My dad was a rural soul, despite a closet full of suits and a house in a Birmingham, Alabama, suburb. This notion first presented itself to me one night as I ate supper at a kindergarten friend’s house and made a puzzling discovery: her family ate beans from tin cans!
I thought all beans came from canning jars. After all, jars of beans, tomatoes, peppers, beets, and bread-and-butter pickles lined shelves in our playroom. Jars of muscadine grape, peach, pear, and blackberry jam glowed like jewels next to the Pachinko machine. Four freezers filled with organically-raised vegetables sat in the playroom alongside a pool table whose only purpose was to provide a surface for drying herbs. And boxes of empty Mason jars—awaiting next season’s harvest—towered on the upright piano.
I rushed home and reported the news. “Most people eat processed vegetables,” Mom said, confirming this new fact of life. “Aren’t you children lucky that your father is a wonderful gardener?”
Lucky? I didn’t think so, especially on Saturday afternoons. While the neighbor kids played kickball on the cul-de-sac, the five Hamrick children tended the crops next to the utility easement at the back of our yard. No, Martha, Bud, Mary, Peggy, and I did not feel sentimental about growing, picking, and processing squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, corn, and beans, beans, beans.
By early July, vines strangled the beanpoles, and dozens of squash hid under large leaves. Baskets in hand, we trudged to our appointed rows. We spent hour after hour reaching high and bending low, harvesting produce and pulling weeds. How we longed for a thunderstorm to come and relieve us!
No wonder years later I rolled my eyes when I read Thoreau’s bean chapter in Walden: “I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late … It is a fine broad leaf to look on.” Phooey. Henry D never hoed beans in the dog days of an Alabama Summer.
Tom Sawyer proved a more inspiring literary figure. He turned the chore of whitewashing a fence into an enviable pleasure. The five of us decided to give that a try with string beans. Bud figured that if each of us invited a friend to drop by at 4 p.m., five kids would show up around the time we started stringing our just-picked produce on the patio. With a little playacting, 20 hands instead of 10 would work beans that day.
“Do y’all have to string all those beans?” one of our curious onlookers asked.
“Sure, nothin’ to it,” said Martha. She was the smoothest talker of us all.
“Really?” another wide-eyed child asked.
“Oh, yeah. Last week we strung twice as many,” Martha said nonchalantly.
“At least two bushels.”
“Can I try?”
“I don’t know … It takes most people two years to develop the technique.” Martha snap-snapped rapidly.
“But I’m a fast learner.”
“I don’t know. My father doesn’t like just anybody handling his beans.”
“I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea …”
“Let me just try.”
“We-e-e-ell, maybe …”
Ah, the art of delegation.
Dad relished his role as the suburban legend and scoffed at the notion that we put food by because we were poor. “Heck, we’re rich,” Dad said. “We have a radio and a car. When I was a kid, Doc Weeks had the only radio in our county. On Saturday afternoons, he propped it in his window and turned up the volume for everybody standing around in his front yard.”
Sometimes Dad got a little carried away with his storytelling. One of my friends went google-eyed when she saw my father stack fifteen quarts of just-creamed Silver Queen corn in one of the playroom freezers.
“Why are you putting up all that corn?” she asked.
“Haven’t you heard about the famine?” he said.
“A famine?” she asked, her voice quavering. “Can my family come to your house if we run out of food?”
“Have you heard the story of the Little Red Hen? Did she share her bread?” Dad looked at her sidewise like a chicken and then turned to inspecting the sage and rosemary on the pool table.
The girl ran home to report the imminent disaster to her mother—who, in a panic, promptly called mine. “Is it true?!” she cried.
I’ll never forget the Spring Dad spotted a hose sale in a hardware circular and decided to rig up an irrigation system to water his “back forty.” When he came home with his prize purchases, Mom was not happy. Some hoses were tan, some orange, blue, red— not all a color-coordinated green.
Dad stacked the hoses behind the house, figuring he first needed to burn off the garden and the brush on the utility easement near his garden (There is a pyromaniac boy lurking inside every grown man.) Dad lit a match to the dead brush. Well, whatever the local power crew had sprayed that vegetation with was flammable—very flammable. Whoosh! There was an instant barn burner. The nearby trampoline mat melted in seconds.
Cooking supper, Mom heard faint calls: “Hose! Hose!”
She poked her head out the kitchen door and said, “Wha-a-at’s that, dear?”
Mom tripped down the pebble path and called, “Which color would you like?”
“Any damn hose you can find!”
The local firefighters soon showed up and hosed off the easement in minutes. But after that, our next-door neighbors kept long hoses screwed onto their outdoor faucets—just in case.
Dad’s front-yard gardening also captured attention. It was his uniform: a tattered, one-piece cotton jumpsuit that usually had seed packets, Spring onions, or carrots absently stuck in the pockets. Sometimes he tied a scarlet bandana around his head in homage to Willie Nelson. (In Dad’s world, only the Man in Black—Johnny Cash—overshadowed the Red-Headed Stranger.)
One day a well-coiffed socialite tooling around in her Mercedes pulled up and tried to hire my father as a yardman. “My, you look like a hard worker,” she said condescendingly. “How would you like to work full-time in my yard?”
“I earn a good rate here,” Dad said, leaning on his rake.
“I’ll top any price,” she bargained.
“I get homemade lunches and fresh-squeezed lemonade and brownies on breaks,” he said, cocking his head.
“I’ll prepare any food you want,” she insisted.
“I also get a special bonus.” He smiled wickedly.
“I get to sleep with the lady of the house.”
The woman backed her car out of the drive so fast she roared down the street in reverse!
Years later, at Dad’s funeral, we five “kids” were reminiscing about our father when Bud said, “If there is a heaven, what do you figure Dad’s doing right now?”
“Planting God’s tomatoes,” I said, “right up to the first leaves.”
“Heck, no,” said Martha. “He’s already got some youngsters up there doing that job.”
We all nodded at that.
“I know what he’s doing,” she added. “He’s telling stories.” ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #137.