Opinions

I was doing all right with the pandemic. Then my tomatoes started dying.

(Samia Ahmed for The Washington Post)

Kate Cohen is a writer in Albany, N.Y.

I was doing okay until we lost the tomatoes.

They looked beautiful a week ago, having apparently escaped the grasp of a nasty fungus we battle almost every year. It appears first as a few yellow spots and then morphs with time-lapse speed into black leaves, withered vines, ruined fruit. It’s called “blight,” but in my head it’s capitalized, like a horror movie or a catastrophic historical era (The Troubles, The Depression): The Blight.

To be clear, no one starves if we lose our garden. But the canning I do every August provides tomato sauce, soup and salsa all year; it means late summer to my family the way the end of school means summer has arrived. Last year, however: no soup, on account of the blight.

This year, we thought we were in the clear. My husband had put sheeting under the tomato plants to protect them from infected soil; it seemed to work, and kept the weeds down, too. As the coronavirus pandemic dragged on and our spirits flagged, the garden flourished: cucumbers, green beans, a trinity of hardy greens, an encumbrance of zucchini. And bursting with health at the center of it all: two long rows of lush, laden tomato plants.

So when someone asked me how I was, instead of sighing, “Well, you know . . .” I could chirp, “The tomatoes are looking good!” I didn’t know whether to picture my college-age kids at home or away; I couldn’t envision my high-schooler’s masked and distanced school days. But I could imagine rows of canning jars, billows of steam, nights of whole-body fatigue.

I miss projects that feel as productive as canning — and as urgent. I can’t be bothered to clean, since no one’s coming over; I can’t be roused to my usual frenzy of school-supply shopping, since I have no idea what kind of school will be supplied. But one deadline remains inviolable: Tomatoes must be harvested before the first frost hits. In a year when the goalposts kept moving and every plan proved provisional, at least I could count on that.

You see where this is going.

On Wednesday, my husband noticed a few yellow spots on the tomato leaves at the far end of the garden; by Friday, the blight had spread to half the plants. We stood in the middle of the garden and considered bringing the whole family out with gloves and trash bags to try to stem the tide. But doing that would require hope, and we had just lost our entire supply.

How dumb was I? What possessed me to think of the garden as a sure thing? My husband’s a hay farmer. He’s had “zero chance of rain” turn to thunderstorms; tractors get stuck in sudden mud; every piece of equipment break that could break and some that couldn’t. Our garden has been beset by blight before — and by deer, woodchucks, rabbits and Japanese beetles. The basil once tasted too weird to make pesto; the collards are often more hole than leaf.

Of course we got the blight. I felt like Charlie Brown with his football, a parent with a 2020 school calendar, a person with a plan in The Pandemic.

Later that day, our daughter’s high school emailed: contrary to their previous announcement, they would not return to in-person classes until October, if ever.

I’m sick of “if.” Living in a constant state of uncertainty is not just logistically hard, it’s emotionally numbing. My son is starting college in two weeks; he should be excited and/or scared; I should be in mourning and/or thrilled. We are both . . . fine. Why get worked up about something that probably won’t work out?

They say the only way to fight the blight is to rip up everything — leaves, vines, fruit, all of it — burn it, and start again with new soil next year. That’s what many kids did when they deferred college a year, and what many colleges did when they canceled their on-campus classes.

Maybe they’re the smart ones. But I can’t bring myself to throw away the tomatoes that are as yet untouched by blight. My son can’t bring himself to give up all hope of campus life. Some good stuff might be spared, right? Uncertainty is exhausting, but isn’t it better than certain loss?

I’m asking. I really don’t know.

We still have to shop for twin XL sheets, but we’ll wait to buy throw pillows; my son was told to pack light. I won’t be surprised if I have to pick him up before the first frost hits. At least I’m pretty sure I won’t be busy canning.

Watch Opinions videos:

Read more:

Megan McArdle: Why Betty Crocker’s 1950s cookbook resonates with me now

Jonathan Safran Foer: Meat is not essential. Why are we killing for it?

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us