Tricky Tomato Tussles
Jack Herbert Read was born in 1913 and lived a thoroughly decent life. He died three years ago aged ninety two and it seems to me that the world still has a tiny gap in it where it was previously filled with the soul of a genuine noble man.
That man was my grandfather and he still remains a huge positive influence in my own life. If I could have possibly inherited at least 2% of his generosity, intellect and spirit I'll consider myself extremely lucky.
In the last couple of years of his life, his physical frailty far outweighed any deterioration of his mind. On occasion he would get a bit irritable which, for Jack, was akin to Pamela Anderson wearing a polo neck and sensible shoes - extremely rare indeed.
After a lifetime of growing his own vegetables and fruit and tending a beautiful garden it was a real wrench for him to give all of that up for the sake of his health when he moved into an aged care facility. However it didn't take the staff long to notice just how green his thumbs were.
On his daily walks to the post box and back (he was a big believer in regular, hand-written letters to his adult children each week) he would invariably end up pilfering a few cuttings from plants that he had admired on the way. Many of these prospered in little styrofoam cups the staff 'found' for him, filled up with dirt and put on a daggy old formica table in the retirement village's courtyard. His success rate was high and he gave the best of those to my mother to sell at her local church fund-raiser.
After a few months of this, Jack sought more. His green thumbs were still green, despite the rest of his body being far less so. A half wine barrel was found, and he patiently planted a few tomato seeds left over from one of his salad sandwich lunches. Before long it was a seedling, then a plant and then an eight foot high 'tree' that was a feature article in the local newspaper.
This tomato tree was heavily laden with the most red, juicy, flavoursome and organic tomatoes. It was admired by all residents who:
a) were still able walk to the side courtyard;
b) still possessed the mental capacity to recognise a real tomato when they saw one; and
c) whose digestive tracts remained in relatively reliable working order.
When these red beauties were perfectly ripe, Grandpa gave the kitchen staff as many of them as he could spare. They were either enjoyed immediately, without adornment like a ripe peach by staff and residents alike or made it into many of the kitchen's meals.
The legend of the tomato tree grew, and its fruits benefited everyone. Everyone, that is, except Dulcie from Room 27. Jack and Dulcie were at war, and he did not believe that she deserved any of the spoils over which he had successfully laboured. Dulcie was as deaf as a Council Complaints Service Counter Operator yet liked to watch her television and listen to 78s and 33s on her record player.
Naturally, she was not the only one in the retirement home with this disability, and all rooms were appropriately built with solid brick walls and sound-proofed doors. Despite these measures, Dulcie insisted on leaving her door open at all times and liked to immerse herself in her aural entertainments way past bedtime (ie 7pm for some folk or 11pm for my grandpa).
After a few nights of Benny Hinn's Ministries at top volume or the Ray Conniff Singers' on steady rotation, Grandpa thought it necessary to have a quiet word with the head of nursing. Could Dulcie keep her door shut so that he and the others could enjoy a peaceful night's sleep?
Dulcie did not take the intervention at all well, the nurse reported later. She had apparently rubbed her hands through her grey stubbly beard, harrumphed a bit and yelled (thinking she was actually replying in a soft voice), "But I WANT the door open - I don't want to be shut in!" When reminded by the head nurse about how her nocturnal noises were disturbing the others, she retorted, "But you can HARDLY HEAR IT," and, predictably, the suggestion of an earlier bed time went down about as well as a hedgehog through a paper straw.
A few more nights of sleepless suffering later, Grandpa tried again. "You can tell that JACK READ that I'm NOT going to shut my door or BE QUIET! He has that stupid clock that bongs like Big Ben every quarter of an hour, so why should I have to KEEP MY NOISE DOWN?"
Suitably chastened, Grandpa swaddled his clock, a wedding gift from the 1930s, in a woollen blanket to dull the chimes. It would have felt completely strange to him if he had been forced to live in the retirement home without his trusty mantel timepiece. He also decided to visit Dulcie and see if he could talk some sense and consideration into her.
Details become sketchy at this point, but I suspect that Grandpa's comment, "I'm not giving her one single crummy tomato unless I get to fling it at her," meant that she might have told him to go and find a romantic interlude at another location. Their feud notwithstanding and despite her deafness, Dulcie had already heard about Jack's famous tomatoes and seen some on proud display in many plates and fruit bowls in her friends' rooms. Her mouth was watering, and not just because she drooled intermittently when she slept. She made it known to the night nurse that she too would like a tomato or three, but Grandpa was adamant that she could "go jump in the lake."
This shocked us all; his entire family of children, grand children and great grand children. How could dear old Jack, the personification of a decent, kindly, Christian man, broad-minded to the end, be so cranky and so, well, non-Jack like? The night nurse again asked Jack for a tomato that she could pass on to Dulcie. "She knows what she has to in order to get one - just shut her door," he replied firmly. No doubt the nurse was in agreement and was not enjoying being the intermediary between two nitpicky ninety-somethings.
It all worked out well in the end. Dulcie didn't shut her door but got herself a fancy new-fangled set of TV and record player-friendly head-phones and Grandpa shared his tomatoes with her. Via the nurse, of course.
God I miss him.
This and a few other of my reminiscences are at the ABC website - Making of Modern Australia - search for 'kathlock' and vote. With kindness. Please?