Mopping the duct tape patched linoleum floor brought me to a place of pride and understanding. After deciding to move back to the old Merrell homestead not much looks like what I had expected. “Trust, just trust,” has been my motto since my Dad fell ill with stomach cancer one summer shy of three years ago.
He was known to area gardeners as “The Tomato Man”. To me he was the most supportive and loving father a kid could have under the circumstances of divorce. Dad’s birth name was Darrell Glen Merrell, born in 1939 to Dan and Louise Merrell on our Old Home Place Farm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My grandparents purchased the homestead which sits ten miles away from down town in 1930. That ten acre plot successfully fed and supported a family of six through the famous Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Luckily, they had a consistent supply of crystal clear spring water pulled up through a hand dug well. They raised two large kitchen gardens, kept chickens, ducks and hogs, a milk cow, and a horse named Dan who was used to pull the plow. They probably raised rabbits, turkeys and a goose or two in order to create more variety on the old supper table.
That very table continues to serve its life purpose in the same spot. Oh, the stories it could narrate of the family dinners that have occurred over three generations. My memories of overflowing bowls of mashed potatoes, dressing, green beans, huge turkeys and fried chicken will for ever remain. The scent of fresh baked dinner rolls to sop up the gudgeons almost fill my senses then are finished off with a wide selection of home made pies with fluffy meringue topping made with skill by Grandma and Aunt Ginny. Dad would tell me stories of going into Downtown Tulsa to fetch flour, sugar, salt and other staples for the kitchen. Being the youngest he and Grandpa Merrell would stand on the corner with ice cold soda and pop corn while watching their fellow Tulsans bustling by.
In the fall of 2003, at the age of 32, I moved to the Old Home Place Farm from Seattle to work with my dear old Dad. For years I had known in my heart that I would move back to Oklahoma to learn about what he was doing with his middle aged years as “The Tomato Man”. It wasn’t the first time we would work together. When I was growing up in Oklahoma City with my Mom in the 1970’s and 80’s, he was celebrated as “The Doughnut Man” in Houston, Texas. I would spend my summers and some holidays with Dad, which was a much cherished occasion for me. At the age of 8 I was given my personal mini Doughnut Man apron and T-shirts and was put to work waiting on customers. My favorite job was dipping sinful rings of dough into tubs of deep dark chocolate and golden maple icing and sometimes dipping again in rainbow colored candies.
Dad eventually gave up baking to move back to his roots on the West Tulsa Home Place to provide care for his ailing Mom and Sis. My Aunt Ginny had been diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and Grandma was suffering from older age and tired hardworking bones. In order to find some peace for himself, Dad began gardening again. His first plot was in Grandma’s kitchen garden just 100 feet away from the back door of Grandpa’s handcrafted house. Of course, us Okies have got to have tomatoes in our gardens, so Dad set out to buy his starts. He quickly realized that the varieties of tomatoes he grew and ate as a small country boy were no where to be found. So he started with the hybridized varieties like Big Boy, Better Boy and Early Girl. The results of this endeavor have now become a West Tulsa Legend as well as a nationwide story.
You see, Dad was an historian by nature. The Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau were among his favorites. What was not among his favorites were these newly developed hybrid tomatoes. They just did not burst with that homegrown tomato flavor that he had remembered. What had happened? He began questioning his Mom and Sis about the varieties they used to grow. They remembered The Sioux, Marglobe, Rutgers, Homestead, Tommy Toe, German Johnson, Oxheart and I am sure many others. This sent him on a search for seeds; he was going to give it another try.
To his dismay he could not find one Sioux seed in all of the United States or Canada. Believe me, he was a very thorough man. The Sioux had been the most popular tomato in Oklahoma in the 1950’s. The kind that my Aunt Ginny used to pluck straight off the vine with salt shaker in hand, indulging on the spot until her mouth puckered from that good ole’ fashion acidic tomato twang. How could it be that he could find no seed? Instantly he realized there was a problem. Some of the old time varieties (now called heirlooms) were endangered to become extinct as hybridization became more popular.
Dad did finally find a few Sioux seeds through the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. A man out of Norman, Oklahoma, just a 2 hour drive away, sent him a dozen seeds to get him started. Dad sowed 6 of the 12 (you always should save some back in case of failure) and he was off and running. The next season he grew out some of the old heirloom tomatoes and finally tasted the history he was searching for. With a lot of love and hard work he quickly became known as “The Tomato Man” as he offered his left over plants to area gardeners on the front porch of the Flea Market. He developed quite the following in his Santa Clause sized overalls and grin. His straw hat and smokin’ pipe will forever be etched in our memories of the infamous West Tulsa Tomato Man.
Twenty spring seasons have now gone and passed since that first attempt to find a good tasting tomato. After working with Dad since 2003; growing out our own seed stock for 80 plus varieties, fermenting the seed, storing the seed, starting the seed again, transplanting the seedlings, keeping them warm, getting them sun, food and water, and selling them in their little 3 inch pots then starting all over again, I decided that I had finally found a sense of place. I was going to stay in Tulsa to become “The Tomato Man’s Daughter.” What I didn’t know was that I would have to continue his 20 years of work with out him.One of my biggest fears in life has been, “What would it be like when my Dad dies?” Following an intense struggle for survival, my Dad, Darrell G. Merrell passed away on April 24th, 2008 at 4:34 pm. He was surrounded by people that loved him on a gorgeous, crisp, sunshiny day. His death was actually comforting and beautiful. If you have lost a loved one from a terminal illness you know what a relief it is to finally see them peaceful again.
This spring season(2009) was the first “Tomato Man” Season to run with out my Dad. What I found was that he really is still here with me. He reminded me to be mindful as I grew out and saved the seed stock in the spring and summer. He told me to be careful as I cut down trees and cleared space for more room in November and December. He was by my side in January as I revised “The Tomato Man’s Daughter” Plant List and he helped me pick out just the right the seed stock from our inventor.
He was comforting me in February as I worried whether or not our seed would germinate and celebrated with me when it did. In March he rejoiced with us at the completion of Greenhouse #2 (just in the nick of time-thank you Catherine P.) He kept me company on the late nights as I transplanted the seedlings to their 3 inch pots while he smoked his pipe and told me how this was one of his favorite tasks. He was giggling with us on the Saturday my Sister Pam and two of her kids came into town to help Mom and me transplant. In early April he held me as I cried about my Mom’s broken leg and the sudden passing of my lifetime dog, Jacques. He was hugging me as I marveled the beauty of Greenhouse #2 cuddling 17,856 gorgeous heirloom tomato plants and he hugged me again when the heater failed and we lost some of them. In mid April he sat with Cousin Scooder and me at the sales table and listened to our customers tell stories about him and admit to how much they missed seeing him. He helped us teach new gardeners how to plant and care for their new babies and answer questions for those that had them. He cheered me on when I was on my own in May keeping the plants healthy during the 21 days of straight rain. He told my brother Mark and I how proud he was of us when we reached our sales goal for the season at the end of May. He is looking at me right now saying that he is so lucky to have a daughter like me and I am telling him how much I miss him.
As I stare at the old orange linoleum floor of my Grandpa’s house I realize I hardly have a choice but to continue my Dad’s legacy as “The Tomato Man’s Daughter”, at least for a while. The roots of our family tree are so deeply established that in order for me to flourish I will need to develop some nice branches off of the rich stalk that is here for me. Hopefully some of my own blooms will set fruit and drop seeds to help grow a prosperous future.