by Ron Russo
I met my partner Richard on Fire Island more than thirteen years ago. I feel blessed not only to have met such a wonderful person but to have done so at the ripe age of fifty one.
Yet as my mother would say if someone spoke too glowingly of good fortune, “Be careful. God gives with one hand and takes away with the other.” And so some wonderful force of fate handed Richard to me, but he didn’t come alone – - he had a country house.
I do not like the country. I am scared there. It’s too quiet. There aren’t gourmet food markets. People dress poorly. Animals show up occasionally. Still, Richard was so terrific that a few months into our relationship I began to accompany him regularly to his place in the Finger Lakes. A five hour drive, and for what? To end up in the country.
I made my way slowly. One of the first projects I took on was planting tomatoes and basil in the spring. The deer promptly ate my first crop down to the roots. For the first and only time in my life I wanted to own a gun.
I replanted a modest amount, fenced it in this time, and my garden took hold. That September we harvested the plants and I made pesto and tomato puree, both of which we froze for use in the winter. Four or five containers, manageable.
Two years later Richard decided to sell the house. He wanted a place closer to the city, one that would be more easily accessible for his eighty-something father, who was now driving nine hours from Massachusetts each time he visited.
Ultimately Richard purchased a house only four hours away and less than five from Massachusetts. Many hours of travel were saved, but the house was at the dead-end of an isolated road. It made the Finger Lakes place seem like Park Avenue. For the first time I felt a strain in our relationship. I wouldn’t have minded as much if the house were luxurious and had a pool. Instead it was a dump that needed every square inch renovated, with a murky pond and a dry stream thrown in.
Richard’s an architect and I knew that he’d eventually redo the place and make it wonderful.The problem was I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see that happen. But I set my mind to adapting and adapt I did, through a five year construction project.
We had lots more land in the new place, so I planted a larger garden. Tomatoes were abundant that year, and they ripened by the end of September before the first frost. I spent a day skinning, chopping, and freezing them and felt very satisfied with the results. We loved it when I’d make a simple marinara sauce, sometime in deep February, that was redolent of summer.
Unfortunately over-ambition kicked in. I suggested we plant more tomatoes the next summer. We did, but this time they didn’t all ripen at once. In the fourth week of September we needed to harvest everything that was left; surely there’d be a frost before we returned from vacation in three weeks. Complete pandemonium. We arrived back in the city looking like migrant farm workers with shopping bags full of basil and tomatoes in every shade of green, orange and red.
All this six days before a long trip to Italy. What to do? If I were on my own, I’d have thrown away everything that wasn’t ripe and dealt with all that was. But “waste” and “throw away” are words that do not exist in the lexicon of my New England-bred partner. “You would really throw away those good tomatoes! After all the work we put in growing them!” I must confess that all the work was done by Richard. I’d merely planted the little demons, then he’d taken over the watering, fertilizing, and weeding. But after all, I cooked them.
These tomatoes did not arrive by themselves. They had a following of flies that took over my apartment. I’d swat and kill two in the kitchen, then find four more in the bedroom. It was never-ending.Richard said the flies didn’t come with the tomatoes. “So, where did they come from, then? I haven’t opened a window in over a year.”
“You’re just being negative.”
I decided that the greenest tomatoes would never ripen before we left for vacation. At six-thirty on Tuesday morning when normal retirees are still in REM sleep, I was lighting the oven to roast those hard little beauties. This would take at least five hours, so I went to the gym. When I came home I met my neighbor in the hallway. “Are you cooking?” she asked with a tone that would have been more consistent if she’d asked “Did you just kill somebody?”
“Not really, just heating up something,” I said embarrassed, racing into my apartment.
We had grown two varieties of tomato: Romas (plum), which were moist and sweet, and San Marzanos, meaty and densely flavored. Each required a different treatment. The next day some of the plum tomatoes had ripened. They were to be roasted. Again, at six-thirty I was filling my oven with trays of sliced, salted, olive-oil tossed tomatoes. The following day provided more of a challenge. A good number of the San Marzanos were ready; they just needed boiling, skinning, pureeing, then freezing. I worked on them for two hours, with flies buzzing around my head the whole time.
Richard came home that night and inspected what was left. “There are still a few tomatoes ready for pureeing, a few for oven-roasting too. I’ll separate them.”
“One damn minute,” I said. “This joke has gotten old. I still haven’t bought anew valise for the trip, I need to do laundry, and you’re talking about a couple more days work? I don’t think so.”
“Okay. You can throw them out, then. Such a shame, after all that work , , , “
“Boy, the nuns really taught you guilt, didn’t they?”
“It’s just that we’re so close.”
I knew I’d lose this argument before it started, because in reality I, too, abhor waste. “I’ll figure something,” I said, swatting and missing yet another fly.
I got myself to TJ Maxx early the next morning and bought a valise. When I got it home,I realized it was two inches smaller than Richard’s, my role-model for this purchase. I hurled myself into panic mode until Richard made me fill the new valise with the clothing I’d be packing, and I understood that I’d be able to fit everything I needed. Back to tomatoes.
It was now two days before vacation and I was almost done. Next day I’d process whatever was left. We’d have delicious pasta sauces for many meals that winter.
The basil was easy, in comparison. You pull the plants up by the roots, pluck and wash the leave and puree them with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pignoli nuts. There’s no waiting for ripening-all ready at once. In ice trays I made twenty cubes of pesto, ready to use, and froze them in a plastic bag. I felt all set to open a restaurant when I got home from vacation.
On the day before departure I finally bought the extra socks and underwear I needed for my trip. I also got a new power adaptor so that I could charge the many devices I now travelled with. And I had only one more batch of tomatoes to deal with.
I hoped the flies would be gone by the time I got home.
I have been writing fiction and memoir for twenty five years. Of late, I have been particularly inspired by the wonderful writing workshops given at the IRP.