Green Children by Jenny Webb

tomatoes in the garden-1 by Jenny Webb

Like me, my first children arrived in March. Looking down at them now, their branches bowed and thick with ripened weights, green through the sun’s steady warmth €”these unruly creatures bear no obvious relationship to the sweet brown seeds carefully tucked into flimsy plastic trays and lovingly carried outdoors on the days spring chose to trail her warmth along the soil, stirring their pale souls toward the light. In the beginning, when we planted our garden, we worried over our sprouting family, Nick more than I. He cradled the trays as he moved them about the yard, seeking the sun with a visionary faith in our vegetable family. We figured that if the plants lived, we might qualify for a cat by winter and eventually, human children.

Those days seem distant now, hidden behind April’s morning mists and my faulty memory. It is difficult to believe that at one time we cared for one hundred and twenty-eight tomato-ettes. One hundred and twenty-eight. It is slightly more incredible that forty-five survived that early treatment, the constant shift between yard and house. And to tell you the truth, looking about now, it seems nearly ridiculous that every single one of those forty-five plants chose to fulfill its divine destiny and multiply and replenish the earth. There are, after all, limitations, decency.

Today, like every other day this slow September, I head outdoors and greet my green children. The blue light of my office computer and the sharp spines of the semester’s books (my first love) fade, are forgotten. I have work to do in my garden. The tomatoes greet me, verdant ropes into which I thrust my bared feet, toes splayed to grip the cool soil between wide stalks and ever-present branches. When they were still young and pliant, we thought to tie them up or train them through wire cages. However, we being young ourselves, and young together, thought better of it. (This was not due to any youthful ideals, but rather to the more immediate demands of our monthly utilities bill.) As our plants matured we felt the error of our ways. Their teenage growth outstripped our expectations and left us with a vibrant mass of heavy greenery that when approached requires both caution and ingenuity.

I weave my way toward the center of my garden. I am hunting a cluster of Pink Brandywines I sighted earlier in the week. I stalk my food through a delicately immobile jungle that purposely conceals its fruit. These are rebellious plants €”taciturn, prone to petulance €”and they have it in for me, their mama.

I pause.

Afternoon light hangs pink against the wooden fence and everywhere I look I see the twisting of green branches, the folding of green leaves. My arms rub against these leaves and start to yellow; my fingertips reflect a familiar (familial) green green green so green it’s nearly black. My fingers, stalk-like, feel blindly amongst the leaves, searching. I glance out over our garden: carrots, onions, lettuce, cucumbers €”these are all manageable and cooperative plants. They produce enough to eat, stay more or less where they’re told, and generally enjoy being picked at. My eyes lower to my unreasonably fertile tomatoes, the plants with which I spend my time, the plants that hold some type of proprietary claim upon me. That is how, I suppose, they came to be my children. There are worse things that could have claimed me.

I find my Pink Brandywines huddled together along a slender strand called to bear an inordinate burden that has quite naturally strained it toward the earth in submission. Pushing aside green leaves exposes the deep dankness of the inner sanctum. I startle back at the vision: tomatoes, everywhere. Pressed against the earth, folded between branching arms, sprouting through entangled tendrils still seeking the light €”pink, white, yellow, orange, overripe red. I release a branch; the plant heaves, fruit waving against the breeze. Some have fallen to the soil where they spoil, their skins split, their seeds spilt. I cannot conceive of a time when we will not be eating tomatoes. The blatant fecundity of this plant, of every plant in my garden, every plant I cannot escape, that grasps my toe and bends my knee, constitutes an overwhelmingly reproductive force: it appears both incredibly absurd (who in the whole world would ever need so many tomatoes?) and strangely holy, sacrificial.

I cannot blame them for their enthusiasm. Their insistence on living, on passing the possibility of life to others, turns my mind in my garden toward another image of absurd overabundance that I have yet to fully comprehend: outside my garden, in other rooms, I call this gift grace, and give thanks.

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Jenny Webb recently moved to Madison, Alabama where she lives with her husband, daughter, and son. She currently works as the production manager for the journals  Recherche Littéraire and Scandinavian Studies; she is also on the executive board of the Mormon Theology Seminar and is a managing editor for Salt Press.

7 thoughts on “Green Children by Jenny Webb”

  1. I very much like the language you use to show us your relationship to your tomatoes–familial phrases. I think language like that reflects depth of connection more cogently than words like “stewardship,” which is a rather nebulous term after all, having different meanings reflecting different takes on what our level of involvement in the world ought to be.

    Also, tomatoes are a passion of mine. Before we moved to the desert, I raised my own heirloom strains from seeds. Where we live now I have no safe place to stow my seedlings after emergence. Our spring winds kill little tomatoes quickly. I need to build a grow box or something that will allow the little ones to be out in the sun in the spring without suffering the effects of the winds.

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  2. Thank you Patricia €”I think you’re quite right to point toward the strength of that connection. I think the term stewardship, while problematic in the ways you mention, is difficult due to the lack of implicit love and/or charity in the term. Our families are given to us, and we to them, in such a way that that love is both a foundation and a test; I think the same extends to the world we live in and with.

    And I know about the difficulties involved in trying to grow tomatoes in the desert…. We just moved from Los Alamos, which is up in the high desert mountains of New Mexico. The unpredictable (and late) snows, early hard frosts, and wildfire-prone summers made gardening and adventure to say the least. Looking around at our damp, verdant surroundings in northern Alabama we’re thinking that our tomatoes next year will have a better chance of actually thriving rather than just surviving!

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  3. Today I was happy to discover that over the last week my green zebra vines have become loaded. I put those plants in late and believed they wouldn’t come to much. In fact, I put all my plants in late, hoping that I’d be able to squeeze at least a few tomatoes out of the effort. Now I’m hoping to squeeze another month of warm weather out of the growing season. A September frost is pretty common here, but this year, temperatures have been running on the high side. So maybe.

    Green zebra tomatoes are some of the oddest looking tomatoes there are. I had a neighbor up north who thought them highly suspect and expressed his doubts every chance he got until I talked him into trying one. Then he lightened up considerably.

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  4. Belated thanks, Rachel and Julia for your kind comments. (Julia, why am I not surprised to see you hanging around here? 🙂

    Patricia, I thought of your green zebras this weekend as we were heading out in search of tomatoes in the Alabamian countryside €”there were plenty of classics on display at the roadside stands, but there also some with a bit more “character” than usual. Hope the frost has held off for you, and them.

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  5. I’ve been meaning to say thanks, Jenny, for letting us post this. Lovely in thought, pleasant in its articulation. Glad to have you around.

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