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.

About me


Wild in the Hollow Book Club: an Introductory video
August 28, 2015
How Right Living Was My Brokenness: a guest post from Kelly Smith
August 11, 2015
Marriage Letters: On Home
July 06, 2015
A Final Haines Home Companion: a Secret I’ve Kept
June 06, 2014
On Broken Parts in Regular Towns: Alabama, Arkansas, and Haiti
April 03, 2014
On Losing Place
September 05, 2013
How the Light Peeks Through
August 26, 2013
A Haines Home Companion: A Little Eden
March 13, 2013
A Haines Home Companion: Alter
February 22, 2013


Reply July 2, 2009

As much as I savored these words, felt them, delighted in them, I have a hunch you enjoyed them 1,000 times more :). I can't help but smile at the thought of them swirling from your brain and out of your fingers, as with a quiet grin, you read them, satisfied, on your screen.

Every time I read something like this of yours, I miss you so much my heart winces.

{And I can't help but daggum wince, too, at the stupid post title showing up below; off to finish the one I wrote--and lost :(--last night!}


Robin ~ PENSIEVE’s last blog post..Onion Pie, Tonguegasms & a Tasty Giveaway

Reply July 2, 2009

You make me want to go back to those days on Columbus Lane. This was so vivid...I cried. Florence was an awesome lady.

Megan @ Hold it Up to the Light
Reply July 2, 2009

I love that. I have memories like that, but they will stay in my head....I don't have that gift you do, but I can dream!

Megan @ Hold it Up to the Light’s last blog post..Wordful Wednesday.....

Ashley Shaver
Reply July 2, 2009

Oh, Amber, I loved this one. I went there with you this morning, all the way back to my MammaConnie's Louisiana kitchen and my Great Grandmother's screened-in front porch down the turn row.

Reply July 2, 2009

I always feel like I'm reading from a book of literature for my English class when I read your stories. Those were my favorite classes when I was an English Lit major.

I adore the whole story, but the first paragraph had to be my favorite. When we grow tomatoes, I'll go out to touch the leaves just to get that green smell on my fingers, and I'll smell it for hours.

brittney’s last blog post..Would You do this?

Reply July 2, 2009

Florence sounds very peculiar, yet like your favorite, worn-out military jacket from the local thrift store. Thanks for sharing your memories. They are sometimes prose, but ALWAYS poetry.

Minnesotamom’s last blog post..2009 Goals Update 07.02.09

Reply July 2, 2009
Reply July 2, 2009

After reading this entry, I had to go out to the garden and tie up some tomato plants. The desire to get that smell on me was overwhelming (and way more appealing than reading psychological research). I like how the smell of the tomato plants has mixed with the smell of the sweet basil planted next to it. Mmmmm. Thanks.

Reply July 2, 2009

woah. this one's a keeper, amber.

Lora Lynn
Reply July 2, 2009

"Some smells are a happy stain on memories I write so they won’t soon wash away."

Oooo, good one.

Lora Lynn’s last blog post..A Red Hat Tour of San Francisco

Ann Voskamp @ Holy Experience
Reply July 2, 2009

I read quiet and think long, old seeds swelling with stories.
Word soil does that.

Ann Voskamp @ Holy Experience’s last blog post..Old Love

Reply July 2, 2009

damn, damn, sweet lady. that's good.

angela’s last blog post..Driving With the Window Down

Reply July 3, 2009

I kept "hearing " your words in my tired head last night, soothing with their song of life and love and colour.
Thank you for gifting a poem to a rainy soul.

Reply July 4, 2009

Love the last sentence and the rest of it.

Ann Kroeker
Reply July 6, 2009

Reading this, and having recently read Flannery O'Connor, and having been challenged by Seth to write about the Midwest, I suspect the South simply has more "characters." Although ... Haven Kimmel wrote some awesome memoirs about life in small town Indiana. She's about my age, she's from Indiana, and her books were packed with "characters," so maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm just from the plain vanilla parts of the state.

I've been thinking about Seth's challenge to write reflections on life in the Midwest or the north, whatever we are here in Indiana, the Crossroads of America. Hoosiers, I fear, are famous for being so humble about our state that we don't take any pride or interest in it.

But I read this and think, "Surely I've met someone I could immortalize (is that the right word?) in a blog post? Surely?"

Ann Kroeker’s last blog post..Make-Do Mondays: Watch Band Clasp

Reply July 6, 2009

YES, ANN, SURELY! I would love it. Listen. Vanilla ice cream is my favorite. It is my all time very very favorite. Make it vanilla in all its glory.

Aunt Pam
Reply July 7, 2009

Amber...I'm behind on my readings...you made me cry. I miss her so. I could see her just like it was yesterday. She use to make me cocoa and brown sugar and put it in one of her old tin cans that use to store her snuff and make me a "tooth brush" as she called it to dip my snuff with... She would keep me when mom and dad went on trips. She was a good woman and could work harder than anyone I knew. She would milk our cow and make us homemade butter. Notw that was a real treat!! Thank you for sharing her and keeping her alive in my memory.

Reply July 7, 2009

Darling Amber, I can't even write eloquently enough to comment.
You have such an amazing gift..

Thank you for sharing it with us.

rachel-asouthernfairytale’s last blog post..Almost Pasta Carbonara

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *