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Jump In Your Mouth Beans

September 25, 2008

She terrified me. Actually, it was her little Chihuahua, Pepsi, who was not nearly as sweet as the high fructose drink he was named after, that terrified me. Opening the gate between her yard and my grandparents’ yard was always a step of faith, and oftentimes that step found me retreating back behind the safety of the gate to avoid the charging, yapping dog on the other side. I would only cross the property line if I had someone braver, like my younger brother, go through the gate first. But on this day, it was not the short-haired mongrel that brought me to tears.

My siblings and I had an idyllic childhood. With more love than most children experience in a lifetime, we were encouraged by our large extended family of Italian immigrants to mangia the delicious food that would come out of their kitchens. My Nonno and Nonna (grandpa and grandma) lived next door to my Nonna’s only sister to have immigrated to the U.S. Either due to their utility of pinching pennies to make ends meet or to the fact that this is how it was done in Italy, my grandparents and great aunt, who we all simply called Zia, grew much of their produce on their own land.

Growing up in California, we were accustomed to fresh fruits and vegetables. Growing up with the grandparents we had, we were accustomed to fruits and vegetables being picked from the yard and carried less than ten yards to the kitchen where they would be prepared and enjoyed for dinner. As kids playing outside at their house, we never wanted for a snack. In the summer, raspberries weighed down bushes on one side of the yard. In the winter, you had your pick of oranges or tangerines; although, most of the time, citrus treats were enjoyed in the comfort of a warm and dry home in front of the TV.

On this particular day, the weather was just beginning to turn cool, indicating that school had started and Christmas was, in our minds, just around the corner. A cousin had been visiting from Washington D.C. and was saying her goodbyes to the family at Zia’s house before heading to the airport. Because of the large number of people at her house, Zia had wisely shut the yapper dog Pepsi in the garage, and I was free to roam the yard without fear. I wove my way through the forest of adults standing around the car in the driveway and made my way to her garden, which was far more wild and disorderly than the garden my grandparents meticulously kept next door. The one well-tended area of her garden was the short, straight rows of green beans, which looked like they hadn’t been picked in a week.

I loved helping my grandparents pick vegetables from their garden. My grandfather would usually tell us which tomatoes or zucchini were ripe enough to pick, but green beans, those were my specialty. My mother had let my brother and I help in the planting of our own green bean garden. We built little teepee-like mounds in rows before stuffing the seeds into the earth. Some mounds were larger or had smaller slopes, but it didn’t matter; my mom encouraged us in our planting. I loved watching our little bean plants grow—each day a little taller, until my mom had to put up poles to keep them from bending and breaking. The way the vines twisted and wound around the poles entranced me, beans sprouting from their stocks. I couldn’t wait to make our favorite green bean salad that we could tell my dad we helped plant. I was my mom’s special helper to pick the beans, so I knew a ripe one when I saw it.

I rushed back eager to report that there were tons of green beans. I lightly tapped Zia’s arm, “Can I pick some green beans for you, Zia?” I asked politely. Distracted by the throng of family around her, she absently nodded, adding as I started to move, “I picked some the other day so there will not be too many.” I was so excited to help. “You have a ton, Zia!” I called as I raced off. My sister, barely two, toddled behind me anxious to keep up and be part of whatever game I was going to play.

In the far corner of the yard, I knelt down at the end of the first row and picked two beans as long as my arm, my sister just then catching up to me. “Here, let me show you,” I instructed my sister on how to pick the bean off the stock. I talked as I picked, telling her how we were helping Zia and how I couldn’t believe that she missed all these huge beans. My sister nodded and picked in agreement; although, at two she would have agreed to almost anything I suggested.

When our arms could no longer hold any more beans—which could not have been more than twenty between us—we rambled back out in front of the garage, juggling to keep the beans in our arms and off the ground. “Zia! Look! And there is still a bunch left!” I excitedly showed her the beans I had picked, anticipating her appreciation and happiness at my helpfulness.

A second later, the look on her face was a clear indication that I would not be receiving the approval I was seeking. “What did you do? Why did you pick these? You don’t pick these big beans. These stay on the vine! They are for seeds!” A long list of commands and reprimands issued from her mouth in her heavy Italian accent mixed with phrases and more chastisements in Italian, my beans falling to the ground, as my tears followed. I was mortified that I had made her unhappy, mortified that I had picked the wrong beans, mortified that I didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to pick those beans; and to make matters worse, I could hardly even understand a word she said! My Nonna had never spoken to me like that. I had never heard my Nonna speak to anyone like that. My sister dropped the beans in her hand, blissfully unaware of the verbal lashing I was receiving. Looking back, I’m thankful that she was too young to understand what was going on or be reprimanded herself; but at the time, I must admit that I thought only of my own pain and shame.

That afternoon, I went home with my head buried in my father’s shoulder, my hot tears of shame and remorse bathing his shirt. According to my father, I had done nothing wrong. I didn’t know, and Zia hadn’t told me not to pick those. My primary consolation that day was knowing that I would not receive the same rebuking earful from my father that I had heard from my great aunt. I vowed to avoid her, to be wary of her and her wrath, and to never go into her garden again.

Thankfully, that is not the end. At seven, some things are easily forgiven, and while I still feared her, I was able to move beyond my hurt that day because she did. The crostoli, her special Italian cookies, didn’t hurt either.

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