The garden at the Journal office, May 2020. Not pictured: dead cactus. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)

The Editor’s Desk: In search of lost time

A tiny tomato provides a small moment of joy as it evokes happy memories

A couple of weeks ago, someone stopped by the Journal office and looked around at the lush green grass, freshly-planted garden bed, verdant trees and bushes, and colourful hanging baskets, and said “It’s like a little oasis.”

It’s probably the first time anything garden-wise I’ve had something to do with has been described as an oasis. I am, after all, someone who manages to kill cactus while living in a desert, which is no mean feat (turns out they do need a teensy bit of water after all).

One of the hanging baskets is right outside my office window, and more than once I’ve watched as a hummingbird has made a circle of the flowers, dipping into and out of each flower at dizzying speed. Bees buzz about it in gentle circles, while birds hop about on the grass and in the garden, looking for tasty morsels.

I’ve been out harvesting some of the spinach and lettuce, and keeping my eye on the tomato seedlings, which have a ways to go before they start producing anything edible. However, the basket of cherry tomatoes I bought several weeks ago is about to burst forth with ripe fruit, and a day or two ago I picked one tomato that seemed ready. It was a beautiful, rich, glowing red, and I carried it into the house with as much reverence as others might bestow on a priceless gem. I gave it a wash, dried it off, paused for a moment, closed my eyes, and then took a bite.

In his epic series of novels In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust uses madeleine cakes to show the difference between voluntary memory (when we recall memories by the conscious effort of remembering people, places, or events) and involuntary memory (when something we encounter in everyday life recalls something from the past without conscious effort). The narrator takes a bite out of a madeleine and without warning is transported back to when he was a boy, and one of his aunts would give him a madeleine dipped in tea when he went to visit her on a Sunday morning.

The memory comes suddenly, without conscious effort or bidding, brought on by the taste and texture of the cake. So it was with me and that cherry tomato, as I was instantly taken out of my kitchen in Ashcroft and back to my maternal grandparents’ house at Okanagan Falls. Grandpa was a great gardener, and the large property was planted with a variety of fruit trees, as well as gardens of well-tended vegetables. As a child from the suburbs of Vancouver there was something magical about plucking sun-ripened apples and pears, peaches and plums, raspberries and apricots, straight off the tree or vine and biting into them.

But Grandpa’s tomatoes were something else indeed: rich, ripe, bursting with flavour and colour, a world away from the watery, insipid fruit I was accustomed to. My favourite meal at their house was a simple tomato sandwich: white bread, mayonnaise, salt, and thick slices of Grandpa’s tomatoes, the juice soaking into the bread so that if the sandwich was not eaten quickly enough it was in danger of disintegrating.

As I bit into that cherry tomato, still warm from the sun, I was for one bright instant back in the kitchen of Grandma and Grandpa’s house, aged eight or so, juice dripping down my fingers. That’s a lot of weight for one little tomato to carry, and the moment was over almost as soon as it started, but it was there nonetheless, as fleeting as the hummingbird outside my window but no less vibrant.

Why do I tell this story? Partly because (as I noted above) I take my gardening successes where I find them, but mostly because it strikes me that in these tumultuous times we need as many bright and shining moments, small though they might be, as we can find. I hope you can find your own, and rejoice in it, however briefly.

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