Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cotton Fields Back Home

I read a blog the other day by a poster who was trying to meet new friends after a move. This involved finding common interests via the internet, then getting together in person.

The entry generated some sympathetic comments. I had nothing useful to add and did not post. But the subject sent my mind, and senses, into an irresistible bout of time-shifting. It was a cold, nasty day, after all. And I needed warmth. So I found it, in my mind, in north Alabama's rich red cotton fields. Goodness, how long ago. Half a century.

It was the late 1950s and we had moved to the Tennessee River Valley. My father built a house in the middle of a cotton field. And five days a week he put on a suit and a brimmed hat and commuted into the city to work, leaving my mother with three small children and no relatives or neighbors to speak of, at that point. We were in a tiny, very insular farming community where people had known each other all their lives.

Mother took us to church every time the doors were open. But it wasn't enough. She was lonely.

So she reached out in the only way she knew. Mother was raised on a tobacco farm and had never picked cotton. But she was no stranger to hard work. With her son in school, she got a sitter for her younger daughter, sewed a little sack for me from a netted grapefruit and attached a cloth strap. And off we went.

Cotton pickers for hire. No experience. In search of friends.

In Texas I'd left behind my best and only friend. I didn't understand what was happening when this little girl held onto our car door, her face inches from mine, sobbing. My mother insisted, "We're just going on vacation, we'll be back." She knew better than to set me off, her theatrical child.

She didn't buy it. This girl, a year or so older than me, was losing her near-constant companion and absolute servant. Her family owned a general store next door. Our long days of play were halted only by the welcome interruption of lunch at her place. In the store, at a small kitchen table behind the meat counter, we wolfed down excellent sandwiches. I especially remember the bologna and cheese, thick slabs of meat and dairy slapped together with mayo. Washed down with icy Dr. Pepper straight from the cold drink box.

All too soon, those days were over. My father was taking us to Alabama where he'd gotten a better job. It was closer to home for my parents, whose Middle Tennessee families had not understood the move to Texas, which then became the place where my sister and I were born. And that was enough, it was time to go home, or close enough.

On that last day, Mrs. H. took her time in pulling her grieving daughter away. She was upset too. Maybe she wanted my parents to own the sadness they had delivered with this move. And she probably did not approve of the fib my mother told. I remember smiling intensely, as we pulled away, waving hard, trying to get my friend to buck up.

I never saw her again.

Unlike in Texas, we had no neighbors in our new home, no general store next door. In the back, we had lush woods that I would grow to love, my refuge. And more woods across the road in front. Scary woods that gave shelter to howling coyotes and wildcats that made their way down from the small mountains ringing the entire vista.

And we had cotton fields, masses of stalks rising from fields like a vast stick army. They start out green, then flower and produce bolls. As the fiber matures, the plant dries out and the cotton bursts forth in soft pods of white puff that hold seeds. By the time we arrived in Alabama, machines had started harvesting some fields. But laborers still picked smaller fields and also combed the remnants left behind by machines.

The pay was minuscule for pulling the white fluff from rows with gloved hands and sending it tumbling through the holes of the bags strapped across our chests.

The work was grinding, hot, strength-sapping. Unless you were there on a mission, like my mother, or a lark like me.

Segregation was still in full force then. But in the cotton fields, the races easily worked side by side. Talk flowed, a necessary distraction from the tedium, the sweat. Oldtimers gave tips for preserving soft hands and keeping the sacks from tangling. Jokes were told. The occasional dirt clod flew after the school bus dropped off more pickers. Cotton field flirtations swelled and fell apart.

All were equal in the cotton field. At least for those few hours.

I was young, so my exhilaration soon ebbed. My mother would be on a roll, so her solution was simple. She let me crawl into the bottom of her sack.

The voices of my mother and her cohorts in the cotton soon lulled me to sleep. A bit of song here, a scrap of scripture, the soft scrape of the bag being pulled on the soil. Laughter rising, the sweet-smelling cotton floating down on top of me, bit by bit as I rode curled into a ball inside a bag being gently pulled down one row and then another.

At the end of the day, we hauled our sacks to a big truck to be hoisted onto a hook for weighing. The farmer announced the weights and fished out pay from an old cigar box. Everyone wanted the big haul. One perpetual winner was C.S., a teenage girl who could outpick any man on the field. I loved the days she showed up to pick. Her weigh-ins launched endless rounds of taunts, shouts and laughter.

But even the littlest picker got a chance to participate in my favorite part of the cotton harvest. Something I conjure up in detail when things in this life get a bit rougher than I would like.

Back then, the big kids demonstrated our end-of-picking celebration. I watched, then came my turn.

I climbed the slats to the very top of the truck side and dropped inside a few rungs, facing out. Next I carefully climbed back up, balancing on the top rail. When I got the signal that all was clear, I took a springing jump, like a backwards swan dive, although stopping short. My body stayed perfectly straight, arms flung out wide, legs rigid, toes pointed. I kept my eyes fastened tight to Alabama's big, blue sky.

And I fell back into the big, soft, warm mass of cotton that we had all just gathered. Fell and bounced and fluttered my arms and legs to burrow in deep. And to take in that scent.

Because the smell that covered me was something no manner of alchemy can ever get close to -- deep sweet softness melded with the sun, the sky, the rain and of course that rich red earth.

I tell people sometimes that I picked cotton as a child. And usually they recoil in surprise. But we dug into our new town in a way I doubt would have been possible if my mother had not taken the land's measure and decided to go to the cotton fields. We were truly of that place -- whatever it took, whatever came our way, we belonged.

And at the end, when my life is passing before my mind's eye as they say, I'm pretty sure I can predict at least one scene: I'll be climbing the wooden slats of a big truck filled with soft white cotton, breathing the sweet smell in deep, getting ready, pushing off hard, arms spread wide...


  1. Your image of those woods and the cotton fields were so clear...what a life you had as a child..and in a state like Alabama...yet you came away from there with balance of seeing both sides...I have to you have a southern drawl at all? Between Texas and Alabama...just visiting there I strike one up!

  2. Do I have a drawl? HA HA HA! I've been in the D.C. area for 30 years, Ellen. And after I've said, oh, two or three words people get that look. And then they'll say, "um, I think I'm detecting a bit of a southern accent... where are you from exactly?"

    I don't have a south Alabama drawl -- Mobile, Selma, Montgomery. Someone once described that to me as "talking like you have marbles in your mouth." Because you can hear Appalachia in my voice. Not the sharp twang of the high mountains. But the softer notes of the southern foothills where my parents were raised in Tennessee. At least, that's what I'm told.