The Mystery at the Center

During the summer before sixth grade, I watered the tomatoes in my mother’s large garden next to the chicken house, reading a Hardy Boys mystery as I slouched in a lawn chair and waited to move the hose to the next plant.

The plants were several feet high, staked and arranged in two long rows.   They produced pounds and pounds of succulent red fruit which we ate as thick fresh slices, sometimes with all three meals in a single day.

This year I added a single tomato plant to my own herb garden–featured in the photo above and the one below, the center of my larger in-progress garden behind the house–and its distinctive tomato smell carries me back through the decades to that summer, to the companionship of my mother, and to the fictional adventures of Joe and Frank Hardy.


I would check out seven Hardy boys books from the library and return them the following week to check out seven more.  I would peel and slice tomatoes for lunch, and I would perspire from the heat in the kitchen as Mother canned tomatoes for winter’s use.  I would dutifully practice piano for fifteen long minutes per day and then head for the outdoors, free from that drudgery for another twenty-four hours.

Reading and caring for plants are abiding passions for me; they are connected somewhere in my neural pathways to that summer and to being a content eleven-year-old, with my only responsibility the watering of a garden.

This week as I watered, I noticed the largest tomato of the season half-eaten and, along with its smaller partner, sheared off the vine and lying incongruously in the artemisia:


Here in the Texas hill country, the likeliest culprit is a raccoon.

I may need to live-trap and relocate him if I lose more tomatoes.  I don’t mind sharing, but I am, after all, my mother’s daughter–I am deeply uneasy about the wasting of the extra half of that big tomato.  The smaller one is slowly ripening on my kitchen windowsill.

Heavy though it is, the top of a limestone bird bath was knocked off its base the same night:


Who done it?

I suspect it’s the same rascal who has been matting down the yarrow and tunneling in the lavender although that could have been done by an armadillo.

And evidence shows the same bandit-masked creature probably has been using this dripping birdbath basin to “wash” its leather-palmed paws:


But it’s all just amateur sleuthing and supposition on my part; I don’t really know how many or what kinds of creatures might be marauding in the garden while I sleep.

If the saying “As is the gardener, so is the garden” is true, then I must have a mystery at my center as well as in my garden.

And I do:  I feel the mystery of life itself, its complexities and wonders, its joys and sorrows, its brevity.

There is the mystery of time and how it folds and unfolds, how it curls backward in memory and allows me to feel my mother’s presence, her age a decade younger than I am now.

And there’s the mystery at the center; there is today.

Writing Practice:

What smells take you back to a time in your childhood?

What books did you read as a child and how are you reminded of them today?

10 thoughts on “The Mystery at the Center

  1. I read nancy drew all the time! And camped on the Brazos River at El Tesoro….. My garden for life! Love the mystery at the center……

  2. Thanks Chris for taking me back all of those years to my Grandmother’s garden. I can see her bent, holding up the hem of her house dress to gather the abundance.

  3. What a wonderful story you weave, Chris…watering plants, tomatoes, Hardy Boys, gardens, tomatoes, midnight marauders, gardens, birdbaths & dripping basins, tomatoes! Thanks for the memories…they take me back to my grandmother’s farm in Arkansas and that incredible red dirt that seemed to grow everything – including grandkids!

    • Thank you, Anne. It’s interesting to me how our minds sort and store experiences. The smell of tomatoes will always invoke the Hardy Boys Mystery series for me. I love that red dirt in Arkansas!

  4. My mom grew a huge garden and we canned and froze all that we didn’t eat right off the vine. I can still taste her wonderful fried chicken served with fresh corn and tomatoes. She would make huge mid-day meals for the haying crews and some of boys were
    bottomless pits.
    Because we lived out in the country, I saw few other
    young people other than my brothers from the time school let out in June, until it began again in September. The library in our small town was my
    lifeline. My mother would take me in about every two weeks and I would select my stack of books. I particularly loved a series about the childhoods of famous Americans–mostly ‘old white guys,’ as they say, but I also learned about Betsy Ross, Florence Nightingale and George Washington Carver.
    I still love the thought of those summers which helped formed me into the adult that I became. Thank you for this .

    • Thank you, Sue. I love thinking of your reading those books as a child and then of you as an adult, sharing books and touching the lives of so many others. Do you remember the historical fiction series for kids called “I Was There With . . .” ? I read lots of those also.

  5. I remember the smell of air as the storm came…the smell of cut grass…bacon frying … Peace roses. I remember the smell of the barber shop where my dad took me for hair cuts and the smell of leaves burning in the fall

    If you sprinkle flour around the areas of mischievousness you might see prints the next morning!

    • Hmmmm . . . good idea . . . seems like something the Hardy boys might have done to gather evidence. Your list of smells is quite evocative for me as well. Each of those you listed reminds me of certain places and specific people. Thank you, Linda!

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