Finding the Meaning in Life
Garden Tomatoes, Crocheted Scarves, and The Giving Tree
I had a long catch-up visit with a Dear One yesterday, replete with lovely handmade gifts! This dear one makes the loveliest, softest, hand-crocheted scarves, and shares them generously. She’d sent us some for Christmas, along with delicious home-baked cookies. But she brought some this visit because the colors in the last batch weren’t so feminine. How sweet is that?
She reminds me of my father in her sweet gifting. I have several handcrafted gifts -not to mention this house, built by his hands- that my father lovingly made for each of us over the years, and I treasure them.
The thing many folks in the medical profession will remember most about my father is his tomatoes. During the last two summers of his life, while undergoing chemotherapy, my father carefully packed brown paper bags with his prize garden tomatoes and distributed them to his doctors and staff at each appointment throughout Penn’s medical campus.
It was such a simple gesture. But it remained profound after his death to those he bestowed with his offering.
I ran into his rheumatologist in the local lunch joint several years after he died. She said, “I’ll never forget your father. Undergoing cancer treatment and knowing he was going to die, he took the time to bring me tomatoes.” We both had tears in our eyes. My father, like my friend yesterday, embodied “The Giving Tree.”
I wonder how many today would sternly address that tree about boundaries. I might myself, truth be told. But I think I’d be missing the point. My father actually DID set some hard boundaries during those last 18 months. With my mother. He wasn’t going to spend near so much time fussing and fighting. He even asked me for -and got, to her consternation- a large screened tent for the yard so he could spend more time outside, day and night, enjoying his yard. Toots did not appreciate the tent. “He spends all his time out there. Like he’s avoiding me.”
“You could join him out there” I offered.
“I’m not sitting out there in the heat!” she dismissed.
“He’s got fans running you know, and it is shaded.”
“Yeah, so he can smoke!”
“That, too, I suppose. But why argue now? You could enjoy the yard with him.”
But it wasn’t her idea of fun, and she was busy nursing the wounds she perceived. And so it went. Two summers.
In the end, my father’s union benefits provided well for my mother for her last 13 years without him. She finally had financial security, but not the man who ultimately provided it. His life was used up, he’d given it all away.
I probably understood my mother better than anyone. At least more charitably than most. She was often disquieting. Carting around tomatoes was an extra burden on a day she already had to begrudgingly cross a bridge to attend doctor’s appointments she thought should have been handled closer to home. She often scheduled something to do when my father had a doctor’s appointment in the city. I used up all of my own sick time, as did my then wife, accommodating my mother’s belligerence.
He’d get in the car and apologize.
“I’m sorry to drag you over for this.”
“Don’t you dare. I get to spend the day with you! And we’ll have creamed chipped beef at the Colonial when we’re done.”
“You’re welcome. I got you.”
My father was such a sweet soul. We spoke in shorthand. He had a fiery temper if you managed to catch the wrong end of it, but that took a lot. And in his final years it was reserved (and deservedly so) for my mother.
As I write, a pair of cardinals are dancing in the trees right before me. Hey, Dad.
He told me upon diagnosis, “I’m not afraid to die. My mother visited me in my dreams. But I am afraid to be sick.” I retorted, “I’ve met your wife, she ain’t a nurse, I’d be petrified. That’s why we’re doing the chemo. To keep you on your own feet. She ain’t wiping your ass.”
And so we would banter. With real talk and few words, we would have each other’s back. And I will always cherish the tomato legacy.
My friend pouring her heart out yesterday got me thinking about the ways we carry other people’s stories into our own relationships.
If I had only ever seen my father through my mother’s eyes, as she’d have preferred, I’d have missed so very much. Her version of him was so much less kind than the man himself. Her version was weak and unreliable. Her version projected a selfishness that just wasn’t there. But what I learned from being close to my mother was to challenge her conclusions for myself.
My aunt, Toots’ younger sister and only sibling, is 83 now. She remains beautiful and physically vibrant, but her memory is giving her some trouble.
My aunt was just ten when my parents married, and lived here with them and Nanny, my grandmother, until she graduated high school and moved out with Nanny for an Atlantic City Adventure that would see my grandmother owning a little restaurant.
The story of that departure, according to my mother, was a harsh betrayal. A middle-of-the-night move out to avoid the request to contribute financially.
Turns out, my grandfather didn’t leave my grandmother penniless, as my mother had always assumed, when he headed for California in 1946. No, he had left my grandmother with bonds. She cashed them for the Atlantic City Adventure.
My mother scrubbed toilets, wrapped presents at Wanamaker’s, and finally lied at 16, saying she was 18, to secure a prized job on the floor of the RCA factory in Camden, NJ. She interrupted her own education to feed her family, never knowing about the bonds.
There are several stories from around that time that painted my aunt as an absolute monster, culminating with my grandmother’s stint in a mental hospital, where she was finally diagnosed and medicated. By the time I entered this world nearing Christmas, 1965, Nanny lived once again in our home, now in the bedroom next to mine on the first floor. She was sweet and kind to me, my dearest champion, but her legacy with Toots was another thing entirely. I never knew firsthand of her cruelty, but Toots worked to fill in every blank -from her angry perspective- so I would know.
