was so happy when Dad asked for a second helping.
That success lead me to make other dishes with tomatoes. Corn-and-bean salsa. Fajitas. Tacos. Spaghetti. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches.
Dad last shopped for starter plants two years ago at Longfellow’s Garden Center in Centertown, Mo. He had recently turned 90, and he had been asking to go to Longfellow’s for a few weeks. He didn’t bother to hide his impatience. He always followed the philosophy that the sooner one planted tomatoes, the better. I’m ashamed to say that I put him off, but finally we went after church.
In one of Longfellow’s greenhouses, he perched on the red seat attached to his walker and directed my husband, myself, and our two younger children, Tim and Elizabeth, to bring him plants. Tim was especially patient with him, bringing Dad numerous plants. “How about this one, Grandad?” Tim would say and hold out another possibility.
Finally, Dad selected three tomato plants and two pepper plants. Some of the tomato plants already had baby tomatoes. We also picked up some soil. At his home, he directed us where to plant them, and he quickly settled into a routine of watering, assessing, fertilizing, and watering. Never mind, that he could not carry his green watering can while using his walker. He would fill the can with water from the sink in his kitchenette and walk out the back door, holding onto furniture and/or walls. After tending his plants, he usually relaxed outside in his two-seat glider with ivy-patterned cushions.
One day, in June 2013, I entered his senior-living center from a third-floor entrance and spotted Dad from an upper window. I stopped, momentarily, to look at him. I smiled. Dad was napping in his glider. Chances are, he had just finished watering and maybe fertilizing his plants.
That nap proved to be Dad’s last one in his glider. Later that day — after my visit with him — a staff member at the assisted-living center called me. Dad was on his way to the emergency room.
Dad battled a severe urinary tract infection, a touch of pneumonia, and fluctuating blood pressure, all conditions exacerbated by his Parkinson’s disease. After spending more than a week in the hospital, he was so weak that he could not walk, even with the help of his walker. Instead of returning to his apartment in assisted living, he had to go to a rehabilitation center affiliated with Heisinger’s.
During Dad’s hospital stay and his weeks in rehab, my family and I continued to tend his tomatoes. When his cherry tomatoes ripened, I brought him a bowlful to enjoy. When the bigger tomatoes were ready, I made him sandwiches and brought other dishes for him to enjoy. As his strength returned and he resumed walking, I thought he would soon be able to return to his assisted-living apartment. I was wrong.
His therapists deemed him a fall risk since he frequently abandoned his walker, just like he had done when he wanted to water his plants. Despite their efforts and my frequent reminders, Dad continued to forsake his walker — by the door of his room, outside bathroom stalls, and beside kitchen chairs. Eventually, my siblings and I realized the time had come to shop for a nursing home, and eventually, Dad settled into a private long-term nursing room at Oak Tree Villas.
By this time, we had moved all of Dad’s belonging out of his apartment at Heisinger’s, but we continued to water his tomatoes, using random containers and water from a public restroom. We usually returned home with at least one random plastic bag full of peppers and tomatoes. When a new resident moved into his apartment, she granted us permission to continue caring for the garden. We visited a few times each week, and between our visits, the maintenance men watered sporadically, and various people picked ripe tomatoes.
My family and I felt odd tending the tomatoes since Dad no longer lived there. We tried to keep a low profile, and we usually visited at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., when most residents were retiring for the night. We tried to work as quickly as possible, but the plants had so much foliage that watering and picking all of the ripe tomatoes required at least a half hour of work.
“Mom, it’s sooo embarrassing,” Elizabeth would say with a groan. “What if we see someone?”
Despite my misgivings and my family’s complaints, I could not abandon those tomatoes. They continued to thrive, thanks to Dad’s early care, much as my siblings and I have thrived because of my parents’ nurturing. Those tomatoes were part of Dad’s legacy.
When Dad moved into his room at Oak Tree Villas, I planned to find a plot he could tend. As his health declined, though, I knew that would not happen. In early May 2014, Dad entered the hospital for the last time.
As he lay dying, I outlined a different plan. I hope he heard me.
“Thank you for teaching me how to garden,” I told him. “Jim and I are going to plant some tomatoes and peppers, too.”
Dad died on May 17.
For his funeral, my siblings and I commissioned our florist in Pittsburgh to create two garden arrangements featuring tomatoes. The result? Bounteous displays of irises, azaleas, coreopsis, other flowers, and, of course, tomatoes. Copies of a Heisinger newsletter article about Dad’s gardening capped off the arrangements. After the funeral, relatives, friends and I took home the flowers that comprised the arrangements. Dad’s gardening legacy had sprouted branches.
This year, a few days after July 4th, my family and I picked our first tomatoes and peppers. Since then, we have picked some every few weeks. Of course, we don’t have anywhere near the amount of produce Dad would have had, but that’s okay. I’m hooked. Next year, maybe I’ll buy some fertilizer.