Opinion | The Primal Thrill of a Cherry Tomato

I bought the first tomato plant mostly on a whim. My husband and I had had some casual, preliminary conversations about growing vegetables this summer, but we hadn’t made an official plan when I came home with half a dozen seedlings and no idea what I was doing with them.

As city dwellers, we don’t have a backyard. We have a roof deck and a bricked-in courtyard out back. I snuggled a few of the seedlings in with a lemon-basil plant, then purchased bags of soil and pots. I put the soil in the pots, put the plants in the soil, put the pots on the roof and hoped for the best. As the family’s early riser, my husband agreed to do the watering, prompting me to quote my favorite Onion headline: “Having a Gardener Is a Wonderful Hobby.” He was skeptical. I talked a good game, but in truth, I wasn’t optimistic, either.

But the tomato plants began to grow, going from six-inch-high delicate collections of leaves to vigorous, bushy, knee-high plants. And then, one morning my husband reported that he’d seen tiny tomatoes, a cluster of eight. I went outside, and there they were, the largest ones the size of gumballs, the smallest ones no bigger than peas. We were so thrilled, you would have thought we’d won the lottery.

Encouraged by that early success, I went back to Home Depot and returned with an eggplant, a banana pepper, bell pepper plants and strawberries, cucumbers and cantaloupes. I even bought four corn plants. And more soil. And more pots.

I started to notice who else in the neighborhood was growing veggies, especially the ones doing it better (and my daughters noticed me noticing: “Look,” they’d say to visitors, “there’s the plant Mom hates.”) When we went on vacation, my husband and I seriously contemplated taking our tomato plants with us (we settled for finding someone to water them). When I went on book tour, my husband sent me pictures of the tomatoes, the way years ago he might have sent me pictures of the kids.

My husband read up on eggplants, learning that they are bisexual and that they self-pollinate, and when the first tiny one appeared, I named it baby ganoush and documented its growth on Instagram. My husband baked a tomato tart and began taking breaks out on the deck, in the chair next to the more fruitful of the two strawberry plants, plucking berries to eat while he read.

These days, with my 50th birthday looming, I think a lot about where the surprises are going to come from. Not the satisfaction, not the joy, but the unexpected delights — the didn’t-see-it-coming thrill you get from learning that your bid on the house was accepted, or that you got the job offer, or that you’re having a baby.

At my age, life doesn’t offer many firsts. It’s short on surprises, and the ones on offer aren’t pleasant. Instead of congratulations, you’re pregnant, it’s more like bad news, you need a gum graft.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t upsides to being settled down. Chances are, you’ve gained some wisdom. You’ve fallen in love, and learned that no one dies of a broken heart; you’ve fallen on your face, and found you can almost always get back up. You’ve picked a job and a partner and a place to live.

And yes, my kids are still surprising me with their insights and witticisms and the one time they made their beds without being asked. They still need me. But it’s not the same kind of need that they had when they were babies, when I was waiting to see them crawl or hunched over them as they learned to walk; when I’d walk into the baby’s room every morning feeling like I was unwrapping some fantastic and much-longed-for gift. My job as a mother has shifted from watching them grow to letting them go. My daughters are the ones with all the big reveals ahead of them — college and jobs and travel, love and heartbreak.

I know how privileged I am to have the luxury of wondering where my next joyful moment is coming from, how fortunate I am even to be able to ask, where’s the delight? I also know how lucky I am to have found my answer.

It’s the tomatoes.

As September is winding down, so is our little urban garden. We didn’t have what you’d call a bumper crop. The tomatoes and the banana pepper plants both thrived, but the eggplant yielded only three smallish fruits; my four corn plants gave us a total of five scrawny ears, and the cantaloupe vine just grows and grows and sits there, fruitless, taunting me.

We’re planning on doing better next time and maybe even starting next year’s plants from seeds. Maybe we’ll knock on that neighbor’s door and ask for his or her secrets. We’ll read up on sun and soil and mulch, we’ll file away tomato-centric recipes, we’ll add zucchini and squash and maybe even pumpkins to the mix. We’ll tend them and take pictures, enjoying the surprises as they grow.

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