The Year of the Rat

I’m trying to think of how to explain this without using the word passionate, because I’m pretty sure it’s not possible to say ” I am passionate about home grown tomatoes” without sounding douchey.  Maybe I should just bite the bullet and go whole hog.

Ok.  Picture the following statement accompanied by one of those over used shots where the tomato I am holding is in focus but the rest of me is artfully blurred.  Got it?

I am a total passionate douchebag when it comes to home grown tomatoes.  Someone once told me that all over Italy, old women grow gardens full of nothing but dahlias and tomatoes.  These are two of my favorite things.  This became my dream.

And when we lived in Nebraska I thought about planting a garden, but we didn’t own that house and we didn’t have any extra money for things like rakes and compost, and we didn’t know how long we’d be staying there, so I ate other people’s home grown tomatoes as caprese salad with a side of bitter for not having grown them myself.

Then we moved to California and we still didn’t own our house, and I thought about planting a garden but we had a new baby and the right time to plant slipped us by, and it seemed strangely inappropriate to announce “I hate this place” right off the bat, but Mr. E and I both really hated Redding and I don’t think we wanted to put down roots.  Literally.

Then we moved to Sacramento, and we bought a house, and when we moved here, in June, we piled all of our stuff, hundreds of cardboard boxes, in the backyard and I was understandably nervous about what might happen to all of our crap when it rained.  Until Mr. E explained that it wasn’t going to rain.  It wasn’t going to rain until September.  Maybe October.  It was going to be hot as hell for a wicked long time and then it was going to be hot some more.  And then it would be hot again.

And then I knew that I had found my spiritual home and it was time to plant, and the following spring, armed with my Burpee catalog and some seed trays, I became a gardener.

I planted 24 tomato plants and I worried that I wouldn’t have enough tomatoes.  I fretted over those plants and I nursed them along until they were taller than I was.  I almost murdered my dog when she crushed a few of them while exhibiting the tremendous stupidity she’s wildly famous for, and then finally my beloved late ripening Brandywines started pinking up and I spent hours out there every day, watering and waxing rhapsodic about the smell of tomato leaves, stacking up whole laundry baskets full of tomatoes and eating a few of them fresh every day for lunch, still warm from the sun.  And I loved every freaking minute of it.

We grew some cherry tomatoes and some yellow tomatoes but the star of the show, at least in my backyard, were my Brandywines, a giant pinkish heirloom tomato that is purported to be the best tasting tomato ever grown.  I canned them and froze them and served them to bloggers and eventually even I was kind of sick of them, and that’s when it really gets magical – when you’ve eaten so damn many fresh summer tomatoes that you are dreaming of fall, when summer starts to ooze from your pores and run from your mouth and you’re just as full up of it as you can stand. This is what you have to do to get through February.  It’s your store for the winter, your hibernation plan.

This year, when we they pimped my yard, the tomatoes were already in the ground.  I’d started them early and planted them early, only to rage against the weather when god said ha and sent down a hailstorm.  I almost told the yard pimpers to take a hike, in fact, because I didn’t want to displace my beloved tomatoes and I swear to god I’d rather have 24 tomato plants going strong than a fabulous back yard, I really absolutely would, but somehow I couldn’t say no to a free back yard and the designer, thank goodness, got my “I NEED A PLACE FOR MY TOMATOES” message and added in a garden box to the yard pimp plan.  And  I dug up the tomato plants and saved them in cardboard boxes in the shade and then replanted them, and some of them lived and I tried not to obsess about “SAVING THE TOMATOES” because indeed, there is always next year.  This is the year I got a free yard, maybe this is not the year of Tomatopalooza, but there is always next year.

And then came the rats.

The tomatoes grew and grew but the Summer of 2010 came after a cold, wet, craptacular spring and still wasn’t very hot, and SOMEONE left an entire bag of birdseed in the disaster that was our garage after Turf Wars, and the World’s Dumbest Dog started to get very interested in the back section of the yard over by the garage and by the time we started cleaning out the garage, our neighborhood was overrun by rats.

I hate rats. I really really really hate rats.

But it turns out rats LOVE tomatoes.

It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that something was eating the tomatoes.  Ripe ones, ones I was leaving on the vine for one more day to achieve maximum tomato perfection, would disappear entirely.  Unripe ones would be gnawed in half, and so the debate began – rats or squirrels?  We weren’t sure, but then one day the Worlds Dumbest Dog got very interested in the garden box and would not stop leaping into it and it turned out there was an ENTIRE LIVE RAT SITTING IN THE GARDEN BOX ON TOP OF A TOMATO CAGE.


The internet, in this case, has failed me.  I have googled the shit out of “rats are eating my tomatoes how do I get rid of these bastards” and most of what turns up can be summed up as “sucks to be you better luck next time” and that day? That day we found the live rat and the half chewed tomatoes and then couldn’t find a solution to “rats are eating my tomatoes?”.  That was not a good day.

And I started to get mad.  I started to get really really mad, and I needed to figure out where to put that rage.  I wanted to break something. I wanted to yell. I wanted to blame Mr. E.  I wanted to un-do my new yard.  I was so mad I wanted to implement some kind of fire bomb system and wipe the entire world of all vermin ever created.

And then somewhere under all that rage, I had what I can only think of as an honest to god self help moment, and I realized something.

I was getting mad because it was safe.  I was chunneling up anger, flinging all this anger mud up, because it felt like power. It felt like doing something.  It felt like the opposite of weak.  Getting mad made me feel strong.  But it wasn’t a healthy way to be, and it sucked for everyone else, and all this anger and all this rage? It was just a smoke screen.  Because really?  Really?  I was sad.

