Josna Rege

37. Grandpa Victor and the Story of the Tomatoes

In 1900s, 1970s, Family, Food, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel, United States on April 10, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Black Krim tomatoes from the Ukraine © Dana Velden (thekitchn.com)

As soon as Andrew’s Grandpa Victor arrived on one of his visits, he would start repairing everything in the house that needed attention: a wobbly chair leg, a loose doorknob, a shaky newel post at the bottom of the stairs. He would enlist Andrew as his assistant and get right down to work. Andrew, with his infinite patience, was the perfect helper, passing him the tools that he needed, lifting things that were too heavy for him, allowing him to work in his own slow and methodical manner. I particularly loved Grandpa Victor’s visits because I never had the opportunity to get to know either of my own grandfathers, and he told us so many stories from his long and eventful life.

In 1905, as a boy of nine, Grandpa Victor had immigrated to New York with his family from the Old Country, Ukrainia. He and his brothers were born back in the Ukraine, but his younger sisters were all born in the USA.  He had worked, among other jobs, as a ship’s engineer in the Merchant Marines, and as a skilled mechanic in New York’s garment district where he was in charge of all the elevators for several buildings. He was a staunch union man, and Andrew’s father remembers the victory that won workers a paid half-day off on Saturdays. From then on, Victor would take little Ted on an outing every Saturday afternoon, just the two of them.

Grandpa Victor was extremely active in New York’s Russian Orthodox community, and had helped to re-settle hundreds of new immigrants from the Ukraine. Photographs of Grandpa posing with the Metropolitan, the highest figure in the Orthodox Church (and different from the Catholic Church’s Pope in that he is not considered the agent of God on earth) were proudly displayed in his and Grandma Olga’s home, and he was always busy fundraising for a church-rebuilding project or organizing a regional or North American event (there were lots of Ukrainians in Canada). He wasn’t a particularly religious man, but he was a born organizer, and his involvement in the church provided him not only with his ethnic community but also with scope for his considerable leadership skills.

Always courtly in behavior and immaculately dressed, Grandpa Victor did everything in moderation, and perhaps this was the secret of his longevity—besides the bowl of oatmeal that he required without fail every morning for breakfast. After he had completed a job to his satisfaction, he would sit down to lunch at the stroke of noon, enjoy his 7-ounce “one-gulp” can of beer, and smoke one—just one—pipeful of tobacco. Then he was ready to tell us one of his stories.

And the stories he told—92 years’ worth of them! There were stories of elevators hanging by one strand of frayed cable and boiler rooms on the verge of disaster, in which he, Victor, arrived to save the day at the eleventh hour. Then there were stories of the journey by ship to Ellis Island from Europe, where a young passenger—himself—dove off the pier into the harbor at Trieste; and of the old country, Ukrainia, where the soil was as black and as rich as chocolate cake and the rivers deep and majestic, where as a boy he had owned a beautiful horse, who grew bigger and sleeker in the telling and retelling, especially in Grandpa Victor’s old age when his dreams and memories of the Old Country were clearer and more vivid than his immediate surroundings.  I remember one in particular, the story of the tomatoes.

photo from greenworldorganics.com

Grandpa loved the tomatoes that Andrew grew: large, meaty, and deep-red. He ate them with great relish, and always with a knife and fork, salt and pepper, and a napkin to protect his suit from the juice. Tomatoes were natives of the New World, and it was his own mother, Paraskevia, who had first brought them to their small town in the Ukraine. She had gone ahead to America before taking her family there to join their father, but had not been sure if she liked it, and had returned to the Ukraine for a time before making the decision to migrate. On that return trip she brought seeds back with her, which soon produced a harvest of large, juicy, deep-red tomatoes.

News of the luscious new crop spread rapidly, circulated by the wives and servants of neighbors and town officials. One after another would send a servant over to inquire about the tomatoes, and Paraskevia would be obliged to pack a basketful to send back. In that feudal society one dared not refuse the request of an official, however petty his position might be. One day the Postmaster rode up in a horse and carriage. He alighted with dignity and had to be welcomed with all the respect due to a man of his status. A chair and a table spread with a fresh tablecloth had to be brought out into the garden, in the shade of an arbor, where the Postmaster had a white napkin tucked into his collar and sat down, licking his lips in anticipation. A bowl of the best tomatoes was served to him, along with a knife and fork, salt, and fresh-ground black pepper.  He carved them into thick slices and ate with great enjoyment, while Victor’s family looked on. And of course he had to be given a large basket to take home to his wife, with the compliments of Victor’s mother.

That was not the end of it. Once the Postmaster’s wife had aroused the envy and curiosity of her friends and neighbors, the wives of every public figure in town sent their servants over with baskets to be filled and returned, with the compliments of Victor’s mother. And in the end, as Grandpa told it, the servant of a very, very important person, the Governor himself, came to announce the arrival of his master, who had to be served with all possible pomp and ceremony right there under the arbor, and sent home with the biggest, most overflowing bounty yet. Fortunately they had had a good harvest that year, or there wouldn’t have been any tomatoes left for their own family to enjoy.

When Grandpa Victor’s visit came to an end, we packed a box of tomatoes for him to take home to Brooklyn. On the day before he left he wrote a batch of postcards to send to his friends and fellow-Church members, saying that he was enjoying his visit so much that he had decided to stay an extra week. When Andrew asked him why he had told such a fib, he replied that this way he would get two weeks’ vacation, one with us in Massachusetts and another peaceful week back home without people pestering him for favors.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. Dear Jo,
    What a wonderful remembrance of Uncle Victor and his stories. You brought him to life in your telling. We both particularly chuckled at how the stories grew in their retelling over the years. Thank you for such a moving tribute.

    • Dear Juliana and John, Thank you so much for reading and commenting in the midst of everything else. I’m so glad you liked it. This was the longest of all my entries to date, because I found it impossible to tell the story of the tomatoes alone, without telling a much longer story about the dear storyteller himself. Hope all’s well and let’s talk soon. Hugs, Jo

  2. Beautiful!

  3. Thank you, Pinu. You would have liked him. x J

  4. What a wonderful sounding man! The story of the tomatoes has that classic tall-tale ring to it — not that every word isn’t completely true, of course! And I love his way of getting a second week of vacation.

  5. I wish I could remember all the amazing stories he told us, Sarah, especially the terrifying elevator one where his arrived in the nick of time before everyone plunged to their deaths. Yes, he was wonderful–classic and classy. He really knew how to negotiate the world; he was working up on the roof with us, installing skylights, at 82; and I remember how much my Mom liked the way he called her (and pretty much any woman younger than he was) “young lady.” She was then about the same age that we are now! He passed on his love and knowledge of tools to all his grandchildren–both the boys and the girls. And even in his old age his hands were as soft as a baby’s, even though he had worked with them all his life: he used to clean them with motor oil after he had done a heavy day’s work.

  6. Wonderful tale, Josna! Somehow one wants to put it to music and present it with all the rich lush colors of tomatoes and the local clothing.

    • Thank you, Jude. Now that you mention it, I can imagine it in the format of one of the colorfully illustrated Russian folk tales from the Soviet era that we used to get cheaply in India, translated into English and several Indian languages. I remember that there was a delightful version of the story of the old man and the mitten.

  7. Thank you for bringing my beloved father so vividly to life!

    • Dear Ted, Thank you for having taken the time and trouble to post here. I feel lucky to have known Grandpa VIctor and feel his presence all the time in so many little ways—especially in his descendants! Love, Jo

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