Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Beans, Books, and Motor Boats

I made ham and navy bean soup today.  It's been quite a few years since I made bean soup.  Usually, I get that bag of mixed dried beans and use the little spice packet that's in it.  To be honest, I can't stand those beans after the first meal.  What I really want is navy beans.

My grandma used to make navy beans and ham for dinner pretty often.  She could make amazing raisin pie, but generally, she didn't like to cook.  I think she got too hungry while she was cooking to have much patience for it.  She was very good at making navy bean soup though.  Here's why:  there are only four ingredients, navy beans, onion, tomato sauce, and ham.  Okay, I put a couple of extra ingredients in my soup, a bay leaf and marjoram.  Another reason my grandma liked making navy beans is that they can cook for an hour too long and never get ruined.  Long before my beans were done cooking, they smelled perfect.

Of all my senses, smell is most closely linked to my memories.  Just give me the faint smell of gasoline in a breeze and I'm out in the back of the ski boat waiting for my turn to ski.  Jergen's lotion reminds me of my other grandma, the person who loved the child I was better than anyone else did.  I'm tempted to keep a bottle of that stuff around just for the comfort of it.  I could name a smell or combination of smells for every single one of them, the people I've loved who have died, and their faces and most likely the sound of their laughter would pop up into my thoughts.

The smell of navy beans and ham reminds me of my grandpa.  It really should remind me of my grandma, the one who made it, but it doesn't.  My grandpa used to say that if he had to pick one thing to eat every day for the rest of his life, it would be navy beans.  He was usually in an easy chair next to the bar in the kitchen when he said that. My grandpa liked to talk and that was the place where people were most likely to congregate, in the kitchen.  My kitchen doesn't even have a chair and people end up leaning on the silverware drawer.  Then, they have to move too often for me to get anything done.  A good kitchen needs at least one comfortable chair.

I can remember Grandpa reading in his old chair.  When he wasn't talking or tinkering, Grandpa was always reading.  That man hadn't even graduated from high school, but he could have taught college level courses in history and rhetoric.  He read everything he could get his big bony hands on. One of the things I learned from my grandpa is that a person can educate himself if he reads enough.

One time, I can remember him coming home, the screen door slapping behind him as he walked in and lowered himself into his chair.  Grandpa was in a huff.  It was probably the only time I ever remembered him in a huff and we visited almost every other weekend and spent countless summer weeks camping with him

"Land sakes, where you been, Rex?" Grandma said.

"Well, I had to drive all the way over to Bloomsburg to the library.  Took me an extry twenty minutes," he said.

"Well, why'd you go and do a thing like that?" she said.

"I couldn't find a single decent book at our library that I hain't already read."  Grandpa was a smart man, but he had a lot of common sense too and he knew that if he left behind the vernacular that people spoke, they wouldn't be so easy around him.  That was the way it was where I lived.  People assumed that if you changed around the local lingo, you were trying to act like you were better than everybody else.  My grandpa had a good vocabulary and he used it sometimes, but he didn't throw it around.  He did like to argue a point and discuss ethics as well.  I suppose he could have taught that too.  He sure taught me.

It's funny that there are things besides the beans and the books that I remember about my grandpa that don't connect to anything in particular.  His hair was cut in a flat-top that stood straight up, yet I remember being surprised, once, to find that it was as soft as the fur on a rabbit.  Even after it got wet, it seemed to stand straight up.  Maybe it was the way he brought his big hand up and over it when he was thinking about something, which was most of the time. 

He bought a ski boat instead of a fishing boat so that we'd all go out in it together.  It was a pretty tri-hull in bright yellow.  I can remember him standing in his gravel driveway, tuning up the motor, an Evinrude, and talking to my dad.

"Well, the weather's sure nice for being out."

"Might be a good time for some camping," my dad would say.  My dad always seemed to slow down and to become more patient when he was around my grandpa.  Grandpa had that effect on people. 

"Hadn't been a month or so since we've gone.  I could do with a little fishing," he'd say even though he'd probably gone fishing within the last week or so.

Grandpa was more of a fisherman, yet he learned to ski when he was sixty-five.  I can picture him out there, looking a little awkward but on his feet, stiff kneed, and looking like the slightest bump would knock him over.  I don't ever remember him falling.  It made me proud that he could learn a thing like that at about the same time we all did.  I think that was the thing I liked most about my grandpa - he was always thinking things through, learning what he could, and storing it away to talk about later.  It feels good to think about him, to remember all these little details, like how soft his hair was and how he looked on water skis.

Maybe I should make navy beans and ham more often. 

Thank you for listening, jb

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