By Lauren Moody
“As a child, my dad let me drop the beans in the rows,” Catherine Green said with a soft and sweet Southern twang as she recalled memories of growing up on a tobacco farm in Alamance County during the 1930s and ‘40s. “I got the privilege of dropping a bean every couple inches and covering it up, and that was just fun for me.”
Alamance County was a small farming community where families worked in the fields under the sun during the day and enjoyed one another’s presence on their porches during the cooler evenings. There was a main street where teenagers could be found sipping Coca-Colas at the soda fountain, but what sticks out to Catherine — at 91 years old — is the time spent with her family on the farm.
She is the youngest of six brothers and sisters, and from a young age, she helped her mother in the garden or the kitchen cooking and canning the foods their farm produced.
A little hobby sparks a big tradition
For Catherine or “Cacci,” pronounced like khaki, as family and close friends call her, her passion for gardening turned into a lifelong hobby. It’s a passion that passed to her granddaughter Catie, and also unites Cacci’s retirement community with an annual tomato sandwich party for which Cacci grows tomatoes and hosts each year.
Cacci is the oldest person in her retirement community with a garden plot. She plants 11 different types of tomatoes each year with a plan to share them with her 35 neighbors. The tomato sandwich party is the annual event that they plan their vacations around, and it has become a tradition that began 10 years ago and won’t stop as long as the tomatoes keep growing.
“A tomato that you’ve grown yourself has more flavor,” she said. “I don’t buy tomatoes in the winter. To me they taste like cardboard. But it’s just the sweetness—the longer you leave them on the vine to turn and ripen, the sweeter they are.”
The idea for the party came to be when Cacci’s dining room table, which seats 12, was overflowing with containers of ripened tomatoes because, as Cacci says, “You never put a tomato in the refrigerator.” One day, a neighbor came over and said, “Make me a tomato sandwich,” to which Cacci responded, “We’ll just have tomato sandwiches for everyone.”
To please the abundance of opinions at the party every July, Cacci ensures there’s lettuce and an array of breads, although her classic sandwich is composed of white bread and Duke’s mayonnaise. Due to the debate over mayonnaise between her neighbors, she also buys Hellmann’s and a gluten free brand. Another neighbor argued you can’t have a tomato sandwich without bacon, so they provide the bacon and someone else brings a dessert.
“I didn’t realize it would amount to anything,” she said. “It was just something that I enjoyed doing for the court and they all pitch in and help, and they look forward to it every year.”
Cacci’s love of hard work and busy days
Doing something for others isn’t a once-a-year event for Cacci. Her entire life has been devoted to helping and serving others.
“Her nature is one to always work,” her son Rick said. “We visited Catie, and she stayed in the kitchen the whole time. Her personality is ‘I’m going to contribute via my work effort.’”
During the week, Cacci volunteers her time at her church and the local hospital in Burlington. She also attends five exercise classes a week, including Zumba, core and a high intensity “workout-of-the-week” class.
Her dedication and work ethic inspires her family and everyone who knows her. Last Christmas before her 90th birthday, she held a four-minute plank in a planking contest against her grandchildren.
Cacci passed her “gardening gene” to her granddaughter
The tomato doesn’t fall far from the vine. The work ethic and gardening gene passed to Catie, who lives on a farm in Monterey, Virginia. She and her husband, Jim, got into the chicken business and plan to have over three thousand chickens this summer. Her passion for gardening developed in college when she decided to go out and dig up the backyard to plant a garden.
“I would definitely say Cacci was my role model when I was younger,” Catie said. “We would talk about gardening and be able to connect even that much more, and I felt like I had more than just the name in connection with her—I had this passionate hobby that we both loved.”
Cacci visited Catie and Jim at their farm in Virginia this winter. She held chickens, drank raw milk, walked their property and saw how they trade with neighbors to ensure freshly sourced food.
Cacci remembers her roots by observing her granddaughter’s future
“She was connecting in all of these great ways that I know is therapy for her,” Catie said. “I know that all of that kind of stuff is therapy for somebody in an older age range to bring back those roots and childhood memories.”
Just as Cacci provides fresh tomatoes to a community who doesn’t have access to a garden or the skills to grow them, Catie and Jim provide chickens to a community that lacks in the poultry department. One day, they hope to bring their community together to host a chicken barbecue just as Cacci throws the tomato sandwich party.
“It’s amazing that she’s chosen to do this,” Catie said. “She pulls together more than just her community—she really tries to get people involved. I love that she’s not just trying to age through life, but she’s actually trying new things at a later stage in her life and she’s continuing very strong.”
The tomato party will go on this year as Cacci’s neighbor offered to help her with the garden by completing the manual labor of digging up the holes. Her strict exercise routine may be re-prioritized behind gardening, or in Cacci’s determined yet humble words, “Either that or get up early and work late.”
Edited by: Savannah Morgan