49. Butter Beans and Bulldogs

49. Butter Beans and Bulldogs

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After

Butter Beans and Bulldogs

I shared so much with my husband, but not his passion for his vegetable garden. When we moved into the neighborhood in Lilburn, Georgia, back in the seventies, most everyone had a small garden. Jerry said that we should plant one, too.

“No, thanks,” I declared. “I’m not a garden person.” Undaunted, he went out and bought seed and an old, used tiller and began to till a corner of our backyard. He was so optimistic, he even bought a small freezer for storing the bounty. I threw a couple of loaves of store-bought bread into the shiny new freezer — all I ever intended to contribute. Smiling, Jerry raved on about how great it would be to have homegrown vegetables year-round.

“Who’s going to pick them and put them in the freezer?” I asked, arms folded stubbornly.

“You might learn to enjoy it one day,” he said.

I knew better.

Jerry spent countless hours in his garden. One night, when he had to work late, he came home and tended his tomato and bean plants by moonlight, whistling “Blueberry Hill.” I watched from an upstairs window, convinced he was wasting his time and energy.

His garden was the talk of the neighborhood. Everyone came to marvel and sample. The green bean stalks were so tall, I had to look straight up in the sky to see the tops. The tomatoes were deep red, perfectly round and juicy.

Everything grew well in Jerry’s garden, but the butter beans were his favorite. Homegrown butter beans — some people call them limas — and the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team were two of the most exciting things in his life. I cared about football and the Georgia Bulldogs about as much as I cared about that darn garden.

The years passed, and Jerry went on picking butter beans without me. Often our children helped him shell them and together they placed package after package in the freezer with all the fanfare of people putting the Hope Diamond in a vault.

Then Jerry became sick rather suddenly. He’d always been incredibly healthy and assured me he was all right. Nothing unusual turned up on the tests at the hospital. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were dealing with a biggie. On the fifth CAT scan something showed up. Exploratory surgery revealed inoperable cancer had spread throughout his brain.

Jerry and I had been together for twenty-five years, and I had no idea how I was going to live without him. I was so afraid I hardly ate or slept, barely talked, couldn’t even cry. I just stared at my husband, willing him to hang on, begging God to let life make sense again.

The doctors wouldn’t permit Jerry to work or drive. After a while, he couldn’t have anyway. Jerry went on like always, laughing, whistling “Blueberry Hill,” rooting wildly for the Bulldogs, playing with our collie, signing our twin sons up for Little League and, of course, tending his garden. He’d never been a worrier. I don’t think he even knew how to worry. Never mind — I could do it for both of us.

One day we came home from one of his hospital stays and plopped down on the sofa. “What do you want to do?” I asked, staring straight ahead, thinking, This can’t really be happening. “I think the Bulldogs are playing,” I said. “If you want, I’ll watch the game with you.”

I turned to glance at Jerry. He gave me his big, easy smile. “I’m going to pick butter beans,” he said, as if this were just another early-autumn Saturday.

I looked at him. Really looked at him. He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t ask, “Why me?” He wasn’t faking it. He wasn’t even being brave for me. He was just very simply excited about his butter beans.

He stood up to go outside, and I stood, too. “I’ll go with you,” I said, still terrified of what my future held without him.

“You don’t like to pick butter beans!” he exclaimed. Then he burst out laughing like he always did when he was really happy, his arms resting on my shoulders.

“I changed my mind.” I’d never wanted to do anything so much in my whole life as pick butter beans with my husband.

Out in his tall, green garden we went to work under the broiling Georgia sun. Creepy things crawled over my feet. I’m sure I saw at least one snake. I got so hot I saw spots, and my back, arms and legs ached. I sweated. But every time my gaze met Jerry’s, he smiled enormously. Once he winked at me. Finally, he announced that we were through in the garden, and we carried our reward inside.

Sitting at the kitchen table, Jerry and I began shelling the huge mound of butter beans. I could do this every day for the rest of my life and be happy and content, I suddenly realized, as my eyes lingered on my husband’s large, square, freckled hands easing the beans out of their shells.

Jerry left this life the following summer. We still had some of those butter beans in the freezer.

The memory of that hot, early fall day we picked them together has stayed with me, one of the highest points of our long marriage. It helped give me the strength to go on, to see that the life God had given me made sense after all.

Now I love gardens. I have a small plaque that says, “Life began in a garden.” For me, courage began in a garden, the courage to face life without my partner. It was a tiny seed at first. But like everything in Jerry’s garden, eventually it grew and thrived.

 

~Marion Bond West
Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul

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