I had a lot of chores when I was a kid but none that I truly hated more than picking beans. First of all, if you know anything about North Carolina you know that the summers can be sweltering. And if you don’t know anything about a summer in the Carolinas, know this: Carolina summers are hot and humid and full of bugs. So there’s that. Secondly, when my daddy planted a garden he clearly planned on feeding the world because the rows were L O O O N G. Thirdly: Bean plants make me ITCH!!! And despite what my mama said that itching was NOT in my imagination.
So when my mama said its time to pick beans I knew I was in for a day from hell. Of course, I could never say such a thing to Mama because the word “hell” was not allowed into my vocabulary unless you were at church or otherwise talkin’ about hell as opposed to heaven. Any other use of that word was considered cussin’ (or cursing, if you didn’t grow up in the South). And my mama was strongly opposed to cussin’.
On Bean Pickin’ Day you had to get up early in an effort to avoid the heat of the day – although some days the heat had lived all through the night and was still there in the morning – offering no relief at all. The problem with gettin’ out to the garden early is that the dew is still on everything – from the grass you walked through to get to the garden; to every single leaf and bean in the garden. Ugh. And you’d think that a girl that grew up working in the summers barnin’ tobacco would know something about getting up early, wet leaves, and sweatin’ – which is very true. However, barnin’ tobacco is done with a crowd of folks that, in my experience, are mostly fun to work with. Bean pickin’ is not exactly solitary but let’s just say it lacks the allure of a crowd which may be hard to understand and even harder to explain. The bottom line is there was not one glamorous thing about pickin’ beans. I’d start pickin’ and the sound of those first beans droppin’ into the bucket sounded like a death knell. I knew that bucket had to be filled and filled and filled again.
The day began wet with dew which eventually gave way to plain ole sweat, trickling slow and salty from every pore in your body, lying in dark creases around your neck, rolling over your face and into your eyes burning like little pots of fire. The purgatory proceeded to include all manner of insects, which could be harmless grasshoppers that might startle you with their sudden jumps or graceful dragon flies that could be enchanting enough to lure you away from the task at hand before a sharp reminder from the busy taskmaster. Or you might meet up with some irritable ole hornet who’d just as soon sting you as look at you. But the worst were the blankety-blank (fill in any cuss word here that I was not allowed to say) mosquitos, gnats, and flies – especially horse flies, which were the meanest, hatefulest critters ever invented with the absolutely nastiest bite you can imagine. And they bit you just because they wanted to. Ugggghhhh!!!! They were surely Satan’s minions!
About halfway the first row (what? you thought my daddy only planted ONE row of beans? Oh, if only….) I’d start itching – mostly my arms but sometimes my legs, too. And I tried with all my might not to scratch because once I started the worse it got. I swear I could have scrubbed my arms raw and to no avail. It was awful. I could complain and certainly did my share of it but I had learned that didn’t accomplish anything except to make my mama mad and what good was that? I’d just end up hot, sweaty, itchy AND gettin’ the stink eye from Mama OR worse – and no matter what I wasn’t gettin’ out of pickin’ those beans. So there!
Even so, I have to say that it wasn’t all bad. Walking outside on a summer morning with a fine mist hovering over the fields, birds singing joyfully, and morning glories showing off their prettiest blooms is a completely fine way to start the day, no matter what else is in store. And there is nothing quite like the sounds of summer in the country – those insects and birds, be they loathesome or lovely, could compete with any orchestra with their whirring and buzzing and trilling and cawing and chirping perfectly laid against the backdrop of hazy blue skies and a blazing ball of sun beginning low on the horizon and creeping slowly, steadily toward noonday. Then when you’re done you feel mighty good about the bountiful harvest and very proud of your own hard work – not to mention the approving smile from Mama. And sittin’ in the kitchen with her smile, my little brother, an electric fan blowing the air happily about while we cooled our insides with a cold glass of sweet tea is just about the best reward there is.
Nowadays I relish in buying beans that somebody else has picked for all these years later I can still recall how much I hated pickin’ beans. And yet what I wouldn’t give to have one more summer day with my mama in that bean field.