Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tomato Wars

My grown-up version of the War of Tomatoes is a long cry from the version that played out when I was a kid. My sisters and I used to collect boxes of rotten fruit from the compost pile and meet our neighborhood rivals in a nearby field. While hiding behind shields of stolen garbage can lids, we'd chuck moldy tomatoes and every other kind of nastiness we could get our hands on over to the pack of mean neighborhood boys. It wasn't long before word spread and the Meng girls were both feared and respected. My mom thought the neighbors were crazy when they'd call her and complain that her daughters had stolen their garbage can lids. "Not my daughters," she'd fiercely defend us on the phone. My mom, my impetus for the loyal and dedicated Mama Hen in my book. She'd roll her eyes when the neighbors complained that their big beaf-eatin' hearty boys were afraid of her girls. My mom nearly plucked us when we finally  'fessed up to the garbage can lids over some family dinner many, many years later. Smart chicks, us, we waited till we were big enough to outrun her and her wooden spoon. 

My grown-up Tomato War involves growing tomatoes, not throwing them. It started fifteen years ago when my mother-in-law came over and saw my tomato patch. She was startled and disturbed that my tomatoes were bigger than her tomatoes. She'd been growing tomatoes for years, and here I was in my twenties kicking her prideful butt in the tomato department.

Side note: My mother-in-law, Lonna, is a wee bit competitive. She'll call to ask me what I am bringing to a family dinner and then MAKE THE SAME THING on purpose, just so people can compare our cooking. In my poor youth, when she'd make HER pasta salad, she'd put in food I could never afford, like real crab meat. Imagine cooking all day for your in-laws only to open the front door and find your mother-in-law standing on your porch holding a hot lasagna - her rendition of the main course you have in the oven. Call her on it, and she'd become flustered, bewildered, hurt. The confused act. Now that she really IS confused, with all her illnesses and stroke stuff, I can never tell if she is just messing with me or is really out there.

Back to the tomatoes. After that first tomato moment, Lonna began flattering me and my lovely tomatoes. She wanted to know what date I put them in the ground, what soil I was using. I naively told her everything. The following year was a busy one for me and I got my tomatoes in late. Lonna's tomatoes flourished that year. Boy, did she rub my nose in it. "I planted in April, you know," she'd say. "You plant yours too late! You need better soil!" Later, during harvest, she'd leave bags of her bountiful crop on my doorstep. I'd tell her I had my own tomatoes, but she'd just shake her head say, "It's okay, you have some mine. Mine taste good."

Meaning mine don't? My mother-in-law has perfected her ability to look innocent while insulting those she loves. She once explained to me that in the world there were "smart" girls and "pretty" girls. Either you got to be smart OR pretty. She gave me a serious nod, "You smart girl!" Then she went on to explain that her daughter Laura was a pretty girl. I later gave Laura a sour look in the back bedroom -  the back bedroom is where we hide when her mom comes to visit. "Your mom just called me ugly!" I complained. Laura just shrugged, "Well, she called ME stupid!"

Back to the tomatoes. By year three it was all-out Tomato War. I come from Kansas farm stock on my dad's side and I take this stuff pretty seriously. Most years, I win the the Tomato War. It's the best subversive mother-in-law torture I have. Take that, Lonna, not only am I smart but I also have better tomatoes. Some years, Lonna beats me. I accept those years graciously. And plot for the next year.

This year, I AM WINNING! I know Lonna is dying, but still. I am having the best tomato year EVER! I caged my tomatoes in one long raised bed, using a perimeter wire enclosure only. Got them in early. Perfected the soil and watering method. 

I know, I know, I know, she's dying. But that hasn't stopped her from making a tremendous tomato effort herself this year. She can't drive anymore, what else is she going to do? It may actually be close. Usually I dread her visits, but last week I looked forward to her visit. How do ya like THEM TOMATOES, lady. HA! I know my tomatoes are looking good, because she pretended not to notice, until I repeatedly pointed them out.

I know, she's dying and all. But this is the kind of shit that keeps her alive. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ya Baby, She's Got The Sick Grandma Blues

The challenges of family life are often reflected in the writing of children. My own kids do this quite often, and I always learn something new about them when I read through their school writing assignments. I argued with my daughter at the beginning of the school year, when as part of a class assignment she wanted to pick as her family slogan, "My family is like a roller coaster. We have our ups and downs." We hadn't met the teacher yet and I didn't want my daughter to give her the wrong (or right) impression of us. At least not yet. My no-censorship ideals eventually kicked in and I let it go. I guess that is now our official family slogan.

A couple of years ago, I found myself unexpectedly immersed inside my daughter's head while reading her writing. I was standing in the middle of a shopping mall during a local school-wide book fair, thumbing through a book of poetry that my daughter, at age nine, had written. She wrote about the death of our beloved family dog, something that had occurred only two months earlier. She wrote about how much she missed her. The poem was beautiful. And sad. I just stood there in the middle of the pre-holiday hustle and bustle of our local mall, with focused shoppers passing me by, holding her book and bawling my eyes out. Tika really was a great dog. But the tears were not for the dog so much as for my daughter. How could I not have noticed the depth of her grief? 

This past winter, my kids were swept up in the whirlwind and chaos of having a disabled grandparent take over our lives. There was no way to prepare them ,or protect them, from the stress of the situation. During open house at her school last month, my husband and I stood mesmerized by a poem she had tacked to the wall. We were stunned at first, then our irrepressible lack of maturity took over and we start laughing. Only those who have lived it can fully appreciate her take on the Sick Grandma Blues.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

You So Stingy?

My mother-in-law, Lonna,  is not doing so well. She is dying. Though, as my husband likes to remind me, we're all dying. Her heart is just not functioning very well and it can stop at any moment. Lonna still has a bit of fight left in her and this situation can go on indefinitely.

We're all trying to help her, but we can't always figure out what she wants. She is a hard person to understand for a number of reasons. She has aphasia from a stroke nine years ago, and so she can't remember the correct words for many things. Also, english is not her first language and she has a heavy accent. Because she is from Taiwan, there are also some cultural differences in communication.

I am always asking her if she needs anything at the store. The answer is almost always no. But if I check her refrigerator, it is either empty or filled with rotting food. If her daughter asks her if she needs anything, Lonna will demand to be taken to three different grocery stores in one afternoon. It is nice not being the daughter. 

Being the daughter-in-law has its moments, too. I remember once, after a huge family dinner, I was serving slices of cake and I asked Lonna if she wanted some and she, at first, said no. Then, when I asked her if she was sure, she said maybe. Perhaps a little piece, I suggested. She told me yes, but just a very, very small, tiny piece, tiny piece. She showed me with her fingers held just a sliver apart.

I cut her a very small piece and put it on a plate and brought it to her. She took it and clucked her tongue, held it up for everyone to see and proclaimed in a loud voice, "OH! You so STINGY?"