An Awkward Mix-Up and a Ripe Tomato

An Awkward Mix-Up and a Ripe Tomato August 16, 2023

a platter of different sizes and colors of tomato
image via Pixabay

The first step was to coax myself to go to the food pantry.

We’ve been having a hard summer. I think things will go better once Adrienne is in school, but it’s very tight just. The utility bills were high with our hodgepodge of window air conditioners, everything was coming due at once, there wasn’t any money to spare except a handful of change in my purse. But I did have the keychain card that the food pantry had given me. Thanks to Ohio’s higher income limit on food banks and pantries, we still qualify for that.

I hate the food pantry. It embarrasses me to have to go there. But things were too tight to be choosy. I told myself I could take the handful of change to the thrift store run by the same church as the food pantry as a treat, before I turned myself in.

Steubenville used to have two thrift stores, a bad one and a pretty good one. Recently, those two stores have combined their efforts to form an excellent thrift store, and they haven’t raised the prices very much. I shop there a lot and there’s a store credit program for frequent customers.  Between the credit and my handful of change, I walked out of the thrift store with a few gently used blouses and a real leather purse, only slightly worn.

Then I snuck into the food pantry as quietly as I could. I double checked with the volunteer that we were still under the limit, as if she might call the police on me for accidentally making too much money, and I tiptoed to get my cart. This is the kind of pantry where you get a shopping cart and then walk up and down the aisles to pick out a certain number of dry goods and a certain number of perishables. But that particular day, there was almost nothing to get. Food pantries can only give away what they get donated, or what they buy with the money donated to them. On this day there was no meat at all in the meat freezer, no nuts or tuna in the dry goods, nothing but a few sacks of  flavorless shredded cheese in the dairy fridge. I was supposed to stay under ten items but I walked out with about seven: some stale bread and cereal, a few cans of flavored seltzer, an ear of corn that Lady McFluff the guinea pig would enjoy. I returned my cart silently and snuck away, still mortified.

As I drove home, I fantasized about winning the Powerball or the Publisher’s Clearinghouse. I daydreamed about taking a giant nine-figure novelty check to the bank. I thought about writing another giant check to properly fund the food pantry, but also donating a truckload of luxurious food. I would treat every poor family in Steubenville to ten items they’d never forget: steak and lobster, organic produce, name brand cereal, fussy canned soup, European chocolate.  That would be the most fun thing about being rich: always having what you’d like to eat, and always being able to spoil the poor with treats. The most frustrating thing about going through a bad spell is having nothing to share with anyone else.

At home, I weeded the garden. I examined the heirloom tomatoes, which were taking an irritating long time to ripen. Then I gave Lady McFluff her ear of corn and went upstairs to transfer the detritus from my old stained purse to the new thrift store one. I threw out a great big tangle of receipts and church bulletins. I organized my insurance cards, my debit card and my library card. I zipped everything in its proper slots, nice and neat.

I realized that I couldn’t find my driver’s license.

I tore apart my bed, thinking I’d just dropped it behind the mattress, but I hadn’t. I searched the floor around the bed, but it wasn’t there. I looked up in down the staircase in case it had tumbled out into the hall. I emptied the bathroom wastebasket where I’d just thrown out my receipts. The card had completely vanished.

Then I remembered the food pantry. I had presented my driver’s license at the door, and they had held it until I returned the cart. That’s their policy so no carts are left in the driveway where they could damage a car. But I had been so careful in quietly leaving, I hadn’t gone back to the desk to claim myID.

I started to panic, thinking I’d just lost a thirty dollar driver’s license for a two dollar purse and an ear of corn.

I got in Serendipity and floored it back to the food pantry, praying I didn’t get pulled over. When I bolted in the door, the volunteers recognized my face from the card and started laughing. “We were just about to call you! Where’s our cart?”

“I put it back without saying anything,” I panted.

They gave me back my card, joking with me in a way that wasn’t embarrassing at all.

The next week was an even worse week, financially speaking. All the bills had mushroomed into shutoff notices and I had nothing in store credit at the thrift store.  I went back downtown to get another rummage through the pantry. This time, there were cartons of strangely sized eggs in the fridge and sacks of walnuts in the dry goods. There was lots of meat, past its use-or-freeze date but carefully frozen and still good, in the freezer, and I chose some round steak to make a stir fry. There were nectarines for Adrienne and carrots for Lady McFluff in the fresh fruit section.

I took my ID back with a loud, sincere “thank you so much!” after I brought back the cart. I took the food home.

I tended my garden, which was finally full of ripe produce. I picked green beans and a great big pile of warm, vibrant heirloom tomatoes big enough to hold in two hands.  There were purple Cherokees and bright red Beefsteaks and brownish Mister Stripeys. Those tomatoes looked like something out of an Impressionist painting. They smelled like a trip to Italy. Homegrown heirloom tomatoes are better tomatoes than you can find in any grocery store. I stopped and ate one with my hands like an apple, and felt like I was in Heaven. I counted out some for dinner, and I took the rest downtown to the Friendship Room, the Catholic Worker House which serves the homeless.

I got there just as they were fixing lunch, so my offering went into the cucumber salad. I can’t buy the poor steak and lobster, but I can share really excellent tomatoes, far better than what I’d buy in a store if I were rich.

Maybe this wasn’t a bad week after all.

 

 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

 

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