The tomato cradled in the fingertips of my mother’s left hand was nearly perfect, bright red with a green stem. While holding it under a stream of water from the kitchen sink’s faucet, Mom wielded a sharp knife in her right hand with precision.

I was alarmed. Although legally blind, my mother can still discern shapes and colors — and can see well enough to recognize faces, read magnified text, and navigate the rooms and yards of her home. But using a sharp knife? That can be risky, even with good vision.

However, as I witnessed, it was a task she can handle with ease. After 86 years on Earth, three-fourths of that as a parent, I guess experience counts for something.

Last month’s visit with Mom, along with my sister and her family, in North Carolina was unusual because every mealtime did not become an occasion to eat out at a restaurant. While we did manage to dine at my favorite places and a handful of new ones, we stayed home for more meals than is typical.

The tomato was bound for the salad she and I were going to eat at lunch minutes later. Salad was not chosen because we were counting calories, nor was it because of dietary restrictions. We could have just as easily gone to my favorite North Carolina barbecue diner (again), to her preferred Italian restaurant, or to any of a hundred nearby fast-food franchises common in big cities. But we had decided the day before that we would make a salad at home, and purchased the few necessary ingredients while at the grocery store.

I didn’t care for tomatoes growing up. They are a taste acquired after I left the nest, and I’m not sure when it happened. Probably, someone slipped tomatoes into a dish I liked before I had a chance to protest, and to my surprise, they weren’t so bad.

My father enjoyed tomatoes more than anyone I’ve ever known. He marked the change of seasons by the quality of tomatoes found in stores. Blessed with a “green thumb,” Dad sometimes grew them in his garden. I don’t have firm evidence, but I do have a vague recollection of Dad eating tomatoes like an apple. That was a sloppy proposition, but I would give anything now to bite into a beefsteak tomato with him. He’s been gone almost 29 years.

But, my sister and I still have our mother with us.

As I watched Mom skillfully slice that tomato, all those memories flashed through my mind. Images of the many things those hands have accomplished through her 86 years of life flashed by, as well.

Those were the hands that held me as a baby.

Those were the hands that kept a cold compress to my forehead when I was sick with a high fever.

Those were the hands that ironed clothes for me to wear to elementary school.

Those were the hands that drove me to piano lessons and baseball practice.

Those were the hands that let go when the time came for me to attend college.

Those were the hands that led me in the direction a boy should go.

Then last summer, those were the hands that held her first great-grandchild — then 5 months old — during a trip to Texas.

Now, here again were those same hands, lovingly at work to prepare a small — although key — part of the lunch we shared. I did my part, of course. But as usual, Mom was the maestro — making additions, offering suggestions and asking what else she could do to make this simple meal special to me… until we sat down, said grace and talked.

Throughout the week, my sister and my mother took me to some outstanding restaurants, and the price tag for the six of us — including my brother-in-law and two nephews — was often just as special. My father would have fainted.

I found myself at unique local places I didn’t know existed, sampling delicious food I otherwise might have never tried. When time came to return to Brownwood, though, we had run out of days to go to all the places we had in mind.

Even so, I didn’t consider having a simple salad lunch with just Mom and me to be an opportunity squandered. Instead, it was the most memorable meal of my trip.

Gene Deason is a former editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears in the Bulletin on Fridays.