Because of several heart attacks, my father could no longer work a regular job. To make ends meet, he and I picked pole beans every summer on farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It was hot, hard work, and they paid by the pound, not the hour. I don’t remember exactly how much, but it was only pennies.
Like most things, pole beans have a season. The vines wind higher and higher as the season progresses. The blossoms and beans begin to sprout near the bottom at first and gradually work their way up the vine.
Bottom beans are harder to pick. It is literally stoop labor. So, of course, I had a youthful inclination to pick at shoulder height. My father and I always picked on opposite sides of the same row, and his constant, gentle reminders to “pick from the bottom up” still ring in my ears. There was a workman’s wisdom in those words. The day goes easier when you get the hard tasks out of the way first.
We had row bosses who would part the vines and step into your world unannounced. They would inspect the area you had picked, and if it wasn’t picked clean, they sent you back. When you pick for pennies per pound, you want to pick where the beans are thick, not spend your time retracing your steps.
[pullquote] The day goes easier when you get the hard tasks out of the way first. [/pullquote]
At first, I got sent back a lot. When that happened, my father would step through the vines and pick back toward me until we had cleaned up my mess.
The vines are so thick that you can’t see each other, but we always talked back and forth while we worked. His voice would come through the vines, as in a confessional: “Are you picking clean?”
He taught me that anything worth doing—jobs, hobbies, relationships—should be picked clean.
The rows were 7 feet high and only 4 feet apart. No breeze could penetrate those dense green walls. Irrigation kept the ground muddy and the air muggy. Sometimes it was hard to maintain my enthusiasm. As it waned, I’d fall behind, and I’d hear Dad say: “Are you picking with both hands?”
How did he know? He couldn’t see through the vines, but he always knew! I’m right-handed, and when I dawdled, only my right hand was picking. No scolding. No sharp words. Just the quiet question.
In the years since, there have been tasks that seemed too large, deadlines that seemed impossible, challenges that seemed more than I could possibly meet. It’s then that I still hear him: “Are you picking with both hands?”
The money we earned in the bean fields was barely enough to be worthwhile. But the lessons I learned—pick clean, bottom up, both hands—were principles of my father’s life that shaped mine. He taught me the right things, and he taught them well. They have been enough for what life has sent my way.