Even so, there were a couple of fascinating aspects of his personality that are good memories. He allowed me to observe silently two of his most revered rituals: Rolling a smoke and eating a tomato. I must have known he was bestowing a gift by allowing me this. No word was spoken between us during either of these long, slow, methodical, never varying rituals.
Grandma hated his smoking. Smoking wasn't a correct religious behavior. He had to smoke outside, which for health reasons was kindness to his family. He died of emphysema, miserably and tortuously drowning, unable to take a last restful breath. His last hours were panic stricken like he was being held under water.
But even though his smoking ritual caused a horrifying death, the ritual itself was refined, delicate and artistic in a way. He had a pouch full of loose, wonderful smelling tobacco and onionskin-thin smoking papers. With one hand he would pinch the precise amount of tobacco onto the square paper in his other hand. He had the amount perfect every time, never adding or taking any away. He would manipulate it evenly into a small sausage shape the length of the paper, somehow getting it to hold still and keep it's shape while he rolled it up, snugging and keeping the tension in the paper. Licking along the end he would finish wrapping and sealing it. Then he would tap it gently on end. I always wanted to ask him what made it stick. I'll never know, because my silence was the golden ticket to having the privilege of watching the next time.
When summer ripened the tomatoes, I would hope against hope to catch him eating one. He never offered me my own, nor did he offer me a bite. He acted as if I was invisible while I perched on the chair with my chin on my arms and eyes wide. It was a treat to watch; each time I thought the tomato was very fortunate to be chosen and given such honor and patronage.
He would get 2 saucers, one for the tomato and one to eat the tomato. A fork, serrated knife, sugar bowl with spoon and the jar of mayonnaise was ceremoniously arranged in front of him. He wasn't a praying man or a thankful man, but he would always quietly pause for this invisible rhythm only he felt before picking up the tomato. It was a grand, perfectly ripe one, pretty enough to paint, hand picked on purpose for the occasion. Since I wasn't there all the time, I often wondered how often he indulged. Every day, once a day? Once a week? More than once a day?
First, he would slice off the top and bottom, neatly discarding them to keep the vignette he had created pure. Then slowly he would take a not-to-thin, not-to-thick slice and lay it on his saucer. It would get frosted with mayonnaise, then evenly sprinkled with sugar. Using his knife and fork he would delicately cut it like a tender steak and slowly savor every bite, pause, then do exactly the same with the next slice. Like rolling a smoke, the ritual never varied.
I don't remember grandpa ever acting happy, smiling or enjoying anything. Yet when he did these two things it did seem like he was experiencing pleasure, some how, some way. I sure enjoyed it and knew instinctively that he was silently inviting me inside to enjoy it with him.
When our tomatoes get ripe, I might try to re-capture his pleasure, somehow try to encapsulate summer, pause and really see it, ingest it slowly, invent my own rituals to remember and enjoy the essence. Ripe tomatoes mean summer.....