In the garden after I shake hands with a tomato leaf to see what developed overnight, I’ll walk away breathing the smell from my green fingers and carry a tomato in my shirt. Some smells are a happy stain on memories I write so they won’t soon wash away.
Our front-door neighbor was Florence Caldwell, a woman who may as well have been 110 years old when I was five. Her hair had grown to her calves. She kept it tight in a nickel-sized ball on her head. She wore polyester dresses to her knees and stockings rolled down in rings at her ankles.
Clarence, her ancient brother, lived with her, and he smoked like a burn barrel full of cedar. There winters were all canned foods and wood stove, siblings huddled with afghans next to their spittoons, drinking the warm liquors. They sucked hard swirly candy from a rainbow tin and let us eat the peppermint sticks that melt in your mouth. Florence liked to eat a peppermint on a cracker.
In the Summertime, when the lawn mowers and tractors and trucks from the asphalt plant seemed at their height, Florence and Clarence endured the Alabama heat on the front porch, one rocker forward while the other swung back. She kept a fly-swat in one hand and a paper hand fan in the other. Hornets the size of my head and yellow-jacket families drew in to the smell of snuff. She would ask us to get her a stick off her snuff tree. We’d deliver, and she would wet it, dip it in the sweet tin, and let it sit in her mouth between her lip and her gums.
I’ve imagined her a slightly masculine younger woman, overalls and work boots, but her demeanor was as gentle as her quiet garden bonnet. In the early of a day, she watered and hoed, and then picking up the tail of her dress, would carry in loads of tomatoes, okra, squash, and peas. She’d call us over to snap something or shuck something else, and we’d oblige for a taste from one of her tins.
Color mounded her table and counter space. Steam always rose from pots. A hundred jars kettled tight, clinked, singing. The smell of canned tomatoes poured sideways, around the big oak, into my whistling bedroom windows. The smell could wake me up.
When I left for college, to move into that cinder block pepto-pink dorm room, and Florence sent me with four large jars of vegetable soup, she never seemed a day older. When the jar popped open, it echoed.
I’ll never eat vegetable soup that good again with the taste of green, the way a soup can take on the smell of heirloom, the seeds and all, especially of the sweet bruised production. Sometimes a hot red pepper would land and burn until purple hulls doused it down.
I ate and lived hard, and somewhere in there, Florence left, and I don’t know where she went with her soul body or that soup recipe, either one.