In the summer of 2002, I was fresh out of college with my bachelor’s degree. I was working a full-time job at a local non-profit during the day. Steven was working second shift at Virco, full-time. Alex was just a couple months shy of being two years old. We decided to try working opposite shifts so that Alex could be with us and not have to go to any kind of daycare. We both felt like as long as that was doable for us, that was what we would prefer to do. That summer, despite our best efforts, we ended up with a 2-hour gap in childcare.
I was fortunate that a good friend of mine, Sarah, lived about a block from the place I worked. She had a child Alex’s age, and was willing to help us out by keeping him for a couple hours between our shifts. It worked for me because I knew and trusted her, and it was only a short amount of time each day. Steven would drop him off on his way to work and I would pick him up on my way home.
When I went to Sarah’s house, we would often just sit and talk for a while before I’d pack him up and go home. We had gone to college together and had babies together, so we had a lot in common. She was experimenting in growing some vegetables in her home garden. She was generous in sharing her home-grown goods, and I was especially fond of her tomatoes.
I liked tomatoes before I ever had the ones she grew, but something about that summer made those tomatoes delicious on a level I frankly hadn’t known existed. Alex wasn’t a picky eater as a toddler. I remember sitting him up on my kitchen counter at home later that night. I sliced up those fresh tomatoes and he watched me, curious. I gave him a little wedge of tomato and watched him devour it. He stuck his hand out for more and I smiled at my little tomato-friend. While I stood by him, we ate as many of them as we could handle. They had a flavor that was spot-on.
One afternoon when I’d left work, I hadn’t been in a good mood. That job I was working back then put me through the ringer and tested me in ways I was not prepared for. The day had been one of epic test failure. When I got to Sarah’s house she had been cooking. “I made macaroni and tomatoes” she said, “Do you want some?” I answered her with a definite “Yes!” My Mema used to make macaroni with tomatoes and I’d always enjoyed that dish. Pasta seemed like an appropriate response to the troubles of the day.
Sarah served us up some elbow macaroni with her own fresh stewed tomatoes. We sat down together with our toddlers in the middle of the afternoon and ate. The dish was phenomenal. It was simple. There wasn’t a lot of magic to it, other than the kind that came from a well-tended homegrown plant and fresh ingredients. I cannot remember if I told her that day just how much I enjoyed that brief meal we had at her kitchen table.
Over the years, I’ve had elbow macaroni and tomatoes a zillion times. Every time I have made it, I have added whatever I could think of to boost the flavor. I am still always searching, chasing a version of it that comes somewhere close to what we had that afternoon in her kitchen. Most of the time, I fall short.
Eventually I was fired from that terrible job, while on a business trip to Washington, D.C. My boss said to me, “I think you need to find a job that is one-task oriented.” I never did succeed in finding any job that was one-task oriented. I guess the lesson in that whole experience was not to let my failures dictate my future. The single best thing that happened the whole time I worked there was that I got to see Sarah when I got off work and test out her tomatoes.
I never quit chasing the perfect tomatoes. They’re out there. I’ll find them.