By Diane Gillespie
Newly married, my husband Mike and I drove along Boskeydell Road through the hills of Southern Illinois on our way to a small farm. It was a warm summer day in 1970. Car windows open, our breaths became deeper and our bodies more relaxed as we observed the countryside, its woods and pastures.
This wasn’t our first trip to the farm. Escaping our academic life and the city, we had grown comfortable with this country place so different from our own.
Friends had taken us out last year to meet Hope and Pistol, who kept inviting us back, even when our friends couldn’t go. Neither of us quite knew why. We were young graduate students in Philosophy and English. They were older, in their 50s, from life-long farming families, barely educated. None of us had money. Pistol carpooled with his neighbor twice a week to work as a taxi driver in our university town to make money to pay utilities. Hope babysat her grandsons a couple days a week.
They stood on their front porch as we drove up. As we stepped onto the wood porch, they introduced us to their neighbors Irene and Jake who were joining us for Sunday lunch. Mike’s beard, corduroy jacket and jeans contrasted Jake’s and Pistol’s clean-shaven faces and bib overalls.
“They just got married,” Hope said to Irene and Jake.
“Congratulations,” they said as they smiled.
The women proceeded into the kitchen while the men went out to walk the fields and check the crops.
“Should I slice the tomatoes, Hope?” I asked, putting down my rhubarb pie and seeing four large ripe tomatoes on the table.
She replied, half grinning, handing me a cutting board, “The boss says that a woman who doesn’t peel her tomatoes is a lazy woman.”
Her friend Irene laughed and said, “Tell me about being bossed. It’s not just tomato skins; it’s weeding the garden, canning …” Her voice faded off.
At the word boss, my stomach clinched and the knife slipped out of my hand onto the board.
I picked up the knife and the biggest tomato and clumsily started peeling off small strips of the skin.
No one in my Midwest family ever peeled their tomatoes. My uncle Dee, a Missouri farmer, put sugar on them, yes, but peel them? Only for spaghetti sauce.
“My mother,” Hope said, “believed that the skin of the tomato caused orneriness. My brothers would eat dozens of them straight from the garden, and she swore that they were the orneriest when the tomatoes were ripe.”
I chuckled, slipping a slice of the skin into my mouth, feeling it and the word boss slip over my tongue.
“My mother believed in peeling everything she ate. Always thought skins made people act different. And then Grandma told us that the goodness of the fruit was always inside. The outside was evil, sometimes even poisonous.”
The skin slipped down my throat, but the word boss caught there.
“Did I ever tell you about my mother and planting tomatoes?” Hope asked as she swirled about the cooling potatoes, green beans, and sausages, now frying in the pan. She had told me during an earlier visit. I’m sure that she had told Irene who was nodding her head.
“I’m not sure,” I said, picking up my third tomato. “Tell me again.”
“She always planted on May 14th, rain or shine. She worked out on the calendar when the soil was most fertile—so many days after harvest, so many days of rain, so many days of sun—all averaged together to get May 14. Neighbors joked that she was related to the spirits in the soil. She always had the biggest, reddest tomatoes—which won prizes at the county fair. I’ve always planted on the 14th myself.”
“You’re related to those spirits too,” I said, holding up the plate of sliced luscious tomatoes.
When the men came in for dinner, Pistol was still telling stories about the latest soybean crop. My husband sidled up to me, opened his hand, and there, cradled within his palm, was an arrowhead.
“Probably 100 years old, that arrowhead,” Pistol said. “When I plow the fields they come up. I got a little collection. I’m giving you guys this one.”
We sat down to a table full of platters–jello and potato salads, sausages, green beans, white bread and a plate of skinned, sliced bright red tomatoes.
The stories continued. Hope had eased her toothache using one of her grandmother’s remedies—bourbon-soaked cotton balls. Irene talked about how their bean crop had been killed by an unexpected frost that had put them in the poor house again. At least they still had their horse. Pistol recounted how he and Hope met each other on a horseback ride. They had taken off into the woods, separating from the others, dismounted, and kissed, Hope’s first. When they got back from the ride, Hope’s bread dough hadn’t risen.
“At first,” Pistol said, chuckling, “Hope thought that it was an ominous sign about me. But I convinced her it was the weather.”
Their brows momentarily furrowed, Irene and Hope exchanged a brief glance.
Throughout dinner, they all followed a trail of connections between stories, visible mostly to them.
We took big pieces of my rhubarb pie and ice cream out on their screened-in back porch and watched the sun travel across the rolling green fields. Pistol laid out his plans for the barn, which needed fixing. Jake said he would help but couldn’t climb because of a leg injury. Hope and Irene talked about all the canning they had to do.
“You done right by this rhubarb, Diane,” Pistol said, with all nodding in agreement, their spoons scraping the last bites.
Irene and Jake went home and Pistol took Mike out to the barn.
Standing alone in the kitchen with Hope, finishing up the dishes, I turned to her as she touched my arm and said, “He’s seeing someone in your university town. A young woman, probably your age. Irene seen them holding hands. She told me before you came.”
In that moment, the portrait of life that I thought I understood shifted, like the Gestalt figure that contains a young and old woman, depending on how one perceives the details. Before Hope stated this so factually, I had been a witness, observing a way of life on Boskeydell Road full of wondrous physicality—the slippery skins of the tomatoes, the sharp edges of the arrowhead, the sun illuminating fields, the imagined repairs to the barn—concrete details from which Hope and Pistol formed stories about their life on this small farm. It was as if the roles that they had been trained for and fulfilled had worked—she the farm wife and he the farmer and boss.
That life portrait dissolved before me. Nothing in my experience prepared me to respond to her shock and grief, not the protests raging on our campus or the philosophy and literature courses that my husband and I took and taught or the debates raging about women’s rights.
“Oh, Hope,” I finally said haltingly, “I am so sorry.”
Rinsing the last dish, she said quietly, “I’ll figure something out, I guess. He doesn’t know that I know.”
She lifted the last item to be cleaned, the cutting board with my little pile of dilapidated tomato skins. She carefully scraped them into a silver compost bucket.
2 thoughts on “Sliced Tomatoes”
The sort of story that takes you right into the scenes and heart of things.
Thank you so much.