I must have smelled the scent of a tomato vine stem at least a thousand times in my life, in so many different places throughout my life, but it only ever conjures up one memory.
Standing at the kitchen sink, tearing the sun-ripened tomatoes off the vine, the smell hits me in the guts every time, green, fresh and sharp, yet somehow dusty. It transports me across oceans and back in time, to the garden of family friends.
The daughters of the family were about my age; we visited them almost every summer during my childhood. They lived out in the Australian bush; we always drove, and it took about a day to get there. There is a scene in the Australian episode of The Simpsons where Bart rides his bike to the neighbors’ house, which is so far away down the dirt road that it cannot be seen. Their place was like that.
The garden was a leafy enclave of trees, tomato vines and strawberry plants under the trees next to the house. Guinea pigs were kept there, periodically replaced when eaten by marauding goannas. Dishes of wheat germ left out for the guinea pigs attracted bees, who rolled in it, drunkenly ecstatic. We never did find out why it made them so crazy.
The house they lived in was under progress for as long as I can remember; when I was very young, the toilet was an outhouse (or “dunny”) containing half an oil drum with a toilet seat on top, filled with dirt, a literal “earth closet.” You had to walk around the dam and over several large bull-ant hills in the red dirt to get there; because of the smell, they didn’t want it near the house. You did your business, shoveled some more dirt in, and went back around the dam and over the anthills. The family, even the smallest child, did this in bare feet because they were badasses. I wore thongs (or flip-flops, as Americans call them), because I was a soft city child.
At night, you’d just sneak out into the yard and have a quick wee under the stars, if you didn’t need to poop, because it was frankly a bit of a long walk, and there were snakes and spiders and all the creatures of the bush that can kill you before you notice you’ve even been bitten. If you did need to poop, you’d take a flashlight out with you to the outhouse. Eventually they got a normal toilet, set throne-like on a large concrete slab next to the main house… and about a year after that, walls around it.
Large green tree frogs would join you in the shower, where it was nice and humid. Tiny brown frogs would hop into the house and under the wardrobe, and their tiny toes would have to be tenderly untangled from dust bunnies. For a couple of years, there was a wallaby that came right up to the back door looking for food. Once, the mother of the family killed a scorpion with a broom because it was headed right for the baby.
People who aren’t Australian, I think, sometimes assume that this life out in the bush is how most Australians live, with kangaroos and kookaburras just dropping by, and everyone wrestling crocodiles on their way to school. Either that, or the red dust and deserts of the Outback, popularized in the international imagination by our own Baz Luhrmann in Australia.
The truth is much more boring. Most Australians live in cities, and I was no exception. If it wasn’t for visiting our friends, the only wallaby I would have ever seen would have been the ones in the zoo. In my city there were screeching cockatoos, occasionally laughing kookaburras, and very rarely an adorable little possum (Ed. note — nothing about possums are adorable) if you grew something edible in your garden, but none of the larger animals. My brother is living up in the Northern Territory now, and the photographs he takes of spiky little lizards and moonscape style rock formations are as exotic to me as they would be to any of you, yet oddly familiar, because every Australian schoolchild knows all the creatures of the bush just as you know of the coyote and the roadrunner – even if you grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn.
The big dam, further from the house, was large enough and deep enough to swim in, unlike the little dam in front of the house. The mud on the banks of the dam housed burrowing bees that would sting you between your toes if you were less than careful about where you stepped, and the slimy, silty mud in the dam itself was filled with giant leeches, brown and black and sometimes tiger-striped; stir up the mud by striding into the water and you’d soon feel a familiar dreadful itch on your ankle as one or more attached itself. Maybe they weren’t even that big, but I remember them as being at least 3 or 4 inches long; certainly most of them were as big and fatter than my fingers. And yet we swam almost every day, because it was too hot not to, and what else would we do?
Their house was too far from the nearest town for us children to venture there by ourselves, so we’d occasionally cajole an adult into driving us into town. Even a trip to the supermarket could be the highlight of one of those long, hot days. We’d buy lollies, Diet Coke, and yoghurt, which we’d freeze in ice cube trays and eat like ice cream. But candy, yoghurt, and Diet Coke don’t bring up any of the same deep sense memories that the smell of fresh tomato stem does.
I lost touch with those girls later, when family vacations went by the wayside – my parents split up, and then adolescence meant I had my own plans and my own agenda. Recently I reconnected with them over Facebook, and it’s been sort of humbling to realize what a jerk I was for letting that connection lapse in the first place. And now every time I wash the tomatoes and tear them from their stems I think about these women, who are old friends and new at the same time.