“A True and (Extra)ordinary Tale of Desire, Deceit and Devotion” (a la the Modern Love column of the NYT). I think I’ll send it to Daniel Jones, editor of that marvelous column, just for fun. I’ve revised it, shrunk it, changed some of the tenses, cut out a few chin rubs (if you can believe it) and, well, what do you think? This submission will join the 50,000 others that Editor Jones has read in the last few years.
The Freshman Speech: A Garden Creation
“I’m the pole bean expert in my family.”
I stand in front of the Bates College freshman speech class and begin my five-minute talk on the assigned topic What are you an expert at? Explain. I pause, just as my speech teacher instructed, to let a truck drive between each sentence, and I scan the desks, hunting for that Big Handsome Guy. I spot him in the back in his usual seat, legs stretched out, reading what looks like the sports page. He always checks the box scores before class.
“Each of my six brothers and sisters have a particular vegetable to grow and harvest. I take charge of the pole beans.” BHG slants forward in his seat, tucks his legs under his chair, rubs his chin, and gazes right at me, the paper still folded to the sports page, but under his elbow.
“I sow seeds in little pots. I push them into the soil with my pinky finger.” BHG glances at my fingers. They wiggle at my side, nervous energy making them like live and loose electric wires. “I line the pots up to germinate on the sunny windowsill in my bedroom.”
“After three weeks the seedlings are ready for transplanting. But first I 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 pick up a shovel and pitchfork I’ve borrowed from the maintenance men. I show how I remove four inches of soil. Then with a pitchfork I mime how I loosen another four inches.
“Beans also like rich soil. I use 17-year-old horse manure.” The class snickers. I feel the color rise up above the collar of my red corduroy dress. “Manure this old doesn’t smell!” BHG looks sympathetic.
“Beans need a framework to support them as they grow taller. Just like any growing thing really.” I stand straight and hold my arms out to demonstrate. “Our muscles need our bones to support them. So I erect a system of cane wigwams.”
I take three bamboo poles and demonstrate how I arrange them in the dirt and tie them at the top. “The cane supports the growing bean like parents support children.” BHG’s eyes twinkle.
I take a deep breath and plunge on. “Another thing beans need is insects. For the pollinating. So I plant the beans in several short rows.” I draw a little sketch in the air. “This is better than long rows that block the sun and air currents.” BHG follows my hands. “Planting in squares leaves space and shelter for insects to get in amongst the wigwams. The climbing flowers need those bugs.”
I’m too shy to explain that if the insects didn’t get to the flowers, fertilization won’t occur and the pods won’t set. It seems a little too explicit, so I skip that card.
BHG’s eyebrows arch at this, and he frowns at the same time. I’ve noticed that arch-frown expression from my seat across the room during our regular classes. If I tilt my head to the left I can eye most of him on the other side of the mid-room pillar, but I can’t do it too much during lectures. All semester I’ve wondered if I dare move to a closer seat without being too obvious.
“I check to make sure the plants twine around their canes. And I spy for signs of disease. I look under their leaves and shake them.” BHG chuckles. He stretches his legs out again and crosses his arms over his chest. And he keeps his eyes on me. Riveted on me more like.
“Aphids are about this long,” I space my fingers a quarter inch, “and they suck the plant juice. Very bad.” BHG nods as if he knows about such things, too.
“Beans need tons of water especially when the first flower buds show and after they’re open.” I pretend to hold a watering can. “I stand and sing a verse of Yankee Doodle over each plant.” I sing one verse to demonstrate. BHG laughs out loud; no one else does.
“I start harvesting when the bean is about this size.” I measure it off with my fingers. “The more I pick, the more the bean plant produces. I don’t want them 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 blush. BHG rubs his chin. My cinch waist belt suffocates me. “Really! They taste like cat tongue.” He slaps the desk and guffaws. “So. Thin, pencil-sized ones are the most tender.”
“Questions?” This is an obligatory part of the speech assignment and usually no one asks anything.
The BHG raises his hand. “Yes?” My voice quavers. I can’t look at him straight on.
“Why are pole beans your favorite?”
I brighten at this question. “Well, the beans grow straight up, and they stay off the ground.”
“Because of the bamboo wigwams?”
I nod and continue. “This means that the beans stay cleaner and are easier to pick. Plus they look pretty growing and taste great.”
“Thanks,” he says. And smiles.
I smile back.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
“Help me turn the soil, Jack?” He’s in the lawn chair and looks up from the paper. “I’m planting a second crop of beans.” He laughs as he comes down to the garden, paper folded under his arm.
“Pole beans?” He chuckles as he hoes the soil. “I 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. Wow.” He breaks up a big clod. “Yup. I thought: cute, big family, garden–just like my family.”
I don’t know what prompts me to do what comes next. But I put down my trowel and stand up. “Jack,” I 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. “I did wonder about this–after meeting your family, that is.” He does the eyebrow-arch and sweeps the garden beds with the sports page hand. “But how did you learn?”
“What I didn’t learn from the Gilbreth family in Cheaper By the Dozen, the Scott family taught me.” The Scotts lived down the street from my growing-up home. “The parents and kids had a big garden that they worked together. I helped them for years.”
I relax and take a deep breath. I feel like a newly-turned bit of yard all ready for growing something new. I rush on with my confession.
“My friend Edie Scott would have me come for the whole weekend just so I could garden with them. She specialized in pole beans. That’s where I learned about cane wigwams.” I pat one of my sturdy set ups.
I spill the beans, so to speak, after we’d been married for ten years and had four children. It’s going on 46 years now, and we’re still twining, like well-fed and watered pole beans, despite, or, I guess, maybe because of, the garden creation.