My contribution was garden basil; sweet and aromatic. I had harvested it earlier that morning.
Phyllis, a friend, often spoke of her family’s tradition of preserving tomatoes. In August, her family descended on their aunt’s Long Island home to begin the process. I yearned to be included. When I attended SUNY Farmingdale, I remembered a student demonstrating the steps to preserving tomatoes; she said it was an annual event that kept her family close. My Italian grandmother had followed this tradition and I wanted to retrace her steps and feel close to her.
While I wasn’t there when Phyllis pleaded my case, I know she convinced her family of my willingness to share equally in the unglamorous labor. No manicure that week. I arrived early that August morning and headed for the backyard.
While it was barely 9 a.m., it was apparent that the day would reach well into the 90s. Family members had already arrived and taken up positions by the back of the house. That permitted them much desired shade.
My work station was not shaded. The sun was beating down but I remained undaunted; I was fulfilling my inner ancestral spirit. I was one with my Italian roots and taking part in earth’s bounty. I was then handed a small pot and was unceremoniously directed to tap the cooked tomatoes releasing more liquid from the pulp.
I marveled at the overview of this Levittown yard. There were people at different stations, performing their tasks, taking pride in their work; all in effort to prepare tomatoes that would become the core of future Italian meals. This family took their tomato sauce seriously.
By high noon, I began to notice a change in my demeanor; my pace had slowed. I was experiencing a swirling sensation and an uncomfortable swaying. I moved toward a tree and sat down under its shade. I fought to maintain a normal appearance and tried to give the illusion of taking a small break. It didn’t work. Embarrassed and feeling defeated, I called to Phyllis. I don’t remember much after that initial call out. I do remember a bucket of cold water (with chunks of ice) being poured over my head. I felt the ice; it felt good. It washed over me, giving me welcoming relief. I was told, later, that a neighbor had stopped by and being a nurse had recognized my distress. She was immediately by my side when I fainted. How embarrassing.
I will admit I was relieved to be in the house, out of the sun, with a caring nurse bringing me back to a healthy state. Feeling defeated, I returned home to the open arms of my husband, Mike, who cranked up the air conditioning and ordered in Chinese food.
If my ancestors were looking on, I hope they weren’t too disappointed in me. However, since gene pools endure, they probably reacted similarly to my present day relatives who found the whole episode amusing and never allowed me to live it down.