“I was the pole bean expert in my family.” I stood in front of my Bates College freshman speech class and began my five-minute talk on the assigned topic “What are you an expert at? Explain.”
I paused, just as instructed, as if to let a truck drive between each sentence. I scanned the desks, hunting for the Big Handsome Guy. I spotted him in the back in his usual seat, legs stretched out, reading what looked like the sports page. He always seemed to check the box scores before class. “Each of my six brothers and sisters had a particular vegetable to grow and harvest. I took charge of the pole beans.”
BHG had slanted forward in his seat, tucked his legs under his chair, rubbed his chin, and was gazing right at me. The paper was still folded to the sports page, but under his elbow.
“I sowed the seeds in little pots. I pushed them into the soil with my pinky finger. I remember having potting soil under my fingernails.”
BHG glanced at my fingers. They wiggled at my side, nervous energy making them like live, loose electric wires.
“I lined them up to germinate on the sunny windowsill in my bedroom.”
“After three weeks the seedlings were ready for transplanting. But first I had to prepare the soil. Bean roots like to go deep, so the ground needs to be dug twice. I’ll demonstrate.” I put my note cards down and picked up a shovel and pitchfork I’d borrowed from the maintenance men. I showed how I removed four inches of soil. Then with a pitchfork I mimed how I loosened another four inches.
BHG leaned into the aisle and watched me place my foot on the lug of the shovel, bend over, push, and turn.
“Beans also like rich soil. I used 17-year-old horse manure.” The class snickered. I could feel the color rising up above the collar of my red corduroy dress. BHG looked sympathetic. I rushed to explain. “Manure this old doesn’t smell, and it works really well.”
“Beans need a framework to support them as they grow taller. Just like any growing thing really.” I stood straight and held my arms out to demonstrate. “Our muscles need our bones to support them. For the beans I made wigwams out of bamboo poles.”
I took three bamboo poles and demonstrated how I arranged them in the dirt and tied them at the top. “The cane supports the growing bean like parents support children.” BHG’s eyes twinkled at this.
I took a deep breath and plunged on. “Another thing beans need is insects. For the pollinating. So I planted the beans in several short rows in a block.” I drew a little sketch in the air. “This is better than long rows that block the sun and air currents.” I could see BHG following my hands. “Planting in squares leaves space and shelter for insects to get in amongst the wigwams with their climbing bean flowers.” I was a little shy to explain that if the insects didn’t get to the flowers then the pods wouldn’t set. It seemed a little too explicit, so I skipped that card. BHG smiled. I think he knew what I skipped.
“I put two plants per cane and made sure to water them well. I had a special fleece blanket I used to cover them up if I heard on the radio that it was going to be cold in the night.”
I looked up from my note cards and adlibbed, feeling very brave.
“I was a little like a parent, I think.” BHG’s eyebrows arched and he frowned at the same time, something I’d noticed he was good at. I had been eyeing him this whole first semester, wondering if he had a girlfriend, hoping he didn’t.
“Beans need tons of water especially when the first flower buds show and after they’re open.” I pretended I was holding a watering can. “I used to stand and sing a verse of Yankee Doodle over each plant.” I sang one verse to demonstrate. BHG laughed out loud, although no one else in the class did.
“I started harvesting when the bean is about this size.” I measured it off with my fingers. “The more I picked, the more the bean plant produced. I didn’t want them staying on the vine too long. One time I went to Girl Scout camp in July and came back to ten-inch pods. The beans made the pods bulge. They looked pregnant!” I blushed. BHG rubbed his chin. I felt as if my three-inch cinch waist belt was suffocating me. “Really! They tasted like cat tongue.” He slapped the desk and guffawed. “So. Thin, pencil-sized ones are the most tender.”
“Questions?” This was an obligatory part of the speech assignment and usually no one asked anything.
The BHG raised his hand.
“Yes?” My voice quavered. I couldn’t look at him straight on.
“Why are pole beans your favorite?”
I brightened at this question. “Well, the beans grow straight up, and they stay off the ground.”
“Because of the bamboo wigwams?”
I nodded and continued. “They helped the beans stay clean and are easy to pick.”
“Thanks,” he said. And smiled.
I smiled back.
*** *** ***
“Help me do a little digging, Jack?” He’s in the lawn chair and looks up from the box scores. “I’m planting beans.”
He laughs as he comes down to the garden, paper still in one hand.
“Pole beans?” He chuckles and starts chopping soil with the pitchfork. “I can still remember you standing there in that red corduroy dress.”
“I know. I watched you the whole time I was talking.”
“I just kept thinking this is the girl for me.” He breaks up a big clod. “Yup. I thought: cute, big family, garden–just like my family.”
I don’t know what prompted me to do what comes next. But I put down my trowel and stand up.
“Jack,” I straighten and square my shoulders. I can feel the hot on my cheeks. I clear my throat. “I have something I need to tell you.”
He stares at me, face clouding over, grin fading.
“We didn’t have a garden.”
“You and your sisters and brothers didn’t plant your particular vegetables?”
“You didn’t specialize in pole beans?”
I shake my head.
“Hmmm. “ He rubs his chin. “You know, I sort of figured this out…after meeting your family, that is.” He does the eyebrow-arch-and frown thing and sweeps his newspaper over the wigwams. “But how’d you learn how to grow the beans?”
“Well, from the book Cheaper By the Dozen and the Scotts, remember, that big family that lived next door? They all came to the wedding? I used to help them in their garden.”
I relax and take a deep breath. I feel like a newly turned bit of yard all ready for growing something new.
“My friend Edie Scott specialized in pole beans. That’s where I learned about bamboo wigwams.
I spilled the beans, so to speak, after we’d been married for many years and had four children. It’s going on 42 years now, and we’re still twining, like well-fed and watered pole beans, despite…or maybe because of…my garden creation.
10/18/10 (I read a version of this for the upcoming 10/22/10 Colin MCENROE show on WNPR)