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Tomate: An inspirational true story of friendship that knew no age limit or language barrier

Tomate: An inspirational true story of friendship that knew no age limit or language barrier

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Tomate: An inspirational true story of friendship that knew no age limit or language barrier

154 Seiten
2 Stunden
Dec 7, 2020


They were unlikely friends, a little girl and an elderly woman from different parts of the world. Even though they didn’t speak the same language, they were inseparable from the first day they met. Their unique relationship took them on a life-changing journey leaving a legacy that will continue on for generations. Based on the belief that God puts people in our lives for a reason, Tomate is a compelling true story of faith and friendship that is sure to warm your heart.
Dec 7, 2020

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Tomate - Dawnaya Key




The morning breeze was chilly and it was still quite dark; the sun hadn’t even woken up. I tightened my jacket as I walked under the entrance canopy beside my mom. She opened the heavy glass double door to let me in. The kitchen cooks were busy making breakfast. The lobby smelled like cinnamon oatmeal and bacon. The electric fireplace centerpiece was lit while the little birds sang their morning songs in their cages. The clock read five till six a.m.

My eyes were tired, but time seemed to stand still as soon as I saw her. All alone on a small, pastel pink couch, she sat in a navy-blue dress and a white sweater. She had oddly paired her dress with plain white tennis shoes. Her hair was as white as snow and reached a few inches past her ears. The round, gold-rimmed glasses captured her brown eyes that were uniquely outlined with a ring of blue. She studied the crochet work in her lap with two small red hooks in hand.

I didn’t even know her name, but I couldn’t look away. I felt a draw to approach her and an invisible nudge to go and introduce myself. I walked towards her almost in slow motion. Who was this dainty, fair-skinned little lady? So petite, her feet barely touched the floor. My long ponytail of hair flew up as I plopped down beside her with an eager smile. The force made her side of the sofa rise up a little. She giggled and laid her crochet hooks in her lap and looked at me. I had the biggest, most eager smile on my ten-year-old tomboy face. The connection between us seemed instantaneous; it was as if we already knew one another, but that would be impossible.

Before I could even get out a word, my mom interjected, Dawnaya, hey, she doesn’t speak English, only Spanish.

I shook my head a little to get it out of the clouds.

This is Juana, the Mexican lady I was telling you about. Come on, let’s go to the break room; I need to go clock in.

I want to stay here, Mom.

Dawnaya, she doesn’t speak English. How are you going to talk to her?

Well, I guess I will just have to learn Spanish.

Laughing a little in disbelief, Mom said, Well, okay, but I have to go and start my shift.

Mom walked away towards the narrow hall that connected the lobby with the hall that led to the break room.

I smiled at Juana and she put her crochet hooks, yarn, and the pink and orange doily that she was working on in the pouch of her walker. She turned towards me and said, Buenos días.

Hi, I responded.

Soy Juana, she said, while pointing to herself.

I easily figured out that she wanted me to tell her my name. I hesitated because my name is very unique and even those who speak perfect English butcher it on a regular basis.

Dawnaya, I said, pointing to myself.

Her white, barely-there eyebrows seemed to be pointing in opposite directions on her face when she replied, Tomate.

I did not want to be rude so I gave it another shot, slowing down my name for her.

DAW-NA-YA, I said, pointing at my chest at every syllable while she studied my face.

I expected her to repeat it back with ease, but that was not the case.

She just grinned and the extra fine lines and wrinkles around her bluish-brown eyes came to life. She let out a short chuckle before she said, this time with more emphasis, TO-MA-TE.

I had to throw in the towel. There was just no way that I was going to get an elderly, Spanish-only speaking lady to pronounce my strange American name correctly.

Even though I had no idea what Tomate even meant at that moment, I had a pretty good idea that whatever it was, it would stick because of the language barrier. She led me back to visit with her in her room and we spent the day together trying to communicate with lots of laughter and charades. To Juana I would forever be known simply as Tomate. Although I hadn’t realized it yet, that little lady would completely change my life.



When my friends were having sleepovers or heading to the park, the pool, or the beach over the summer, I was spending time at Sullivan Health Care (SHC), the nursing home where Juana lived, visiting with her and trying to learn Spanish. There was no employee that spoke Spanish and could communicate with Juana. It was sad to imagine that without me to visit, she sat alone without anyone to talk to all day.

I got up at five a.m. unfailingly to go with my mom to her work to see Juana and volunteer. My mom would head out to get the residents up for breakfast, and I would go volunteer. I passed out ice water and snacks, helped residents choose outfits, painted the ladies’ nails, passed out food trays at mealtimes, and helped the activity director with games and crafts. I spent a little time with some other residents as well, like Harry, a retired firefighter, and Edith, whose room was the only one that was painted pink and had bold floral wallpaper. And then there were the Shasteens, who used to own the Ford garage in town. Mr. Shasteen was Juana’s next-door neighbor’s husband and he gave me a Spanish lesson book to study; he knew I was trying to learn the language for Juana. All of the residents were so sweet and they all deserved to feel extra love.