I was sad that something was eating my tomatoes, my beloved tomatoes.  And I didn’t want to be sad, because sad felt weak.  Sad felt like defeat.  Sad felt like failure, and sad felt embarrassing, like everyone would see these weak feelings just leaking out of me and pity me.

But I have learned the hard way that creating rage instead of admitting my actual feelings leads to nothing good, and so I sat in the glider in Eli’s room and I rocked my four week old baby girl and as Mr. E stood in the door way I took a deep breath, and I FELT SAD.  And then I started to talk and to cry at the same time, and I said ” I am very sad about my tomatoes.  This is something that is so important to me.  It’s something I love to do. It something I am good at.  It’s one of the things that I love most about summer.  It’s something really fun that Eli and I did together last year, and it’s being ruined, and I am really sad.”

And I sat there, and I felt it. I really felt it.  And I cried. I cried, and some tears dripped onto Lightning’s head, and then I wiped them away, and then I stood up, and I moved on.

We bought some rat traps.  That rat sitting in the garden box…did not live, let’s put it that way.  And some tomatoes have been eaten by rats and some escape and some get picked early and ripen on my windowsill.  And I’ve commiserated with my neighbors and bought yet more traps and googled “snub nosed 45” and for awhile there I actually considered getting ANOTHER DOG.  It’s a battle we just fight one day at a time.  Us versus the rats.

In the mean time, I am waiting for the Brandywines to ripen. I harbor a secret fantasy that rats do not like Brandywines.  And I am planning next year’s tomatoes.  I am hoping for a really hot summer so maybe we aren’t overrun with vermin for second year in a row.  I am eating cornbread and tomato salad for dinner made from the tomatoes that the rats don’t get, and I’m waiting for that moment when I’ve given away all the tomatoes I can give away and I never want to see another caprese salad for as long as I live and I’m hot as balls from canning tomatoes on the hottest day of the year and I can feel that the tomato saturation level has reached high enough to get me through another February.

Most of all, I am learning my lesson from the Year of the Rat.  That sometimes it is ok to feel.  That sometimes saying to someone you love “I am sad” isn’t as scary as you might think.  That letting it out means maybe it will fade away, instead of boiling up.  And that maybe sometimes strong can mean tears, not smashing plates.

And so, we fight on, to save a tomato for another day!  Viva la revolution!


16 Responses

  1. This was inspirational. Thank you.

  2. I am proud of you. Um, I mean this lovingly, but we both know that we’re both more of the uh, demonstrative types when it comes to anger, and I think it kicks ass that you were able to just admit that you were sad about losing something that brought you so much joy.

    That said, when I told Andrew you were growing tomatoes, he said he would like to eat your tomatoes like apples. And while that sounds horrifically sexual, he just really loves tomatoes. Also, this will give you two something to do while me and E smoke and go to shows. WIN!

  3. “This is what you have to do to get through February. It’s your store for the winter, your hibernation plan.”

    this. THIS. I try and try to explain to people why I love this summer, heat wave and no A/C and scorching sun and humidity and all: it’s because I’m storing up for February, dammit.

    p.s. jealous of your tomatoes- our garden, as usual, is an utter fail. =)

  4. Will you share your favorite tomato canning recipes?? My tomatoes are just starting to ripen like crazy…picked about 10 large ones today and there are at least that many to be picked tomorrow! Sorry to hear about the rats–that must be so frustrating!

  5. If I’d seen a rat I probably would have vomited on the spot. I mean, I nearly did that just reading this post. This is the measure of my tomato empathy.

  6. This is beautiful, which surprises me to say because rats give me the heebie jeebies. But I love the way you weave a story.

    Also – and I don’t know if this will make you feel better or worse, but my intent is BETTER – but I saw on the news last night that people have had rats coming out of their DRAINS, like in the bathroom, as in Urban Legend Horror Come to Life.

    Which really? Would make me move.

    P.S. I don’t think you are a tomato douche in the least. And I really wish I liked tomatoes, because you make them seem magical.

  7. This was an amazing, brilliant post… I loved it. There is nothing douchey about a love of tomatoes – in fact, I think that there is magic in growing plants too, and if that makes me a douche then I’m happy to be one.

    (Of course, I don’t actually have much of the plant-growing magic in my body, but I can only imagine the regret and sadness if I were actually GOOD at it all… damn the rats!)

  8. You had me at tomatoes, but I shouted at really FEELING sadness. That is precisely what I’ve been struggling with lately. It’s so incredibly difficult because it feels like ceding control.

  9. This is really beautiful. I’ve been feeling sad and it’s been coming out as anger. Because anger has a lot more power than tears. Thanks for reminding me that tears can be strong too.

  10. I loved this, Elizabeth.

  11. You had me at “snub nosed 45.” Thanks for posting this. Sometimes I need to hear that it’s ok to be sad.

  12. Beautiful. And so true. Thank you.

  13. What about building a little greenhouse over the garden box? Longer growing season too!

  14. This post is everything I love about you and your blog.

  15. I love the way this post is written – though I’m sorry you had to go through the rat/tomato saga for it!

  16. I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle right now, and last night I read the chapter about the tomatoes…and between that and reading this post (which is just beautiful), I really really wish I liked tomatoes. I mean, I like tomato sauce and ketchup, but not just big, beautiful tomatoes right from the garden with a little salt and pepper. But alas, it is not to be.

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