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Eighty-Year-Old Tomatoes

Small conversations can have a lasting impact, leading us to learn more about the world and an appreciation for things once lost. Southern Holly is proud to present Jay F. Calhoun's memoir "Eighty-Year-Old Tomatoes" as its inaugural guest article.

by Jay F. Calhoun

The old farmhouse crowned the hill, wrapped by golden, gently sloping hayfields. From the humming road below, it called to you in soft, old tones, rolled out onto a sunny rise south of Richmond, Virginia. The large, white-painted clapboard foursquare had been home to at least five generations of the Burress family. The last of the family who’d farmed that land was standing next to me. He had lived in that house as a child, then later with his wife and mother, and though we were scheduled to demolish it, he was smiling.

He told me, “Momma always hoped f’we sold the farm it could be a hospital…or a church.” I was the construction guy hired to build that church.

After the house was dismantled and carried away, the spring rains came, the warming weather bringing a happy surprise. In the muddy square where the old home had been standing, all sorts of volunteer greenery sprouted. Most of the plants were unknown to me but the unmistakable feathery leaves of tomato plants were popping through the fallow dirt by the dozen.

On one of Mr. Burress’ visits, I asked him about how tomatoes came to be growing there. “Since the foundation of the house had been solidly bricked-in, how’d those tomatoes sneak in under that house? Possums?” I suggested, “Raccoons, maybe?”

“Oh no”, said the old man, “I guess my uncles started it.” He smiled at the look I

gave him.

“When I was a child,” he said, “the house stood up on pier-legs…stout little

brick and stone legs that carried the girder sills. It didn’t get bricked-up solid til ‘bout 1935.

“So,” I said, “the possums mighta carried the fruit in under the house b’fore 1935.”

“Nope,” he shook his head, “no critters, cause the hound-dogs allus slept under there, layed up ‘gainst the chimbly-base…twas warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I know ‘cause I had to skink-in under there as a little boy and squirt the turpentine.”


“Yup”, he grinned, “ din’t you know you keep the termites away ‘f you dose real good

‘round the piers with turpentine?”

“Not in this century you can’t,” I told him. O how he laughed at that.

“Momma used to warn all us kids ‘bout takin from the garden ‘thout permission. But we used to see my uncle Frank sneak a tomato and eat it, then he’d chunk the hull up under the house, acting all innocent-like, so we all done it too! Prolly threw hundreds of tomatoes and cucumbers up under there every summer ‘til 1935.”

“So those tomatoes are 80 years old?”

“Could be older.”

I told this story to my old friend Mr. McCall, the man who repaired our busted power

tools and sharpened our sawblades. He surprised me with his enthusiastic response.

“Can you please get me some of those?”

I was thinking it’d be easier to stop by the Ukrops Grocery if you were that fond of

tomatoes, but he explained the surprising, sad truth about what state our vegetables had come to, at the dawn of the 21st century.

GMO? I’d never heard of such.

Mr. McCall said it’d been too many years since he’d had the taste of a good ‘natchull

Virginia tomata’.

‘Organic’ and ‘Heritage’ seeds hadn’t crept into our hard-hat vocabulary, but

old Mr. McCall said he dearly wanted to taste a natural Virginia-grown tomato one more

time before he left this world.

We dug-up half a dozen of the plants and delivered them to his home. We set the

five-gallon buckets next to the black patch of earth he’d already tilled-up on the sunny side

of his house.

He waved his thank you to us from the porch, and that’s the last time I saw

Mr. McCall.

That multi-year construction project swallowed me alive, and by the time the

church was finished, he had gone ahead to be with Jesus. I never got to ask him how those

eighty-year-old tomatoes tasted.

I visited his home last week, hoping to follow-up with anyone who might remember him.

Surprisingly, it was his wife that answered the door. She is very old now, with a sure,

shuffling gait and tremulous voice but remembers the incident vividly. She couldn’t be sure, but he’d saved all the seeds in little paper packets…her eyes sparkled when she spoke of him. “That man,” she declared.


About the Author

Jay F. Calhoun is a multi-faceted fiction writer and poet living near Richmond, Virginia. He holds degrees, certificates and merit badges in Construction Management, Sculpture, Soccer, Lifesaving and Pistol Safety. His oeuvre, to date, includes published articles, essays, poems, short stories and letters to various editors, and Jay will be forever indebted to Mrs. Amy Martin, his fourth-grade teacher, who explained the meaning of run-on sentences and said his poem made her weep.

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