The picture Toots painted of my aunt left me wondering why they spoke at all, and it never quite made sense to me. My aunt was a fixture in my life. Her son, just two months older than me, is the closest thing I have ever had to a real brother, and we are thick to this day.
As a young adult with a baby of my own, I invited my Aunt on a date for her birthday. Her favorite restaurant, just her and me. I asked All the questions that night. I had to. We talked through each story, from her perspective, and boy howdy did I get a fuller picture. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t gloss anything.
And we left that night closer than we’d ever been. This was a good 30 years ago, when her mind was sharp as a tack and she was still working as a teacher, using that master’s degree she acquired at night all on her own.
My aunt was never a monster. She was a highly intelligent teenager who wanted a good life for herself. And she’s had one. I remain at her beck and call, because she still remembers exactly who I am, and she is calm and happy in my presence. She earned my time, years ago.
My friend is wrestling with some impossible family shit. My best and most loving advice was, “get thee back into therapy — NOW.” I believe she’ll do exactly that. She’s another fiercely intelligent woman who has dealt with a whole lotta mess.
We don’t always have answers for one another, and I don’t suppose we should. It is the holding of space that matters. The time on the front porch. The cups of tea.
I was gonna write today about “But Her Emails” and the ways so many of us warned, back in 2016, of what we are seeing potentially unfold from the SCOTUS. I’m not sure there’s much I can add except that it frightens and disgusts me, too.
No. I prefer to write about the ways we love one another. The ways we decide how to care for one another’s hearts. And the generosity that costs little, and means the world in the end.
My father had a little trick. Every summer, when he would cut open what he decided was the BEST tomato he’d had that year, he’d save and dry those seeds for next year. And those are the ones he’d plant, year after year, throughout my life. It’s not that he never bought seed packets, he did. But not in those last years. He planted only what he dried the previous summer. And the result was truly spectacular Jersey tomatoes. Tomatoes folks still remember.
And when I wrap my neck with these lovely scarves, I will think fondly of my friend. When she arrived yesterday, she said, “Martha, it’s so good to see you!” We discussed my recent name switch on the Book of Face, and I grumbled about perpetually “coming out.” She said, “Is there anyone you think didn’t know already?”
“Prolly not” said I, “but the confirmation will maybe cause some stir. I just have to get on with things, s’all.”
I like to think my father did not die with any of his “music” left in him. I like to think he savored every day from diagnosis to death. And every tomato he sliced those two summers.
But most important were the ones he never cut open, but gave away. The ripples on the pond of life.
Choosing kindness when others choose anger. Choosing the benefit of a doubt where others choose verdict without trial. Choosing to see beyond what we are told of people to see what is there, for ourselves. Choosing to crochet special gifts when others won’t even make a visit. These choices resonate. These choices define us. These choices are our legacy.
I firmly state I shall never apologize for being trans, or the road I took to get to the acknowledgment. I can’t know how others hear that, but I do know how I mean it.
If there were an apology due, I suppose it would be for the hiding of something. The omission some would call a lie.
Look, I grew up in a family FULL of secrets. I grew up with a mother who spent much of her time trying to climb up on the cross and nail herself to it. I grew up with abuse. I grew up in fear. I grew up in insecurity.
I went on to work to undo all of it -with the help of a champion therapist- as I raised my own children. I didn’t lie so much as survive in order to love.
I imagine, if you really never saw the me behind the thin façade of “male” it might feel like I duped you. I don’t see myself as that good an actor, but if you are inclined to look upon my disclosure as an affront, I can’t stop you. Actually, I won’t stop you.
I spent so much of my life trying to control situations to keep everyone calm, happy, or at least appeased. I took everyone’s comfort on as my own personal mission. It left me fat, smoking, unhappy, and drinking a little.
My father made it clear -mostly through his silence, actually- that we would never discuss my gender identity or orientation. He would make no room for such a conversation. That was all far outside his lexicon. And he frankly didn’t “approve.”
I’ve made enough peace with all that to slog forward. As we sat on the porch yesterday, my friend said, “who wants to be a woman in 2022!?” I laughed, “not me, sweetness. I just am. “
As we face fascism in America coming at us in judges’ robes, my advice remains the same.
Take the time to know who’s running in every election, and vote every time.
Send whatever extra cents you may have to the organizations fighting for what you most believe in.
Take the news in small doses.
Volunteer now and again.
Get outside as often as you can.
Remember this life is fleeting and it goes by fast. As you protect and nurture your own soul, find room to know the people who loved you through, and make a little space for their humanity as well as your own. Use up this life with as few regrets as possible.
And find your own version of scarves or tomatoes to let folks know they matter in your life. It truly makes all the real difference.
We mostly all start out as glorious trees. May we all slide to the finish line as satisfied stumps. Our choice.
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