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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

A few weeks ago, my husband and I picked all the sun-kissed tomatoes growing in my father-in-law’s pristine, orderly garden, a vegetable garden that has been tilled, planted, fertilized, weeded, staked, pruned and harvested for more than 40 years now. Each season, I have been amazed and impressed by my father-in-law’s determination, not to mention sheer physical strength, as he would prepare for yet another growing season. “When the moon was right,” he would proclaim with an ancient wisdom, the season began. After placing his heirloom seeds into damp soil and waiting patiently for the miracle of life, his tomato plants would eventually line up like little green soldiers, waiting to carry galaxies of heavy red sunbursts. When their spines hung with too much robustness and burden, my father-in-law would stake them, gingerly tying their strong but fragile stems so that they would once again stand erect. Every day, he would be out there, bending over like a tired comma, hoeing, picking up weeds, watering, nurturing and talking to those garden giants, so proud was he of their progress.

To an Italian family, the garden is everything: The tomatoes become the sauce poured over homemade fettucini, ravioli and canelloni; the basil becomes the sweet, peppery pesto that pools in the delicate cups of al dente orechiette; the rosemary becomes the paint brush dipped with olive oil, stroking arrosticini or lamb skewers; the explosion of parsley becomes the garnish that disguises the potent garlic cloves consumed during each meal. You get the picture.

It is this same industriousness and passion for the land and its food, back home in the old country or here in Canada, that sees so many men and women of a certain vintage anticipating the growing season and looking forward to the harvest. In the gold of autumn, with the slant of sun so prominent on vineyards and fields, these men and women gather up the tight little clusters of swollen grape bellies or the taut, armoured ovals of green and black olives, looking like constellations on ancient silver trees, so that they can be appreciated, savoured and either canned or bottled for enjoyment now or next year. A crust of warm, homemade bread dipped into a translucent jade stream of the first press of the olive; a sip of wine, recently fermented, strong, sweet and velvet on the tongue; a knife’s intersection through the delicate flesh of a vine-picked tomato still warm with sun. These farming and gathering rituals are as regular as the calendar and as predictable as the joyful and painful cycle of life.

The garden has been a constant in all of our lives, but this past summer, the only one on record as far as I know, my father-in-law, now 87, had to admit surrender, at least partial surrender to the garden. He had become frail, was hospitalized for a month and is now resting at home with congestive heart failure, hooked up to oxygen and being made as comfortable as possible in a bed positioned in the living room. Anyone who knows a doctor or nurse, knows that this phrase, “as comfortable as possible,” is code for: Be prepared. We have been told that our beloved patriarch has approximately three to six months of life left and as we hear this, we look out through patio doors, at his last garden, dishevelled, picked over by racoons, rabbits and skunks. All the best tomatoes we gathered up in bushels under a blistering sun in August, but now the patch of earth looks abandoned, shrivelled, neglected. This must have been how Adam and Eve felt.

In my own home, a piece of cloth sprinkled with tomato seeds is drying on the back of a kitchen chair. A few weeks ago, my husband took the biggest ox heart tomato he could find from his father’s garden, squirted it free of its seeds and laid them out to dry. This is what his father used to do at the end of each growing season. His own process of natural selection, only the best vegetables, their seeds left to dry over the winter and then planted in new soil the following spring. The seeds were a way of guaranteeing the healthiest of tomato growth, not to mention continuity, resilience and a successful harvest.

I now know why, after all these years of not paying much attention to this practice and, in fact, mocking and teasing my father-in-law for it, why my husband has decided to preserve these particular seeds this particular year. Will his father, with his failing heart, be here for Christmas? Will he make it to his 88th birthday in January? Will his big heart defy the doctor’s prognosis and, like that ox heart tomato, go on for a few more seasons? Will there be anyone left to plant that glorious garden in the spring when he is most likely not here? How much time do we really have with him?

Sadly, we do not know the answers to any of theses questions but I do know that the seeds in my kitchen, looking like confetti, hanging on a piece of cloth over a kitchen chair, waiting for fertile ground in the spring, will yield more than just the reddest, strongest or most delicious of tomatoes. Those seeds are my father-in-law. Anything that comes from them, any sauce, any meal, any memory, will forever be about and because of him.

Kim DeBon lives in Burlington, Ont.

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