The Lucky African Bean

By Shiona Lawson

Rifling through the desk drawers, I felt like a spy looking for blueprints. Guilt plagued me as I assessed the assorted collection of paperwork, keepsakes and rubbish acquired over a lifetime.  “Should this be kept or thrown out?” was the constant question going through my mind.  Then I came across a dried-up, brown bean partially hidden by elastic bands and paper clips.  At the age of 86 my father had advanced dementia and was moving into a care home.  He had no memory of things that had happened 5 minutes before but could talk in great detail about events in the distant past.  Rather than deposit the decrepit item in the black bin bag designated for rubbish, I kept it to show to my father in the hope that it might trigger some memory which he could share with me.

Sure enough he recognised the item right away and referred to it as “his mother’s lucky African bean.”  Sensing a story behind the name, I pressed him to tell me about it. I thought “lucky bean” was quite an ironic description for the item as his mother had had a sad life.  The little I knew of my grandmother’s history could have been the basis for a Mills and Boon storyline, as she had experienced romance, adventure and tragedy.

The middle of three sisters, she had been courted for a time by a local lad but when he emigrated to South Africa after World War I in search of work she thought the courtship was over.  Once settled in Johannesburg with a good mining job, however, he wrote to her with a marriage proposal, a Zulu love bean and a boat ticket. 

Did she accept? Well, my aunt was born in South Africa in 1919 and my father’s birth followed in 1923.  Back home in Scotland her mother and sisters eagerly awaited the arrival of letters filled with news of the children and details of their new life in the alien land of South Africa.   My grandmother had native servants and a nanny to look after the children, a situation that would not have been duplicated in their home village of Neilston.  

Their idyllic family life was shattered, however, when doctors told my grandparents that their daughter required a hip operation that could only be performed by surgeons at Glasgow‘s Sick Children’s Hospital.   At the age 0f 4 months my father along with his sister and mother embarked on a boat bound for Scotland.  After six weeks at sea they arrived in Greenock where my grandmother was dramatically stretchered off the boat.  The cancer she had hidden from her family was terminal and she died a few weeks later. Her death left a bewildered and bereft daughter in the care of family she saw as strangers and a baby boy, too young to understand the misfortune unfolding around him.  She also left behind for her daughter her lucky African bean.

The matriarch of the family, my great-grandmother, decided her son-in-law should stay in South Africa where he had secured employment so he could send home money to support his children.  This arrangement was short lived as a couple of years later he died as a result of a mining accident leaving the children orphaned.

Believe me, I know it reads like a silent movie script but many families experienced similar adversity at this time. Perhaps I should write a book as the heart rending tale encompassed other family members too. The eldest sister was married with three children of her own but the youngest, Aunt Jenny, had lost her fiancé during World War I.  With no children of her own her niece and nephew became the family she thought she would never have.

Having no memories of his parents or his very early life in South Africa, my father was reliant on others to tell him stories based on the information they had received in letters.  The Zulu love bean had been a present from his father to his mother to seal her acceptance of his proposal to start a new life in Johannesburg.  She considered it her lucky bean because unlike many other young women in the village whose boyfriends and husbands had not returned from the war, she was going to have a husband with the expectation of children too!  Every time he saw the bean while growing up he thought of his parents.  It had been passed to his sister and on her death passed to him.

A worthless, damaged bean?  Certainly not!  It was a priceless family treasure.  Some families have jewellery and antiques, stocks and shares or money to inherit – my generation of the Brown family has this treasure along with a tragic but wonderful family history.  It may not be a bean like the one in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk but it has its own magic as it evokes tales of love from a different era.

My father didn’t know his parents and I never really knew my father well as he was a very quiet, private man.  With the discovery of the bean in the back of a drawer I have learned more family history than I ever imagined.  It was a lucky find for me as it allowed me to reach my father through the debilitating fog of dementia.