“Look what I found on my pillow,” squealed my daughter through a grin as wide as a number 10 can of Italian peeled tomatoes. What she found on her pillow was, in fact, a number 10 can of Italian peeled tomatoes—(that is how I knew how wide her grin was.) I smiled as well, because I had just found a smaller can of tomato paste on my dresser.
I should explain. The story may take a while and even after you hear it, it might not make any sense. The tomato can has become a tradition in my little family and, like bunnies delivering candy or children placing used teeth under pillows, it might not be at all logical to an outsider. But, here goes:
Back in 1992 I was on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, working for a summer program for teens. In a Tom Sawyer-ish deal, kids from fairly wealthy families would pay thousands of dollars to come and do community service work and outdoor adventure activities in a stunningly beautiful place. The non-profit company running the program was called Visions, and they were the ones who hired me to work the Flathead program that particular summer.
I grew up in the endless suburbs of the East Coast megalopolis and that summer was my first time in Montana. My experiences there changed me as much, or maybe even more, than they changed the kids. And as that summer came to an end, I felt very close to those teenagers and they to me. Our last night in the Salish-Kootenai College Daycare Center (where we slept) was happy and teary and emotional in the overtired, hyper way summer programs can be by their raggedy ends.
We gave the kids some space to say their goodbyes while as a staff we packed up the outdoor equipment, kitchen utensils, and leftover foodstuffs. Before the kids could break off into their picture taking, address collecting, and card playing, they had to show us that they were packed and ready to go in the morning. One girl from New Jersey had brought a duffle bag large enough to fit a full-sized United States Marine. She dragged it out of the girls’ sleeping area and left it in the pile with all the other bags.
Being something of a fan of the ridiculous, I waited until she walked away and then I promptly unzipped her bag, took a number-ten can of ketchup, hid it among her clothes, and rezipped the bag. Her bag, sans ketchup, already weighed at least 80 pounds. With the ketchup it was pushing 90. (This was in the day when airlines didn’t charge extra for heavy bags.) Within ten minutes I forgot I had even done it.
Flash forward five days. The kids had flown home via Newark Airport from Missoula. I had driven home to Delaware via Madison, Wisconsin and Boston, Massachusetts. I got to my parents’ house in Wilmington and my mom gave me a message. It was from the girl with the duffle bag and all it said was, “very funny.” I was flattered that she knew it was me who had put the ketchup in her bag. I called her back.
She told me that she was so spent by her summer in Pablo, Montana that when she got home she slept for almost twenty-four hours. As she slept, her mother opened her bag and began pulling out all the dirty clothes in order to begin making them wearable again. When mom got to the enormous can of ketchup, she could not figure out any possible scenario under which it would be reasonable for her daughter to travel 2000 miles with a year’s worth of ketchup in her already-heavy bag. So, she woke up her daughter and asked...
Flash forward again to 1995. I was back in Montana, only this time I lived there. I had recently met my wife-to-be and we were in the throes of early love. We traded stories. I liked what I heard and she liked what she heard. We traded more stories, allowing more of our real selves to come through. And still we liked what we were hearing. One of the stories Erica heard during those falling-in-love-months was about the well-traveled #10 can of ketchup.
We met in late January of 1995 and by April we were already talking about marriage. When June came I left for a summer in Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation near Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. It was to be another summer with Visions kids, doing community service work and hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We slept on the floor of the basketball court at Browning High School. When we got there I set up my little corner of the staff room and unpacked my clothes for the six-week program. There at the bottom of my suitcase, under my wool socks and raingear, I found a small can of tomato paste.
And ever since then, any canned tomato product in any unexpected place has become shorthand for, “Hey Baby. I love you very much and I am thinking about you and I want you to know it even though I can’t be with you right now.”
Our just-born romance survived that early separation and we were engaged shortly after I returned to Billings in August. In the thirteen years since, we have continued with the strategic placement of tinned tomatoes in their many and varied forms. When our daughter, Isabel, was born we pulled her into the tradition. In fact, she had no idea there was even anything odd about the practice until lately.
Now that she knows how it all started, I think she likes the fact that it is just us who do this odd thing. The grin on her face as she held that can of tomatoes told me that, even though Erica is in Chicago for a conference this weekend, my daughter got the message loud and clear—she is loved. And not just a little bit, either.