On April 16 in 1987 when the northern plains were having an unseasonal heat wave of 90+ degree temps, my former father-in-law Ted called me from Fargo, North Dakota, to tell me the news that my ex-husband George had disappeared. Nobody had seen him for three days.
The fact that George was missing is the most important part of this story. But for you to grasp what the events in this story all add up to, and what it all felt like, you have to know how unusual and badly timed the heat wave of 1987 was, along with a number of other things I'm going to tell you about as I go along.
First of all, I have to explain that in the five years I lived there between December of 1970 and August of 1976, April in the Fargo area had always been cold. A heat wave in August was so rare that I started to doubt my own memories when I began to write this. But I found corraboration on the Internet. The whole area was baking hot.
Spring usually comes very late to the northern plains. One pertinent rule of thumb is, you cannot put out your tomato plants safely before Memorial Day, because even up until that late date there is still real danger of a hard frost.
I just realized how many assumptions there are in that last sentence. One assumption would be that you garden, that you've maybe even started tomatoes from seeds you covered with planting mix in February inside of washed and cut down milk cartons, as my mother-in-law, Betty, did.
Maybe, like Betty, you've punched holes in the bottoms of the cartons of tomato seedlings, made little trays for them lined with tin foil so they wouldn't leak, put them on sunny window sills, and then watered and babied the seedlings along during the last long months of winter because you wanted to grab the maximum amount of tomato growing time possible in the short summer that only lasts between June the first and Labor Day.
Whether you did any of that or not, you'd still need to understand that to put out tomatoes means to take them out of their temporary milk carton homes or perhaps from purchased flats or six packs and plant them in the barely-warm freshly-spaded earth in a location with full sun exposure.
Betty had a vegetable garden not much bigger than the size of a dining room table. The garden faced the alley behind the unattached garage of their pale yellow wooden house with white trim in Fargo. Betty somehow managed to grow asparagus, onions, lettuce, swiss chard, kohlrabi, green beans, and radishes, along with plenty of tomatoes in that little space.
The love of fresh tomatoes is strong in that part of the country. It stays with you even if you leave, maybe it even strengthens when you leave. I haven't ever quite gotten over the absence of vine-ripened tomatoes in my life along with the lack of a number of other good things I left behind in my post-marriage, post-northern plains existence.
Up there amid the abundance of late summer, the tomatoes are as numerous as the zucchini and both are freely given away, sometimes by the bushel basket, sometimes even left anonymously on a neighbor's back stairs. If you have the right connections, even if you don't grow tomatoes yourself, you can easily come into possesion of a generous quantity large enough for you to make it worth your while to put them up in glass jars for keeping on shelves in the basement for the long winter.
Basements are another given of northern plains life. I only recently realized that some people have never seen a basement. In the part of the U.S. where this story happened, anyone with a house has a basement.
Here in San Jose where I live now in a 107 year old Victorian, basements are so rare and cause for so much exclamation, I have joked about holding tours for the California-born. "This is what a basement looks like. This particular kind is entered from the outside through a pair of wood doors that fold back to reveal a set of concrete stairs that take you below the house . . . "
But it's important to get back to the point, and right now the point is still about tomatoes. I had already learned to can tomatoes before my husband and I and our six month old baby boy Liberty came to Fargo from San Francisco in 1969 in our orange-painted VW van. I wanted to make up for having been raised a city girli in Massachusetts who had spent most of her life believing that canned tomatoes only came in tin cans.
While we lived in San Francisco, our hippy friends all talked about going back to the land, and we all devoured books about being self-sufficient, Living More With Less was one of the titles, and about Indian lore, and we dreamed of organic farming, so when we made the move from the City by the Bay to the city bisected by the Red River of the North, I was eager to become an expert in sustinence farming..
