The Threat of Typhoid Tomatoes

This is a story from my mother’s childhood.
R G Holdaway Family with Johnny Bell early 1930's

Mama kept me close to her side we when were home alone. If she did let me go in the yard on my own, I had to be close enough to come running in an instant when she called. The only exception was a trip to the toilet. Since it wasn’t polite to answer from the toilet, I kept quiet knowing, she’d be watching for me to come out before mounting a search. She always warned me against falling through the hole in the seat, but that was a concern she could have spared herself. I’d have sprouted wings and flown had I felt myself falling into the quagmire beneath that toilet seat!!

A well-worn path led down the hill to the toilet located far enough to cut the odor and avoid contamination of our well. Mama was vigilant about sanitation and shoveled lime into the pit to aid decomposition and screened the open back to foil her chickens who considered the flies and maggots a tempting buffet. Chickens are not known for their discriminating tastes. Any chicken Mama planned to butcher, was penned up and fed a fine diet of grain and table scraps for several days prior to its date with the axe, till Mama was convinced it, “clean.” I now realize my brother didn’t bother with the long walk to the toilet at night, since a healthy crop of tomatoes had volunteered beneath his bedroom window. Mama noted the size and beauty of the crop, but said we couldn’t eat them. “They might not be clean.” They looked as “clean” as the ones from the garden, so John and I slipped off and enjoyed the finest tomatoes of the season, which had apparently benefitted from the trip through his digestive system. When Mama noticed the stripped plants, she whirled around and quizzed me “What happened to those tomatoes? You didn’t eat them did you?” My guilty look gave me away. “You did, didn’t you? Oh, My Lord, you could get typhoid from those nasty tomatoes.”

My heart fell. I knew this had to be serious since Mama said, “Oh, My, Lord!” I had no idea what typhoid was, but I did understand I was about to die.

“John ate most of them. I only ate a couple of little ones but nothing was wrong with them. They tasted real good.”

“Being raised in filth wouldn’t make them taste bad. They could still make you sick.” She went on about her business as I prepared to die.

I worked up my nerve. “Mama, will typhoid kill you?”

“It could, but maybe you won’t get it. I had typhoid when you were a baby and nearly died.” I already had a keen conscience and knew I deserved punishment as I waited anxiously all afternoon for typhoid to strike me down. I attributed everything to typhoid: a ringing in my ears, a rapid heartbeat, feeling hot and thirsty as I played listlessly in the shade that July afternoon. My last day dragged. Mama didn’t say any more about typhoid, but I knew it was only a matter of time. I dreaded going to bed that night since I wouldn’t be waking up tomorrow, but certainly couldn’t confide in Mama, since I’d brought all this on myself. During bedtime prayers, I got cold shivers reciting the line, “and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Knowing tonight would be the night put a whole new light on the situation, especially since I’d disobeyed Mama. It hurt my feelings a little when she tucked me in as matter-of-factly as usual on my last night on earth. I fought sleep, but couldn’t hold it off forever. I bounded out of bed, thrilled to find myself alive and ravenous when I awoke and smelled dry-salt meat frying, biscuits baking, and coffee percolating before daylight the next morning. Typhoid would have to wait for another day!

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23 thoughts on “The Threat of Typhoid Tomatoes

  1. My mother was supposed to empty the “honey pot” one day and was lazy so she just emptied it off the back porch. A neighbor boy was walking by and the waste landed on his head. Guess he had a shitty day!

    When I worked for a water dept. as a temporary, I learned that tomato plants grow in the sewage plant. Didn’t hear of any typhoid though. Hmmm…

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  2. My mother had typhoid as a child. They were living in the city so not sure where from but… (mind you, it was shortly after the Spanish civil war, so perhaps things were not up to scratch…).

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