Portrait of a Knotty Headed Johnson Woman

Aunt Elaine

Dear Aunt Elaine: There is a reason I gave my daughter your name.

My Auntie Elaine was my grandma’s youngest sister; and she grew Ohio State Fair blue-ribbon prize-winning tomatoes.  By the time the children of my generation came along she didn’t do much in the way of large-scale gardening they way Grandma Juanita did; but she never gave up on tomatoes; and these she grew in a long double row on the strip of land behind her garage.

I sho’ nuff wish I knew her secret, because back in the 60s and 70s, the home gardening industry had not yet saturated the market with these newfangled Fabulous Fruit and Bloom Boom 2000™ elixirs we have now.  In those days, individual gardeners concocted top-secret “ancient Chinese secret” recipes in basement laboratories that were always locked against the prying eyes of the potential Arthur Slugworths of the gardening world.

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My grandmother Juanita (left), Auntie Marquise (center) and Auntie Elaine (right) sometime in the 1930s with their parents who died of tuberculosis  not long after this photo was taken

Auntie Elaine’s tomatoes were enormous.  No, they were gargantuan.  I mean…. wait… that isn’t it either.  I’ve got a pretty good vocabulary, but I can’t come up with a word sufficient to what her tomatoes were.  Caps-Lock, here I come: Auntie Elaine’s tomatoes were GARGANTUAN.  She supported them on the vine by growing the fruits inside of slings made out of old panty hose (there’s a straight-from-the-hip Knotty Headed Johnson Woman gardening tip, by the way).

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My grandmother, circa 1940s? Johnson women have been known to turn a man’s head… before removing it neatly from his shoulders.

Her tomatoes were perfectly, evenly, gorgeously red from stem to stern with nary a pest or fungal blemish.  No matter the variety, nor the peculiarity of conformation, her tomatoes never developed cracks at the shoulder or on the blossom end.  And delicious?  Children clamored for sandwiches made from those tomatoes.  Neighbors from way down the block got mighty neighborly long about July… and stayed that way til frost.

Gardeners can’t grow tomatoes like that, they can’t take blue ribbons year after year at the Ohio State Fair, without packing in thousands of gardening hours selectively saving and culling seeds, fussing over seedlings and feedings, pruning and fine-tuning, without having a passion for the project as ENORMOUS as the prize-winning tomatoes themselves.  Aunt Elaine was passionate about everything she put her hand to.  And fiercely competitive.

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At one of the infamous parties: my mom (left) and Auntie Marquise (right) circa 1970s.

I will never forget her parties, particularly the summer barbecues.  These invariably began as family get-togethers.  Everybody brought a dish,  the children were banished to the cool of the basement to play “red light green light” while the meat cooked, and the adults played pinochle, bid-whist, or bridge.  For blood.  Somehow or other, by the time the barbecue was smelling really fine, the definition of “family” had expanded to include people who were kin to us only in the most fictive sense.  The telephone grape-vine invariably turned a small family gathering into a full-bore party.

One summer get-together is particularly burned into my gardener’s heart.  As cars kept pulling up to the house, spilling friends, neighbors, distant cousins, and man-friends onto the lawn, parking space quickly became a problem. Aunt Elaine slipped out of the side door to move her 1958 Chevy Impala (I remember this car clearly: it was powder pink with an oxblood leather interior) into the garage to make more room in the driveway.

The party was popping: box fans whirring, plates of food on every lap, paper cups on every window-sill.  Laughter and laughter, a screech of brakes, a deafening crash, the distinct crunch of wood under impact.

The sound of my Aunt’s car punching through the rear of her garage was followed by a series of sharply punctuated silences.  The chugging engine coughed itself to a stall.  Jaws slackened, mouths gaped, the silence stretched.  It stretched and stretched, waiting to snap on a cry of comprehension, a rush to action.

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Mom and Me

Into that elongated silence, came a moaning creak.  The Earth seemed to tilt slantwise beneath my feet.  In reality, it was Auntie’s garage that was tilting.  It moaned and tilted until WHUMP its roof succumbed to gravity atop that powder pink Chevy.  On top of my beloved Aunt Elaine.

A primal scream from under rubble guillotined the silence, cutting the adults free of their immobility.  People shouted, rushed to the disaster area.  I think I might have died a little bit that day when my favorite Auntie, the one who never raised her voice, the one who played tea party with me on her good china, made a sound I never imagined a human voice making.

Into the chaos of shouts and running feet, a second primal scream resolved into words:

“I’VE KILLED MY GODDAMNED TOMATO PLANTS!!!”

Portrait of a knotty-headed Johnson woman.

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The newest knotty-headed Johnson woman.

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47 thoughts on “Portrait of a Knotty Headed Johnson Woman

  1. This is one of the best gardening posts I’ve ever read. I’d love to know her secrets. She sounds like my kind of lady! Did the tomato plants or the car survive?

  2. Sho'Nuff says:

    Wow! That is huge praise indeed, coming from YOU. I’m not sure about the plants, but I’m sure about the car: The End, blotto.

  3. GARGANTUAN laugh! PS, there are no doubt young women in the audience who have no idea what we are talking about when we talk about pantyhose. In summer, yet. Thx for sharing the tips & chuckles!