During my apprenticeship in the north country, with my in-laws who were the first generation descended from German peasant immigrants who hadn't made their living off the land, I learned, among a lot of other useful things, how to can everything. I found out that canning tomatoes is a lot less difficult than canning other less-acid fruits of the earth. The tomatoes' acidity prevents the growth of bacteria, so you don't have boil the jars for a long time like you do when you can other things.
You use whatever method you prefer to peel their skins off, stuff the tomatoes into clean canning jars, put the sealing lids down making sure that the edges of the jars aren't nicked, place the screw rings loosely on top of the seals, put the jars into a big kettle on a rack, boil them, cool them until you hear the seals kind of pop into place, tighten the screw rings down, wipe the jars, and put them away on the shelves. Whenever you want to make sloppy joes or spaghetti sauce, you're all set for tomatoes. I can still recall the popping sound the seals made when the jars cooled enough to create the needed vaccum.
It's making me sad to think about how I once had the time and opportunity to put up my own supply of summer tomatoes for the winter. From the weight of the sadness, I know it's not just the opportunity to line of rows of sparkling glass jars full of ripe tomatoes that I lost, and I know that loss stands for other things.
Greg Brown, Idaho troubador, has a song [Canned Goods] about this: Taste a little of the summer, Taste a little of the summer, You can taste a little of the summer my grandma's put it all in jars," which ends, "
'Cause these canned goods I buy at the store, Ain't got the summer in them anymore."
Some time just before I divorced my husband, I was intrigued to read somewhere that you can freeze tomatoes without any fuss, sticking them into zip lock bags in the freezer and taking them out one at a time when you need them. You see I had started to lose my enthusiasm for canning and blanching food for the freezer by that time, even though it had been interesting at first.
We'd started out in our "back to the land" experiment with a lot of zeal for growing thing organically, and our large garden flourished. We rented a house 23 miles southeast of Fargo, four miles outside of a Minnesota town called Barnesville. Our landlord and all the rest of our neighbors were farmers. On the five acres of land surrounding the house, the landlord grew soybeans and sunflowers around us, stored grain in silos, and stored huge combines and other farm equipment in a rundown picturesque unpainted barn and some sheds. An old unused pump with a handle was the central ornament of the circular driveway outside our back door.
When the garden started producing, it was the hottest part of the summer. George would put baskets of whatever he picked in the morning on the back steps, and I would put it away. Putting food away doesn't mean sticking it in cupboards, it means preparing it for long term storage, so when I was putting food away I was either canning it in jars or blanching it for freezing. As time went on, I was liking the hot, sweaty work less and less. Besides I was commuting on most weekdays the 25 miles on interstate 94 up to Moorhead to take college classes.
I was going to school because I felt that George had not kept up his end of a bargain we had made at the start of our relationship. I thought my husband planned to finish his college education when I first met him, and it was only after we were together for several years that I found out he had lost interest. Huffily, I stubbornly determined to realize my own ambitions and finish my own degree. The cost of my tuition, and day care, and gas, and wear and tear on the car, and my absence at home to do my share of the work put a big strain on our finances and our relationship. And I'm sorry to say I didn't much care.
Leaving George closed the door on further experimentation in freezing tomatoes and on a lot of other things I had been free to do. While we stayed together, we had little money, but lots of time. We didn't see eye to eye on most things, but we more or less had divided the work of our family life between us.
Divorce changed everything for us both. When I left, I took the kids. I started going to college full time. I had to go full time to get the money for child care that was available through an extremely generous program at the welfare department in those days.
I had no qualms about applying for welfare. I felt I had to do it, because George couldn't afford enough to support us in separate homes, and I saw my college degree as my only way out. Out of what? Out of being with someone who hadn't satisfied my dreams. Out of the anonymity of a nuclear family on the fringes of a community that didn't know what to make of two athiest former hippies who'd lived in San Francisco and had children named Liberty and Sunshine.
And so I had found my way out, way out, on my own with a 2 year old and a 4 year old, poor both in money and time.