Tessa’s grandmother Nonnie always used to tell the story of the “Tomato Tom-Tom.” Around 1925 or so, poor Nonnie’s parents both died, leaving her and her brother orphaned (or “orphant,” as she says). The foster families split them up, her brother going to a family with more money, and Nonnie going to a poorer house in the same town.
The Tomato Tom-Tom was a country dance, the social event of the year, and Nonnie hadn’t seen her brother in a while. When he finally got to the dance, he pretended he didn’t know her. This is a level of sadness, of abject pathos, we can’t begin to contemplate: sweet Nonnie, having lost both parents and then being considered too lower-class by her own brother.
However, the Nonster told this story to her kids and grandkids so many times – and she outlived her brother by so many decades – that its effectiveness began to wane by the mid-1960s. By the 1990s, Tessa’s mom Sandy had finally heard enough and declared, “Okay, Mother! I’m sorry about what happened at the Tomato Tom-Tom, but it’s time to let it go!”
So in honor of Valentine’s Day, let me tell you another little gem. When I was in grade school, there was a Valentine rule that if you gave a card to someone in class, you had to give one to everybody. It was all or nothing. And so we all made these little decorated Valentine paper bags and taped them to the chalkboard shelf that lined the front of the room. Classmates would slip the valentines in each bag.
But here’s what always happened: there were 26 people in each class, and valentines seemed to come in batches of 25. So everyone in class would get a nice store-bought Valentine written in cursive (and perhaps a treat), but in my bag they slipped a ripped, folded piece of paper with my name scribbled on it.
I was so embarrassed by the whole charade that I begged the teacher to rescind the “all or nothing” rule, letting everyone else off the hook, but she was unbendable. And so, each year, it was the same: the popular kids all getting nice Hallmark Valentines with candies that said “YOU’RE GREAT” on them, and I’d get a piece of crumpled notebook paper. They and I were locked in a dumb-show that neither could stand. It was sheer misery.
I told this story to my wife today, and she said, “Okay, Honey! I’m sorry about what happened at the Tomato Tom-Tom, but it’s time to let it go!” Then Tessa Ellen Valentine Blake – her actual name – hugged me, and somewhere, back in the furthest recesses of my mind, one humiliating fire was extinguished with a kiss.