Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Handful of Pinto Beans

Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always wanted to be a farmer. I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t drawn to the soil as if by some unseen power. At an early age, I was told that I had a green thumb and many's the time that people would ask me to plant their gardens, bushes, etc. because they said, “If anybody can get them to grow, Matthew can.”

Milkweed Ladies on the Mallow Farm.

The very first thing that I ever remember planting was a handful of pinto beans. I remember Mom was looking over a bag of store-boughten pinto beans that she was getting ready to cook (looking over them I’m sure you know, means that she was sorting through them and picking out cracked beans and the occasional pebble.) Well, she had a few beans picked out that were unsuitable to be cooked and I asked her if I could have them. She said that I could, but not to eat them because raw beans will give you a stomachache. I said that I wouldn’t eat them, but that I was going to plant them. It was early spring then, way too early to be planting anything on the mountain, but Mom told me to go ahead and plant them but to plant them in the corner of the garden (she told me to put them in the corner because she knew I wouldn’t let them plow it up after I planted the beans, even though they had little to no chance of growing). Well, I remember I went out and poked a hole in the ground with my pointer finger, and dropped a bean into the cold soil. I covered them up the some dirt and I repeated this until I had all of the broken and misshapen pinto beans planted. I checked on them several times that first day, and occasionally over the next few days, but I soon lost interest in waiting to see the first sprouts of the beans that I was just sure would soon pop through the soil. A few weeks later when the garden was plowed up in preparation for the spring planting, Mom noticed that there were five little bean plants growing in the corner of the garden. She called me over and showed them to me, and of course there never was a bean plant that ever looked so good as the ones that I had grown. Everyone was shocked that the plants had grown from the cracked pintos that had been sorted out of a store-boughten bag of pinto beans!

We tended to the beans that spring and they were getting up pretty good in size when my family decided to move out of Johnson Holler to over across the mountain to the Mallow Farm. The main reason was because my brother Jason had started to school the year before and Dad would drive him over North Fork Mountain every day to catch the school bus in Monkeytown, and this fall I would be starting to Kindergarten, so Mom and Dad figured it’d be better if we lived on the same side of the mountain as where we’d be attending school rather than risking the trip across the mountain every day all winter. The Mallow Farm was also closer to Dad’s work, it was only about a mile from the gate of the farm whereas Johnson Holler was about 15 miles. The third, but not the least important reason for moving out of Johnson Holler was because we wouldn’t have to pay rent. I remember rent at the old house in Johnson Holler was $50 a month, plus you had to supply your own buckets to catch the water that leaked through the roof when it rained. This was so the water wouldn’t rot out the floors (yes, the house was that good!). But on the Mallow Farm, there was no rent but we did have to tend to the farm. It seemed like a good deal to all of us, we got the run of a 585-acre farm just for taking care of it. I suppose another reason why we moved to the farm was that my Grandmaw Henry had just passed away and Mom and Dad were taking care of five of Dad’s siblings, of which the youngest was just 3 years older than my brother Jason and the Mallow Farm was more conducive to raising a passel of “heatherns” as we were frequently called, than most anywhere else they could think of.

So that was the long way around of telling you that I never got to harvest those first beans that I ever planted. We moved out of Johnson Holler early that summer, and had to leave the old garden behind. I’m sure the deer and groundhogs had a field day with it. Over the years I have often wondered if those pinto beans ever amounted to anything.

Germany Valley...my home.

After moving to the farm, we have plenty of ground to tend to. Since Mom and Dad were raising all of us kids then, our family garden was easily 2 acres in size, one acres of which was planted in potatoes. I remember there were plenty of “garden suppers” as we called them, suppers where everything we had came out of the garden. I don’t ever remember going hungry though. We also raised hogs, chickens, sheep, ducks, guineas, cows and a horse. The sheep, cows and the one old horse were owned by the man who owned the farm but we tended to them the same as we did our own.

We only saw the owner about once a month, if that, except during haying season, during which time he would be over every day cutting this or that hayfield. I remember that he had two teenage sons who were smitten with my Aunts who lived with us then. They were all about the same age, and every day for lunch they’d come over to the house to visit. They said they came for some cool spring water, but they wasn’t fooling anybody, they was a-tryin’ to court my aunts. Nothing ever amounted to their advances, Mom said that the girls were too young to be interested in boys, even though the girls were the same age as the boys. Mom always told the girls not to be a farmer’s wife, because they would work you to death and they’d find themselves broke down with a passel of kids before they was 40. I find it ironic now just how picky Mom was for us all, we really didn’t have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of, but she always expected us to do better for ourselves. From where I’m sitting now, I’d have thought she’d have welcomed one of my aunts marrying up with the farmer’s sons, but she never did. But I reckon it goes back to the days when our family had money, and although the “uppity” customs that went along with the old ways got passed on down to us, the money didn’t. My granny always said we was “poor genteel”.

