Cyn Kitchen: In the company of women breaking beans

·4 min read
Cyn Kitchen
Cyn Kitchen

Not far from the main drag, down Van Buren Street in Marion, Illinois, sits a ramshackle house bordered by a ditch that runs high with muddy water after a hard rain. Towering oaks hover over the patchy front yard creating a canopy of shade against the oppressive summer sun. Queen among a gathering of women and girls is my paternal grandma— Em by name — lightly bouncing in her metal lawn chair, its paint gone to flake. We gather for the breaking of beans, plucked this morning from the bounty of Grandpa’s garden, out back by the bee house which is actually a tool shed. Any bees who appear are merely passersby.

Those of us congregated out front have been supplied with lapfuls of beans piled on folded sheets of newspaper. Between our feet is a brown paper bag from the grocery store, its edges rolled down to create a shallow vessel. We pinch the ends from each bean, break its heart into bites, drop them from our hands into the bag. There is a satsifying crumpling of paper as the damp beans weigh down the newsprint in our laps and the bags at our feet fill to bursting.

Above us, cicadas buzz with deafening volume, orchestrating a cacophony of noise that I still associate as the sound of heat. Grandma sucks her gums. “Whooee,” she says. “Have mercy.” This is to say she is weary; the heat has gotten to all us. It is a sigh also of life, that by her age has grown heavy and forelorn. She’s weary from the long haul of years.

Kitchen columns:Cyn Kitchen: Gusty winds may or may not exist

I am a child, infrequent visitor to this foreign land, learning the ways of its people, my people. I do not remember Grandma’s hands, nor do I recall how she carried herself through the world. Did she lower into chairs or plop? What of her gait might I find noteworthy? What is fluid? Arthritic? I know she loved me, but I cannot testify to her affection for there is no memory of touch, no recollection of embrace.

This grandmother is Appalachain, a transplant to Illinois from the mountains of Grundy County, Tennessee. She married Grandpa on Christmas Day in 1921, and they eventually made their way north, to find work. Van Buren Street is where they landed, where they stayed. She died when I was young. The distance between Galesburg and Marion meant we only visited once or twice a year.

What I do remember is the caricature of her face, a bulbous nose, jutting chin, the shadow of her thin frame in a house-dress moving through the kitchen before dawn, already starting in on the midday feast, the frantic spit of a pressure cooker on the stove. I remember the deep Southern twang of her voice, always with an air of scold even when she was being playful, shaking the flyswatter that always seemed to be in one hand at ne’er-do-wells. Her cookie jar was perpetually full of Fig Newtons, orange boxes of Wheaties lined atop the kitchen cabinets, Grandpa’s morning go-to, without fail, and always green beans spitting steam into the kitchen’s dawning light. Once, Grandpa paid us a dime apiece for each white butterfly we caught amongst his garden acre of beans. When he ran out of dimes, he paid us in nickels. When he ran out of nickels, he paid us in Chiclets, those tiny cardboard boxes that held two square pieces of white chewing gum.

More Opinion:Roundtable: How do you characterize the events of Jan. 6, 2021?

I regret to admit there was no joy for me in breaking beans. No rapture in the moment of communion with my elders as I listened to their sermons, their beefs, their stories. The tedious labor of my hands consumed me, sent me sulking, as if a punishment, a rebuke. I remember those gatherings, every woman in my family collected near the sidewalk that heaved from the roots of a giant sycamore that loomed overhead, ancient and massive. Humidity draws us impossibly close, the air pulsing with the murmur of the voices of my women-kin and me, in their midst, memories infusing me as I sulked.

What I’d give to go back. I’d admonish my young self to be present, to hold on, to take it all in. But I am weak and my heart is fickle. Like so many other moments that I’ll one day long to recall, I disregard these, as if they don’t matter.

Another July, nearly 50 years later, and the beans in my garden are ready. I’ll pick them and set to breaking them by myself, memories, thick as the sound of cicadas, filling my head.

Cyn Kitchen is associate professor of English at Knox College and a lifelong resident of the Galesburg area. She is the author of “Ten Tongues” and also publishes creative nonfiction and poems.

This article originally appeared on Galesburg Register-Mail: Cyn Kitchen: In the company of women breaking beans, Galesburg, Marion