California Cousins: How Tomatoes Grow and Sunday Clothes

Building GI Joe forts...not in our Sunday Clothes.  (L-R: Abby, John, Emily's legs, Jason, Matt, Tom.)

Building GI Joe forts…not in our Sunday Clothes. (L-R: Abby, John, Emily’s legs, Jason, Matt, Tom.)

“A story, a story, tell us a story,” Jules said on a crisp October morning when the sun shown delightfully warm.

“Well,” said Aunt Abby.  “I think I know just the one.”

“Is it going to be another western, Aunt Abby?” Jules asked.

“There are lots of westerns,” Constance agreed plucking a late summer flower and handing it to Imogene.

“We live in Texas, don’t we?”

Five or six heads nodded, one wasn’t sure, and one drooled on a truck.

“But today I’ll change it up.  Today isn’t a western…it’s a war story.”

“Yes, that’s perfect!” Bruce said.

“I don’t like war stories,” Jules said emphatically.

“You’ll like this one.”

“Is it gross?” Joshua asked.

Aunt Abby pondered that for a moment.  “Yes, but mostly funny.”

“Is it about us?” asked Ellie.  “I’ve never been in a war.”

“How about we find out,” Aunt Abby said.

Once upon a time, another set of cousins lived near one another.  In fact, they lived right next door to each other and shared their yards.  These cousins had no idea how tomatoes grew…or they forgot when the war started.  It was a lazy Sunday afternoon with hours to go before church.  They were all dressed in clean clothes their mothers expected them to keep clean.  Cleanliness and time are a horrible combination of circumstances for any child, and especially a group of children, to bear.

“Why aren’t they at church?” Jules asked.  “At this church, they have Sunday School in the morning, the Main Worship Service, and then everyone goes home.  Then they all come back in the evening for the evening service,” Aunt Abby explained.  “That’s strange,” said Bruce.  “Yes, it’s very strange,” Jules said.  “Odd?” Aunt Abby said with a slight sparkle in her eye.  “Very odd,” Ellie said.  “Well,” Aunt Abby explained, “not all churches have the same schedule that we do.  In fact, most of them don’t.”  “Are we odd?” Jules gasped.  “Probably just a little bit, but back to the story.”

As the cousins wondered the backyard ideas sprang up, each one wonderful, and each one shot down.  They were in their Sunday clothes.  They couldn’t make the pit in the backyard deeper.  They couldn’t play Over-the-Wall.  They couldn’t play the Gun Game: a combination of hide-and-go-seek, war, and arguing.  They couldn’t play Ghostbusters, or G.I. Joe.  No one remembered later who first said the b-word: bored.  It might have been Matt, John, or Tom in their white button up shirts and black or khaki trousers.  It might have been Abby or Emily in their matching blue dresses with a strawberry pattern.   They whispered the word at first afraid their mothers would hear.  All five of them knew exactly what would happen if they uttered the b-word.  Chores.  Even on Sunday.  Moms loved chores.

They gathered in the back backyard near Matt, Abby, and Emily’s mom’s garden.

“Abby!” Ellie said.  “Is this a story about you?” Jules said with wide-eyed wonder.  Aunt Abby smiled.  “It’s a story about me, and Bruce’s mommy, and Constance and Joshua’s daddy.”  “My Daddy is Matt,” Joshua said in case anyone was in doubt.  “What about my mommy?” Jules said.  “We didn’t know you’re mommy then, Julie-bear.”  “Daddy?” Ellie asked.  “He was too little to be there.”  “Daddy is not little.”  “He was once, and,” Aunt Abby scooped up Imogene, “Your mommy was just a baby like you.”  “Are you all related?” gasped Jules.  Aunt Abby laughed.  “Yes, that’s why you’re my nieces and nephews.  You’re the children of my brothers and sisters.”

“We could sword fight,” Matt suggested gesturing at the swords and shields littering the grass.

“We can’t sword fight in our Sunday clothes,” Emily reminded them.

“We could throw balls at each other,” John said.

“The soft ones?” Abby said.

“We could have one team with shields and one team with the balls,” Tom suggested hefting an old, wooden shield lying in the yard.