Late Autumn on the Mallow Farm

We might have been poor as church mice but there were things we done that were atypical of our neighbors in a similar financial predicament, for example, we always had to eat everything with a fork, finger foods were just unacceptable and were considered beneath us…my mother still won’t eat a sandwich! All these years later, I’m still guilty of eating everything with a fork, or at least I have to have a fork in my hand while I’m eating, even if I don’t use it. Another thing was we always had to have clean sheets and pillowcases on our beds. We knew a lot of people who were as poor as we were who didn’t have sheets or pillowcases, and we just thought that was awful. The ones we had might have been worn out, but by crackies we had them and used them! Another thing was our shoes had to be clean. It didn’t matter what we had been doing, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere in dirty shoes…not even scuffed up shoes…for that was a sure sign of “trashiness”. I still find myself now, whenever I meet someone, the first thing I look at is their shoes. I’ve found over the years that this is a pretty good method of sizing people up, although there are some exceptions to this rule.

The farmhouse on the Mallow Farm.

We lived on the farm for several years, and today I consider myself having grown up on a farm even though we moved from it while I was still in elementary school. We moved from the farm because Mom and Dad had bought a house up on the mountain where Dad's family was from. It was originally part of the old Burns property but had been sold off back in the Depression to pay for a store bill. In those days, my Granddaddy didn’t have much but land, so much so that it is told that he sold the back side of the mountain for a horse and buggy, and he sold the land that borders the current Burns property for a bottle of whiskey! I ain’t never for the life of me figured out why he would have sold all the good land on the mountain and the valley below and kept the rockiest part of it. It could be because he couldn’t give away that part of the land, let alone sell it, but at least he kept enough land to give future generations of his family a sense of place and of their heritage. God knows, thats about all we have left! That and a bunch of cousins and relatives who will fight and quarrel over nothing more than a rock, its sad to see that the family has crumbled the way that it has over the past generation or so, it just seems that people don’t want the land but they don’t want anyone else to have it either. I suppose it all happened because Grandmaw and Granddaddy broke the old custom of leaving everything they had to the oldest boy and everyone else just had their lifetime rights to the property, instead of following that custom which had worked for the past 200 or so years, they left their estate to all of their children to be shared equally. The old custom might have been unfair, but the equal sharing way has done nothing but tear the family apart. All I know is that Grandmaw and Granddaddy done what they thought was best.

Remnants of the original Burns homeplace.

So there’s a little dirty family laundry for y’all out there reading this rambling post. Now to continue what I consider the main thread of this story, after we moved up on the mountain, on land that was now ours and ours alone, we found out just how much we missed the farm. While we did still raise hogs and chickens, we didn’t have near the land to grow our garden, raise our stock or just to get out and enjoy. We also didn’t have a big house like we did on the farm and we really had to pare down. We gave truckloads of stuff to my one Aunt who sold a lot of it in a big yard sale. We also gave away stuff to just about anyone who needed something. Probably the two things that most affected me was having to give away a lot of my toys (it took seven pick-up loads to carry all of our toys from the farmhouse, but the new house could only hold around one pick-up load). The other thing was losing our beloved dog, Pete. Pete was a farm dog, and after we moved off of the farm, he pined away for it. One day we noticed Pete was no longer with us, and the next day, the man who owned the farm brought Pete back to us and said that Pete had found his way back to the farm (about 5 miles away). Dad figured it would happen again and told the man if Pete wandered back down to the farm again, to just go ahead and keep him. A few days later, Pete went back to the farm and the man kept him. It was hard letting go of Pete but we knew that is what made Pete happy.

Aside from that, I liked living in our new home, we were located right beside of my Grandmaw Mary, whom I dearly loved, and just under the hill from my Granddaddy’s house. We also didn’t have to walk a half-mile to catch the school bus either. So while I did miss the farm in many ways, I suppose it was for the best. My family had returned home to the mountain that had borne our blood since 1699, and I suspect like the many generations of ancestors who came before, they will remain there for the duration. In the meantime, I am a farmer without a farm but the memories I have continue to sustain me even though in the back of my head I can hear Gerald O’Hara from “Gone With The Wind” repeating “Land, Katie Scarlett, Land. ‘Tis the only thing worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for. Land, Katie Scarlett, Land, Why it’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing that lasts…”

And to think this all started one early spring day all those years ago with a few old cracked-up pinto beans that weren’t fit to eat.


Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

Reading your post is a like a big ol' comforting drink of cider. Goes down easy, with hints of various flavors and a nice aftertaste. :-)

Tipper said...

I loved this post Matthew. Funny my family feels the same way about the bed linens and the shoes : ) You've got me wanting to go put some store bought pintos in the ground.

Anonymous said...

Dee from Tennessee

" I am a farmer without a farm..." oh my....what a sentiment. Thanks for your post.

Granny Sue said...

Matthew, you can come and farm on my place anytime.
I know how it feels to live where you can't grow things.

MimiRock said...

You write beautifully, creating pictures in my mind, that invite me to read every word and vicariously enjoy your remembrances. Thanks!