The Winter of the Beans: What It Felt Like to Be Needy
Today people call the farm I lived on when I was a little girl a "hobby farm." For us, it was more than that: our farm was a survival farm. That's where our milk, our vegetables, our beef, and our pork came from. We had hay fields, oat fields and corn fields to feed the animals. Dad worked for Ma Bell, but the farm was an important part of our survival. Most years, Dad planted winter wheat as a cash crop. One year Dad planted beans; beans could pay out big time.
One year Dad planted soybeans instead of wheat. Soybeans sold for $3.00 a bushel and wheat, only $1.30. That was going to put money in the bank, that's for sure. Only it rained and rained in September and October, and Dad couldn't get the beans out of the field. Dad took me out there one day, just like he usually did with the wheat. He rolled a handful of bean pods between his palms, same as he did with the wheat. Only with wheat, he blew like a whisper on his palm and the chaff flew into the breeze, leaving behind a treasure of crunchy kernels to pop into my mouth and snack on, right then and there. The bean pod opened up all limp, revealing black, moldy beans that smelled like the mildew that got around the basement walls in August and had to be washed off with bleach. Dad clenched his teeth together in that way that sent ripples up along his jaw, and he looked way out across the field like he was searching for something.
Dad never seemed so far away and, at the same time, right there in the field beside me. I felt worse than when he yelled at me, 'cause when he yelled at me, I always thought of something to say back. Even when I kept it in my head, I at least knew I had something to say. Standing together in that field almost touching and feeling so far apart, well, I just felt empty.
That was the same year that Dad's stories about Ma Bell got a whole lot less fun. Instead of laughing with all her silver fillings showing, Mom started leaning forward when Dad talked and covering his hand with hers with her brown eyes looking into his blue eyes -- the same way Dad searched out over that soybean field. Dad talked about his friend Clem and about who was getting overtime and who wasn't, and how the list for overtime got put together, and who was watching who worked how much. That was the year Ma Bell lost her generosity, and Dad was out of work.
Mom brought home gobs of processed cheese, kinda like Velveta, and butter and flour and sugar. Everything with no regular labels like Kraft or Land-o-Lakes or Pioneer; just plain wrappers, with U.S.D.A. Farm Surplus printed in black. I loved to read, even labels. Mom brought home so much butter, we had one pound for each person in the house every single month. That was way more than we could eat, so Mom put it in the freezer with the day-old bread she got for 10¢ a loaf. I loved Macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches, so the cheese was super-great. Usually Mom only made that stuff on Friday, when we had to abstain from meat; now we got it anytime of the week. Neat-o, keen-o.
Two ladies in Sunday dresses, and wool coats with fur collars, drove up in the circle drive with a big basket of food all wrapped up in cellophane with a big red bow up top, plus a huge Thanksgiving Day turkey about the same size as baby Frankie. Those somebodies came up to the front door and knocked. That's how I knew they were strangers; friends and family always come to the back door, strangers and salesmen come to the front door. Besides nobody I knew wore Sunday dresses and smelled like lily of the valley in the middle of the week, unless they were going into the city, like for a doctor's appointment or something like that. I only saw one woman in my life, before this day, with a fur collar, like these two ladies; the kind where a dead fox bites it's own tail, and his eyes are all glassy, like he's surprised he got into a predicament that stuck him on some rich-ladies shoulders.
"No," I said, feeling tears stinging in the back of my eyes. I tried to turn Mom around and push her out the front door before those ladies got a chance to drive away. "Give it back." Mom just stared down at me, like I was talking a different language. "They should give this stuff to somebody needy. Not us," I kept talking, 'cause I was a pretty good at arguing. Mom said I should be in debate someday when I got in high school, that's how much I liked to fight with words.
"We are needy," Mom said, and she walked into the kitchen and started taking everything out of that pretty basket and putting the stuff into the cupboards or the refrigerator, as if she just got home from grocery shopping. Mom looked the same way Dad did in the soybean field, except she had that look on her face like she was deciphering a puzzle, with all her thoughts deep inside her brain where she couldn't hear anyone else's voice, instead of like she was searching for something far away, like Dad did when he was in that field.
Now as then, my life is abundantly filled, so much so that sometimes I must remind myself that it's okay to be helped from time to time. It's good to remember that sometimes even the hardest working people need a helping hand, and sometimes it's me who needs to swallow my pride, reach out and take someone's hand. Anyone of us can be just one tough season away from needing assistance. Most of all, learning to receive is just as important as learning to give.