The Color of Tomatoes
In 1940 and wartime, my great-aunt Margaret peeled tomatoes at the Red Gold Tomato Cannery. There she is: tall and long-limbed above a trough of pulp, her wild hair tucked under a stretchy mesh net. The door-to-door census recorder’s quick cursive says that twenty was her age, and Upland, Indiana, the town where she lived with her mother, father, and the younger sister who would, in forty more years, become my grandmother. My grandmother—straight, mouse-brown hair molded into pin curls, standing just five feet tall behind the kitchen counter, the way I remember her: bearing a paring knife with its plastic handle the color of ivory, stripping things of their skins. She used her thumb to stop the knife blade after each stroke, her skin indented but never sliced through. It was a motion I considered reckless at the time, because at the time, I did not know what it meant to be reckless.
Her older sister Margaret had hair the color of tomatoes and curled like the waxen peels she wound from them in supple spirals. Early girls, red golds, vine ripe, and until she died, she dyed her hair red. But that—1940—was wartime, when women worked, when the town where I would grow up was seventh on Hitler’s list of cities to bomb. Magnet wire was the reason: Fort Wayne, Indiana—an hour from the tomato cannery by I-69—harbored Rea Magnet Wire, the factory that spooled out its detonating thread by the mile, put the town on a map where it would rather not have been found. So Aunt Margaret peeled tomatoes, lived with her parents and sister in the apartment on Half Street, as if nothing, then, were whole: not the street and not the tomatoes, not the job she would work only until she married two years later. And then would she miss standing alone on the line, the fruity flesh forgiving, nimble?
My grandma was too young to work, or else she, too, might have peeled tomatoes. Instead, she went to beauty school. Visits to her, I sat at the dining room table. On its white tablecloth she placed a jam jar of water, held in her hand a pink rat-tail comb. She, the only one who could tame my wild curls, smoothed them down, dipped the comb’s tail in the water to make a clean part. And even though I was too old for the braided pigtails she gave me, I knew that that was how she wanted to see me: younger than I thought I was, younger than I really was, a lookalike of her curly-haired sister, hair the color of tomatoes.
And I wonder, when they moved Aunt Margaret to the nursing home, when she lost even the memory of her own sister’s name—Evelyn, which rings more of lilies than deep-red fruit— did she still remember the tomatoes, loose flesh and juice in her hands, pulpy acid stinging the cracked crooks of her fingers? In the moment she died, did she think of wartime and tomatoes, of squeezing seeds from beneath her fingernails, of the way our own blood smells like aluminum?