First thing every morning, while coffee percolated on the stove, she would light her first cigarette and then gently, so very very gently, pat (not squeeze, never squeeze!) each tomato along the sill, to see if one or two or three might be ripe enough, might be perfect enough, to serve her family.
God forbid she’d serve a non-perfect tomato.
I thought about this after I heard the Janay Rice interview this evening. About tomatoes, of all things. Mrs. Rice is sitting on the sofa next to her mother, talking about the night of “the incident” and the fact that she has never watched the second video, the one where her husband drags her limp body out of the elevator and drops his injured, unconscious wife to the floor. I think of gentility. I think about perfection and responsibility. My grandmother and her tomatoes.
My grandmother had big strong hands, and she was often embarrassed by them — “Just like my dad’s,” she would sigh — and by the time I knew her, her hands, the knuckles of her fingers, were swollen and stiffened with arthritis. She envied the delicate nature and physicality of other women, especially her neighbors/friends, who spent their evenings with a lapful of blue or pink or yellow yarn, knitting heirloom baby blankets for newborn grandchildren. “I’m so sorry,” she would say when giving a store-bought blanket as a gift, and sometimes she would add with a forced laugh, “But this is so much prettier than anything I could every make.”
I was at a dinner recently with a large group of women, and though I forget exactly what we were talking about, I remember making this statement: “Women are always apologizing. Apologizing for themselves, for their opinions, for other people’s actions.” And at the other end of the table, a woman rolled her eyes big and said dismissively, “That’s just not true.” I stopped talking. I moved tomatoes and mushrooms and onions around my plate with the tiny tines of my fork. And I worried she was right.
I listened to Mrs. Rice say in her interview that the Baltimore Ravens — her husband’s football team, where he recently signed a $35M contract — “suggested it would be really good if” she make an apology at their news conference. Suggested she accept blame. “I do deeply regret the role that I played in the incident that night.” I looked at her, and at her mother sitting next to her on that couch, and I thought of my grandmother.
For days and days after, I wondered about the woman at the dinner. Her eye roll. “That’s just not true.” Was she right? Was it just me? I wondered what it would feel like to not feel responsible for every single thing that happens. I thought about women I see when I play sports, like on the tennis court when women say, every time they miss a ball, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I often chastise them for apologizing. “It’s just game,” I say. “Come on. No apologies! You never hear the men saying they’re sorry for missing a ball!” And yet the next thing I know I’m apologizing, too. I’m sorry. Because hey, if this game is going wrong, it must be somebody’s fault. And maybe it’s mine.
I know where I learned that.
Eons ago I wrote a short story. Back when I pretended I was writing fiction. There was this paragraph: Tomatoes were too plentiful this time of year. She lifted the hem of her dress with her left hand and gently squeezed each tomato with her right, intent on disconnecting only the softest, most mature bulbs, and placing them in the soft hammock of her skirt. Back in the kitchen, she flipped on the light over the sink and deposited her tomatoes on the counter. A few fell to the floor before she could stop them, making her feel like a failure.
I always thought that was a throwaway scene.
There are no throwaway scenes.