Column: Summertime and the bounty of my grandparents’ garden


SANDBRIDGE — When we recently moved into our house in Sandbridge, we made time for dragging out some planters and getting our early tomato plants in the soil. Summertime allows adults to reminisce about summers as a child. 

My summer memories from growing up in Virginia Beach are filled with vintage sights and fragrances – most importantly, the sight, smell and taste of warm and vine-ripened tomatoes.  

My maternal grandparents purchased an acre of land on Lake Smith in 1963. The home and grounds of this modest neighborhood, where everyone had at least an acre of land, was a grandchild’s paradise.

On Saturdays, my parents would bring my brother and me there, driving down a long gravel and oyster shell lane through fig, pear and apple trees. An acre to play in seemed enormous. Over time, my brother, cousins and I forged paths through huge bushes and towering pines. 

My grandfather was a talented self-taught gardener. Everything he planted seemed to grow beautifully. He was a “seed” man, keeping and dividing them for vegetables and flowering plants all year. His vegetable garden covered a good quarter of his property, and, as I grew older, I learned to remember what month we were in by the vegetables that were coming up.

My grandfather, Mait Fentress, brought his grandchildren to the garden to see what he was doing. He would show us how to dig up red potatoes, pull carrots and tell when the corn was ready for pulling. We snapped beans and rinsed butterbeans.

He had a huge grapevine of dark purple concord grapes. To eat them off the vine, we sucked the grape until the juicy flesh slipped from the skin into our mouths. The only time he warned us about being in the garden was to watch out for snakes – especially in the grapevine. I never saw one in there, but I always parted the leaves and looked before I grabbed those luscious purple sweets.

But the sight and smell of sunny tomatoes hanging on the vine was my favorite thing to experience. After we picked the larger variety of tomatoes to put in our carrying baskets, we got to pick and eat the small cherry tomatoes.

Brushing off the dirt, we would plop them in our mouths and squish with our teeth. They were warm and delicious having dangled in the sun all morning. When we were full of this summertime treat, we would bring our baskets back to the large shed where vegetables would be divided and placed for processing by my grandmother. Sometimes there were so many vegetables we would have to use a wagon to tote them in.

At lunch, my grandmother would slather mayonnaise on white bread with beefy tomato slices and a significant amount of salt and pepper. We would sit outside on the old green picnic table, which had been painted over many times, downing our cool aid from small glass jars. Our fingers, faces and shirts would be messy with mayonnaise and tomato juice. It was wonderful.

The tomatoes provided baskets of yummy goodness all summer. My grandmother would cook with them, but mostly we ate them sliced by themselves or with fresh cucumbers in vinegar for dinner. Iced tea with sugar, fresh corn, butter beans cooked in butter and buttered beets were regular staples for dinner at their house. 

The vegetables were always the stars of the menu, second only to whatever meat we were having. When my grandmother served newly picked crabmeat after we had crabbed by Rudee Inlet early that morning, I swear I couldn’t eat the crab without that side helping of butter beans cooked with bacon and tomato slices. It all went together in my mind.

My grandfather worked that garden up until a year before he got sick and passed away in 2003. What a blessing it was to spend precious childhood time with that patient, loving man in his big garden, eating the food he so painstakingly grew to give his family. Maybe he knew that, in the future, every time I smelled a tomato on the vine I would think of him. He was right.

Lisa Versprille Burkett is a Virginia Beach native and University of Richmond graduate. She is a manager at a personal home care agency in Virginia Beach. Burkett has four children, and she lives in Sandbridge.

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