Green Beans: Memoir by Paul Hudon

Paul Hudon of Lowell is the author of  Lower Merrimack, an illustrated history of our region, and All in Good Time, a collection of poems. A past contributor to this blog, he returns with a meditation on time, place, and memory. Today, he remembers growing up in East Pawtucketville and Ste. Jeanne d’Arc parish, near the current campus of UMass Lowell.

Paul Hudon: Diary in the Time of Coronavirus (3) -

Green Beans

by Paul Hudon

Born in March 1939, I was old enough to memorize on the Victory Garden we planted at the side of our house on Gershom Avenue during the war. That would be the Second World War, the sum of all horizons between 1942 and 1945.

Not that I noticed. Civic space (Lowell) and global events (the war) were not of my world from ’42 to ’45.  As with everyone, horizons were nowhere to be found in the first six years of my life. The documentaries I’ve watched about the Second World War have the same reality as what I learn from books about the Thirty Years’ War. But I do have real time memories of our Victory Garden. I put that down to green beans.

There were other vegetables besides beans growing in our garden. There must have been. Carrots, peppers, some sort of squash crawling over the ground, or maybe those were cucumbers, and tomatoes. At least half a dozen tomato plants. Potatoes. And there must have been yellow as well as green beans because they were mémère’s favorite. Memory yields no lettuce. Salads were not a thing at our house.

Memory as a rule yields very little, probably because memory is mostly forgetting. We figure constellations by ignoring most stars, and we do the same with memories. Only with memory it’s places and what happens there, not stars, that make the choice.set. Also, with constellations ignored stars remain in our field of vision, while discarded memories are gone, usually forever. Memory yields a fractured zodiac, scattershot remnants in a two dimensional space. On that we build bespoke mythologies.

I doubled in age, ’42 to ‘45. From age three to age six, the immediate surround became unresponsive. It made non-negotiable demands, demanded in fact that I be a different person. Quick change artist I was not. I remember bawling first time I was taken to Couture’s barber shop, next door to Lambert’s Market, and across from the Pawtucketville Social Club. Same thing happened my first day at school. Only this time someone was there to film it. Who in the Fall of ’44 had a movie camera at the ready at Jeanne d’Arc grade school is lost to history. But there I am, standing alone between two rows of incoming scholars, weeping at the horror of being there. The world has always been alien, far back as it goes with me.

There was a physicality to exploring the world in the ‘40s not available to youngsters born in the WorldWideWeb. Getting place to place meant displacement, usually on foot. My home on Gershom and the school on Fourth were on opposite sides of a hill, a hill hidden beneath streets and street names. I walked over that hill every school day until the Spring of ’52; but I didn’t see the hill until much later, several decades later, when I came back to it as an adult. White, Avon, Fourth, Mt Hope: four sides of the city block where church and school sat back to back, built into the slope on the far side.

Toujours à pieds

At the other end of Gershom, on Bodwell, was an other hill, made entirely of sand. Jack Kerouac in his time called it Snake Hill, habitat of The Great World Snake, the place where ‘’the universe disposes of its own evil.’’ Prosaic us, we called it ‘the sand bank.’ I find no trace of Dr Sax, the fabled anti.snake protagonist Jack said lives in the wood by Snake Hill; but I do remember one day being in that wood, under a blazing sun, and the buzz of insects in my ears. Alternate immediate surround. Offer of bilocation.

Places and what happens there.

I am looking at an old man in bed, the room is very small. Next yard over I see a mattress laid across clotheslines. Two visuals from my Victory Garden days. They come together where I meet up with the fact of death, but I don’t remember when.

A garden hose brings water from an outside tap to a pail where I mix horse manure in with the water. Engrais we call it. Slow moving horse drawn wagon on Gershom Avenue, and a ragman driving the horse.

We say ragman in English. Being raised by my grandparents I don’t often hear English spoken at home, none at all from them. At school, when I get there, I see a poster by the stairs, just to the left. I am instructed to Remember Pearl Harbor. At home there is mealtime in one language, and war talk on the radio in an other. At no time am I confused by this. It is no more problematic than changing my shoes.

Bundles of newspapers are stacked by the curb, almost as tall as I am.

The church is crowded. High above my head the windows are dark. I walk this way and I walk that way, looking for a destination.

My grandfather is waist deep in a sandpit and hacks vigorously at the roots of a cherry tree. The cherry blossoms and the fruit are prized but the birds shit all over the laundry.

Girl cousins come from across the river and together we dig tunnels in a fresh snowfall that covers the whole of the backyard.

Like I say, a fractured zodiac.

Do memories age? When I put the question to neurology, I learn that they do, but more likely they shape.shift. It is in the nature of memories to reconstruct themselves.

Memories are made by changes in collections of neurons and the connections or synapses between them. A memory may be laid down in one group of neural circuits, but recalled in another. Each time we recall a memory it may change depending on the neural circuits that are engaged at that particular moment.

At that particular moment. In the immediate surround. This will explain the spectral beans that regularly show up on market days, when the actual, in.the.bin, beans always disappoint. Sometimes they’ll offend. Which depends on where my mind is at that particular bean buying moment; but I always have a ready opinion, pass judgement, and they never measure up to my wartime beans. No living bean will find favor put next to ghost beans produced fresh on the spot on each occasion.

It is the nature of spectral beans that they are spectral. It’s a sad thing to realize, I have measured out my life with phantom beans, and I’ve been unfair with beans as they can’t help being in today’s world of commerce. It’s become a ritual, obeisance done to another place where some things may have happened. It’s a place built around a vegetable McMuffin. I have no recollection when this started. Nor do I remember the garden being dug.up. Or why. Later, in my teen years, the area at the side of the house was covered by lawn. For a time, there was even lawn.swing.

Où sont les fèves d’antan?

The house on Gershom Avenue passed out of the family twenty years ago. Only two blocks from North Campus, it has since been cut-up and refitted for student rentals. I drove by not long ago, slow riding between Bodwell and Sarah. There were cars parked where our Victory Garden was, and I think an above ground pool farther in, at the back of the property.