Yesterday, the 5th of May 2021, was Helen Mardi Petrou’s 51st birthday – my bestie of almost 30 years. It is three years since her 48th birthday bash – the last one she got to have. At that stage, we thought she might make her 49th, but it wasn’t to be. The 12-18 months the doctors gave her quickly dwindled down to 6-12 months then 3-6 months, then any day now. After a diagnosis of terminal cancer in April 2018, she took her last breath on the 6th August that year.
It is a loss I feel as badly today as I did that day. But she requested that I only cry happy tears, and so I try not to concentrate on the hole the loss of her in my life has created, but think of our friendship and the wonderful person she was, and how lucky I was to have her in my life.
Helen never just had 1 day to celebrate her birthday, it was always a week and I nearly always spent at least 3-4 days of that time with her, even when she moved to Sydney and then Canberra. It was a yearly ritual where I would fly to wherever she lived on the weekend closest to her birthday and spend the Friday to Monday with her. Even when that weekend clashed with Mother’s Day and I became a mother myself, it was understood by my family that that weekend was Helen’s and we would do Mother’s Day the following weekend.
But today, in her 51st birthday week, I do not want to talk about the things we did on those birthday trips. I want to share a funny memory with you of my friend that will partially explain why I end most things to do with Helen with Tomato Hoppy Frog.
About ten years ago, I got a card in the mail from Helen. Every now and then we would just send each other something we saw that we thought was funny or the other would like, so it wasn’t a surprise to get the card. And the card was the usual quirky-funny that I know would have made Helen snort-laugh when she found it.
The front of the card was full of tomatoes. Then inside the card she’d written:
‘I was standing in the supermarket looking at the tomatoes when I thought of something funny you said and laughed. The lady next to me looked at me as if I was crazy. I just said to her ‘it was a funny tomato’ and walked away. So when I look at tomatoes now, I will always think of you and all the happy, funny things.
Love Helen (your friend in tomato and all things silly).’
Why had tomatoes reminded her of me? It could have been because of my red hair, or the fact I went bright red when embarrassed or after exercising, but the truth is, after many years of hating the tomato and never eating it, I had gotten Helen to eat tomatoes on a holiday we took together after making her a pasta sauce made out of them. Despite thinking she’d hate it, she’d loved it and started a love-affair with tomatoes after that, starting with me introducing her to some of the ways I love to eat tomatoes.
So, tomatoes did truly remind her of me.
After the card arrived, I sent her a letter and finished it with ‘All my love and tomatoes, Leisl.’
From that moment, it became our thing to finish all letters and texts to each other (when we got smart phones) and sometimes even conversations, with a tomato (the hoppy frog came along later thanks to something funny one of her daughters said – a story for another time). It reminded us of happy, funny, silly things and about how our friendship had impacted so wonderfully on our lives and that it was something we both treasured. Tomato said all of these things and more.
But, it didn’t end there. Of course it didn’t. Helen was past-master at taking things further. And she got me three times.
One day I came home from work. Leading up the front steps of the house was the strangest thing – a cherry red baby tomato on each step and a line of them leading to the front door. The front door was unlocked – and I assumed that my hubby and the kids must have got home from swimming lessons early and I was all ready to have a word to the kids about whatever prank they were pulling and wasting food. I walked in all set to lecture when Helen jumped out, a punnet of tomatoes in her hand, and yelled, ‘Tomato!’
I was so shocked, and happy and couldn’t help but laugh and hug her and more tomatoes went tumbling to the floor. She had come down for a surprise visit in cahoots with my hubby. He hadn’t taken the boys swimming at all – they’d gone to the airport to pick her up. And I couldn’t believe I didn’t twig about the tomatoes.
A few years later, I came home to discover a punnet of tomatoes on every seat in the house. I thought my hubby must have gone shopping and was going to make something for dinner with the tomatoes, but couldn’t figure out why they were on the couch and armchairs. I was half way to the kitchen to question his and the boys’ laziness in not putting the food away when: ‘Tomato!’ Helen jumped out, surprising me again. She couldn’t believe the tomatoes hadn’t given her away this time, and neither could I. It was our thing. She’d got me again.
The third tomato escapade was after I had taken our eldest son to see a specialist. My hubby hadn’t been able to come because he was caught up at work, but the specialist was near the city, so he asked me to catch the tram to Flinders Street train station to meet him there and we’d travel home together. When we got there though, he wasn’t there and when I called him, said he was running late and asked us to go to Southern Cross station and wait for him there. I really just wanted to get home, but I did as he asked, even though my eldest son was impatient to get home too because he had homework he needed to finish.
We were there about half an hour and he kept saying he’d be there soon and to please wait. Finally, he appeared before me and handed me something. It was a bag of tomatoes he said he got from a friend. I was feeling quite cross by this time and the bag of tomatoes was the last straw. He’d just bought a huge bag of tomatoes on the weekend and hadn’t ended up cooking with them and we’d got more tomatoes from my parents and we had baby tomatoes growing in the garden and so I had no idea how I was going to fit this bag of tomatoes in the fridge or what to do with them. I began to tell him off and he just stood there grinning manically at me. Then there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned.
Helen stood there, a huge smile on her face, and another large bag of tomatoes in her hands. ‘Tomato!’ she said to me.
Anger disappeared, laughter and happiness filled its space and the people around us looked at us as if we were nuts as we hugged each other, the bags of tomatoes swinging and swaying as we laughed and cried and she exclaimed how she’d got me again with the tomatoes.
And she had. She had made me smile and laugh and feel surrounded by joy with her tomatoes and her laugh and her smile and the twinkle in her eye and the way she loved to conspire with my hubby to give me a surprise. They’d kept us waiting so long because her plane had been late but all of the waiting angst just disappeared and all that mattered was she was there and we had all the tomatoes in the world.
Tomatoes truly did make us both smile.
So, for me, tomato is the perfect way to always remember Helen and the way she filled my life with laughter and fun and happiness and friendship.
So, on your 51st birthday my beautiful friend, I hope you are having all the tomatoes you want and remembering all the times we laughed and friended and loved each other as only besties do. I will eat a tomato today and feel your warmth, the fierceness of your hug, and the outrageous laugh that burst out of you every time you got me with tomatoes.
Tomato Hoppy Frog, my dear friend.
PS: I meant to write and post this yesterday on your birthday as I have the last few years, but I had a migraine – given you suffered from them too, I know you’d understand this going up a day late. Tomato!