They all agreed that throwing soft balls and blocking them with shields could be both fun and not ruin their church clothes.  Matt and John ran off to get the ball bucket while Tom and the girls drew up teams.  They decided, since Matt and John weren’t there to argue, that the two girls and Tom against Matt and John was a fair division.  Tom being the oldest had a natural advantage due to age – every child knows this.  They also knew Abby and Emily’s aim wasn’t the best.  The two girls would even the odds on Tom’s age advantage.

Matt and John returned with the ball bucket, agreed to the terms and conditions of war, and the game began.  It proved only slightly less boring than doing nothing.  Trying to hit your brother, sisters, and cousins with balls and block them with shields was satisfying on a certain level.  The thunk, thunk, thunk of the balls striking the wooden shields and the occasional howl of pain as they struck a limb occupied the cousins for several minutes.  But the war needed something more…

“What about the rotten tomatoes in the garden?”

No one later admitted who first suggested the idea of the tomatoes.

“Sunday clothes,” Emily reminded them.

“We have the shields and swords, we won’t get dirty,” said John.

For once Matt agreed with John.

Abby pulled a squishy, rotten, stinking tomato from the vine and lobbed it at her brother.  It didn’t thunk when it struck the shield.  It splattered.  Tomato juice and seeds went everywhere.  This was not boring.  This was fun.

The backyard erupted into a full-out war, everyone for themselves.  They stripped the tomato vines of all their rotten occupants.  Tomato goo coated their shields.




Arms wound back and released a hail of rotten, red fruit.  Shields rose and fell protecting white shirts and hair, half-up.

“You know,” someone who remains unnamed said, “no one ever eats the green tomatoes.  We can throw those, too.”

The green ones hurt.  They didn’t splat.  They thunked harder than the soft balls.  But, that didn’t stop the war.  The two teams drove at one another armed with green tomatoes.  They clashed in the middle of the backyard shield to shield.  The cousins screamed and yelled and laughed as tomatoes flew left and right.

“What is going on?”

Everyone froze.

The cousins turned.  Matt, Abby, and Emily’s Mom stood at the edge of the backyard, hands on hips, Sunday dress clean and pressed.

“You’re Sunday clothes,” she said, stunned.

The cousins looked down.  Shields had not protected them from the tomato splatter.  Rotten tomato flesh and seeds clung to their shirts, dresses, and hair.

“My tomatoes,” Mom said.

“It’s okay, Mom,” Abby said.  “We only used the rotten ones and the green ones.  Nobody eats the green ones.”

Aunt Abby giggled and a sparkle shown in her eye.

“Is that the end?” Constance said.

“Was she mad?” Bruce asked.

Jude turned his large serious eyes up to Aunt Abby’s face.

“Grammie, you mean?” Aunt Abby said.

“Grammie’s your mom?” Jules said, her eyes wide with surprise, again, and her eyebrows arched.

“Yes, of course she is.”

“But was she mad?” Ellie asked.

“Of course she was mad.  We ruined our Sunday clothes and picked all her green tomatoes.”

“Why would she be mad?” Bruce asked.  “No one eats the green ones.”

Aunt Abby ruffled his blonde hair.  “Cause, what we didn’t know is that the green ones turn red when they’re ripe.  We picked all the unripe tomatoes.  Now none of them would ever turn red.”

Jules put her hand over her mouth.  Ellie, Bruce, Constance, and Joshua did the same.  Imogene and Jude looked from them to Aunt Abby and back before covering their own mouths with plump fingers.  Jules giggled.

“Did you get a spanking?”

“No, we didn’t.  But we did learn not to pick the green tomatoes, and not to have rotten tomato fights in our Sunday clothes.”

“Can we have another war story, but about us?” Bruce asked.

“I’m sure someday we will,” Aunt Abby said giving the whole group of nieces and nephews a hug.  “I’m sure we will.”

The End

(L-R: Joshua, Jules with her arm around Ellie, Constance, and Bruce.)

(L-R: Joshua, Jules with her arm around Ellie, Constance, and Bruce.)