As I became a regular at the nursing home, I enjoyed spending time with everyone. One day I decided to share my enormous collection of stuffed animals with the residents. Because I had so many, I was able to give everyone at least one; some got two or three. I gave my favorites to Juana, of course. There was a very special place in my heart for her.

I had so much to learn about Juana but in order to do so, I had to speak more of the language. As a young girl, my Spanish consisted of what we had learned in Mrs. Stone’s second-grade class, which was only how to count to ten. I knew that that was not going to cut it and in order to learn more, I needed to spend as much time with Juana as I could.

It was easy to get to see her when my mom was scheduled to work; the challenge came when Mom had a day off. We lived in the country north of town, and the nursing home was at the far south end. I had to beg Mom to let me ride my bike the three miles from our home in the country across town to visit Juana. She finally agreed as long as I wore my helmet and stayed off the main roads as much as possible.

At that time in my little rural town there weren’t any sidewalks on most of the highway that led to Sullivan Health Care. Riding feet away from forty-mile-per-hour traffic that often included semis was intimidating, but it was always worth the trip. Rain or shine, Juana was waiting for me and I wasn’t ever going to let her down.

Visiting with Juana was like having a total immersion private Spanish tutor. The beauty of it was that she wasn’t teaching me Spanish using lessons or worksheets. Telling stories and just chatting with me as we were getting to know each other allowed me to catch on very quickly. It didn’t take long for me to show dramatic improvement. Since I was eager to look up new words, she gave me her only bilingual dictionary so that I could continue to learn at home. It was a Vox dictionary, a thick white book with red, yellow, and green stripes on the cover. In the middle were gray pages that had common idiomatic expressions and conversational phrases. That dictionary was like my Spanish Bible. At night I sat on my bedroom floor with a handful of highlighters and my reading lamp and thumbed through the pages to study.

I came to figure out that not everything could be learned from a book, as there were numerous times when Juana would giggle in response to my silly rookie Spanish mistakes. One Sunday afternoon we sat together on her bed, visiting, and she asked what time it was.

¿Qué hora es?

It was 12:13. And due to my lack of number vocabulary at that point I said,

Son las diez y dos y las diez y tres. It’s ten-two and ten-three.

Through tearful laughter she proceeded to teach me how to tell time and taught me the numbers from ten to one thousand-plus. We worked for quite a while that day; she was determined to make sure no one—not even she—could laugh at my number skills.

As summer progressed, I was around Juana most of the day almost every day. Accompanying her to the cafeteria, I helped express her food preferences to the staff. She’d grown accustomed to eating mystery meals. Now I could make sure she got what she liked, and I made a list of foods for the staff to avoid. Even the simplest details helped her feel more at home, like asking for an extra napkin to put over her coffee mug to keep the heat in … and any rogue flies out, she’d say.

When I visited, I brought her favorite foods whenever possible, packing them in my bike pouch or backpack. I’d grab the Little Debbie goodies from my seemingly ever-full snack cabinet at home. She loved almost anything I brought, but doughnuts were her all-time favorite, specifically cinnamon-and-sugar twists from the IGA bakery. I saved my chore money and loose change to fund our special doughnut days. Mom had recently been saving the new state quarters that were being released and told me to collect them all. Although I promised I wouldn’t spend them, when doughnut day came and I had no other funds, to the bottom drawer in my dresser I went for those quarters.

Doughnuts always brought a smile to Juana’s face. She had the most beautiful smile. Unless you paid close attention, you’d never realize she had no teeth. Her face never looked sunken in and honestly, it was mostly unnoticeable. She never wore dentures, but she could eat even the Fritos I would buy from time to time from the hallway vending machine. Such a character, Juana, her delicate skin marked with the wrinkles of a long life. She lit up the room with her smile; her eyes full of life and energy … and a dash or two of orneriness.

Summer eventually came to an end, but I would still try to visit Juana every day. Having become increasingly attached, I wanted to make sure everything was right for her. When I would visit after school at suppertime, I started to notice that Juana was spitting out her medicine when she got back to her room after eating. Knowing that she needed whatever meds she was getting, I asked her why she was spitting them into the trash. She told me that she didn’t mind taking them but had trouble swallowing them whole. Many residents got their meds crushed in applesauce, and the staff was happy to do this for Juana when I brought it to their attention. She needed me to be her voice, her advocate, and I felt like her life was in my hands even though she was seventy-seven years my senior.

Two virtual strangers from entirely different generations who had an undeniable bond—we were family. I referred to her as my adopted grandmother, and she would tell me I was the daughter she never had. At that point I was unsure whether she actually did have any children. Then I met Tino, a nicely dressed older man who came to visit. He introduced himself as a family friend. His English was heavily accented; I told him to call me Tomate since he, too, had trouble saying my name. Each time he would leave after a visit, Juana would say my baby, my baby and point to the door. I was confused.


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