I planted hyacinth beans today. These beans didn’t come carefully packaged and labeled. I didn’t buy them at the store. In fact, I didn’t buy them at all. These beans were generously sent to me by Ruth Ann, a former colleague who knew of my love for plants and the human stories that surround them.
Ruth Ann was in St. Louis in 2009, celebrating the retirement of another former colleague, Barb. As Ruth Ann tells the story,
We were in the Hill area to eat and shop at the Italian groceries. We drove past a house where beautiful pink flowers were cascading roof to ground. We stopped to get a closer look and parked about a block away and walked by. A short, elderly Italian lady came around the corner of her house to water. We voiced our admiration, so she slowly limped up her stairs to a porch where she had envelopes of dried pods with seeds and directions.
Although they didn’t get the woman’s name, they did note the address and also that she was wearing a necklace with an image of the Madonna. That holiday season, Ruth Ann sent a package of stamps (also with the image of the Madonna) with a thank you for the woman’s generosity. In her reply, the woman identified herself as Anna Ferronato Lahrman.
The next spring, Ruth Ann and Barb both planted the Anna’s beans in their gardens. Ruth Ann sent photos of the growing plants and flowers to Anna. In Anna’s reply, she revealed the story of how she first started growing the hyacinth beans.
When our daughter, Mary, had a baby boy, I was 52 years old. (I am now 79.) I wanted to watch my new grandson, Dominic (named after my Italian father Dominico who had passed away two years before). When Dominic was two years old, I would take him in a stroller to Shaw School, six blocks from our home. As we walked up Mackland Ave. to Shaw School (as a game Dominic would find acorns from the large oak trees there), we would pass the Sacred Heart Villa. Their gardener was John De Dionigi. John (who never married) seemed fascinated by little Dominic. He would always stop, come to the fence and make-over little Dominic. One day, John took out a baby food jar of seeds from his pocket. He said, “Someone gave me these flower seeds. I’m going to give you some.”
Each year, Anna would save the seeds from the pods that would form after the beautiful pink flowers bloomed. At the time of their correspondence, Anna mentioned that Dominic was now 27 years old, but she still grew hyacinth beans descendant from the original seeds that the villa gardener had given to Dominic.
When a small box arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I knew it would contain the seed pods that Ruth Ann had promised. Neatly folded in with the beans were copies of the letters Anna had sent Ruth Ann during their brief correspondence. I held the seeds in my hand while reading the letters, emotionally touched by the stories of the people whose lives the beans had brightened.
I planted the beans at the base of a trellis in an open spot in our raised vegetable beds. As I pressed and covered each of the 42 seeds in the soil, I thought of Ruth Ann, Anna, Dominic and John and how they must have done the same thing each year. I thought of the countless others with whom Anna likely shared her beans as they stopped along the sidewalk of her home to admire the flowers.
Anna passed away in early 2011, but her spirit and legacy continue to live within these unassuming beans. When the hyacinth bean flowers bloom in my garden this summer, I hope to feel the glory of her spirit. As the seed pods dry in fall, I will harvest her legacy to bloom another year.