  4. Loved every moment of this walk through your history, especially because it begins again with your baby girl.

  5. JanMont says:

    What a great story! I enjoyed reading it. I wonder if she used manure tea? That was a potion used by our ninety-year-old neighbor (remember him?) for champion plants. Thanks for posting the pictures, too. Lovely!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      She was an urbanite, JanMont. I seriously doubt she had access to any sort of manure. The whole family used concoctions made up of kitchen waste of various sorts… coffee and tea leaves, tobacco leaves, egg whites, egg shells, rinds of various sorts… all of it stewed, literally stewed, in mason jars. When you inquired about the ingredients, *silence* was always the answer.

  6. Sho'Nuff says:

    Reblogged this on Sho' Nuff Sistuh's Guide to Organic Gardening and commented:

    I posted this blog late Friday evening, so I’m sending it out again in case folks missed it over the weekend. Cheers!

  7. I added a feature called Blogger Spotlight and featured this fabulous post!! I’ll also mention it in my next post. 🙂

  8. Margaret Katranides says:

    Yes, indeed, Christienne; “people” love to read your stuff. This was a gem. I mean, it is a gem.

  9. I love this post! I love when plants have a personal story behind them and to read about special people’s influence on gardening. I came here by way of Casa Mariposa.

  10. Susan says:

    I scooted over from Casa Mariposa. I was spellbound by your post. Beautiful writing and a distinctive voice plus gardening advice. What more could one want? I’ll be following from now on.

  11. I’m here thanks to Casa Mariposa too. Great post. I love your legacy, your voice and your gift for writing. I’ll be back.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      You are so kind to let me know. I really appreciate the encouragement since I only began blogging in March. I’m still struggling to find a voice. Please come back soon!

  12. Nadezda says:

    Very interesting to grow tomatoes in old panty hose!
    What a secret! I will try it!

  13. Diana Studer says:

    another from Casa Mariposa. ‘S wonderful to capture family history on your blog. These memories and stories are so easily lost, but on the blog and the internet they flourish for the next generation to savour!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Thank you for visiting! And for reading carefully enough to entirely grasp the reason I felt blogging this topic was important. I also think that for me, gardening is a way to reground myself in my “roots” … as the world and our culture hurtles forward, I find that my identity, my sense of where I fit in the universe, sometimes feels unstable? Or fragile? So connecting dots to clarify history gives me a kind of grounding, a foundation from which to figure out where I need to go, both for me and for my kids. Cheers!

  14. I also came over from Tammy@Casa Mariposa’s blog and am so glad I did. You are a very talented story teller!! I love family history and gardening too so this was a great story for me as it brought back memories…my first thought when I realized she had driven through the garage was ‘Oh my God your Aunt oh and the tomatoes”. I look forward to perusing more of your blog as I am also a organic gardener.

  15. KL says:

    What an wonderful post. Loved every bit of it. It needs to be published in some famous literary magazine as a short story. I am also an organic gardener, environmentalist, nature-lover, and so would love to have the secret of Aunt Elaine. By the way, if she is your aunt, then she must be your grandma’s daughter, right? You have mentioned her as grandma’s sister. Do you have any secret for growing tomato? What happened to the garage that it came down?

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      She was my grandmother’s sister, hence my “great Aunt.” But nobody referred to here in that way. What I know of growing tomatoes isn’t a secret… good soil, heirloom seed, good garden hygiene and fungal infection prevention rather than treatment. And fertilize them well… But then… my tomatoes don’t look anything like my Auntie’s tomatoes. LOL!

  16. Ha! I’m glad she was OK–you had me worried there! You also had me hungry for Tomatoes after reading about how perfect they were. I’ve heard about the pantyhose trick, but never tried it. I’m visiting your blog after reading about it on Tammy’s Casa Mariposa. Nice job!

  17. Alberto says:

    HI! I smiled all the time reading this post, really. Anyway there’s this ‘turning head’ gene in your family’s DNA that is breeding through the line till the youngest one! Maybe she’ll raise huge tomatoes like her pro(?) aunt.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Thank you for visiting my blog… and thank you for the sweet compliment for my daughter. She’s already quite the gardener… definitely “a chip off the old block.”

  18. Jennifer says:

    I would love to know some of though tomato secrets. Mine are looking pathetic this summer. Too much rain? Maybe. Anyway, I enjoyed the post and the ending especially.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Thank you for visiting my blog. I would like to know my Auntie’s and Grandma’s secrets too. What zone are you gardening in? We’ve had terrible rains all year, here in zone 6A, although my tomatoes are progressing normally. If you describe your trouble, maybe someone might have a suggestion? Cheers!

  19. A wonderful post about gardening and family and the unique nature we all possess. I, too, came here from Casa Mariposa…and so glad I did.

  20. Ginger says:

    I cracked up reading this!

  21. Daricia says:

    People really do go crazy about their tomatoes, I’ve noticed, but then I guess there’s really nothing like a well-grown tomato. I look forward to that first tomato sandwich all year long! Great post…a treat to read!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Thank you for your kind comments. I have to admit to feeling a terrible impatience, waiting for my tomatoes to fully fruit and ripen… I don’t expect to begin to harvest until the end of this month… 😦

  22. Robbie says:

    LOL..that is a great story! Thank you for sharing. What an amazing woman..found your blog through Lrong, he is right it is very good!
    I love the quote under her beautiful picture—“My grandmother, circa 1940s? Johnson women have been known to turn a man’s head… before removing it neatly from his shoulders”–that is what I hope I taught my daughters in life:-) Yeppers!

  23. The Editors of Garden Variety says:

    Your Auntie Elaine like a amazing woman (spunky and fun). My grandmother (Gramps) was like that. She didn’t grow that many vegetables but grew amazing ornamental plants and fruit trees and was the world’s best propagator!

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