It was in the spring of 1953. We finished up the biscuits and sausage gravy, and washed the dishes. The cotton fields were waiting, but first Mom prepared as much as possible toward lunch, because she worked right alongside Dad and the rest of us. Some of us “looked” the beans, picking out the stones and odd-colored beans, sliding them to the side. I was only 9, but I still did my share. We washed and added the Great Northern beans to the pot, and added water, dropping the bean pot down into the slow cooker. That was the strangest thing, that stove. It was electric, with 3 burners on top and an opening or ‘well’ that had a special pot that fit down in it. Even more surprising, it was safe to let the beans cook in there while we were gone, (Ahead of its time, if you ask me). *
Everything done, I was ready to head out. My attire this morning was the same as every other morning, a soft cool cotton dress that was no longer fit for school. And of course we were never allowed to go without our homemade bonnets that mother had sewn, inserting the cutout cardboard to help keep its shape. My sister Sue remembers this job.
I hurried outside. Dad was sitting on the concrete porch in his long-sleeved shirt, straw hat and overalls – his jug of tepid water at his side. It was a familiar sight. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why he wore all those clothes, when it was for sure going to be hot again. And why would he take his own water, without ice to drink and refuse to drink our ice water?
“That stuff will kill you,” he’d often declare. “…Working in the hot weather, your body burning up, then drinking ice water…. it’s not good for a body!”
He handed me my hoe. “Here, girl. ”
We headed out. We formed a long line, Dad, Mom, Paul, Naomi, Sue, my baby brother, Denzil and me. Denzil was too young to hoe cotton, but I wasn’t. I watched as my older brother, Paul carried our special gallon jug of water – the one dad refused to partake of. It was filled to the brim with ice, the spaces filled with pump water. I listened to the clanking of the ice, and watched the sweat from the jar pouring onto Paul’s shirt, but he didn’t seem to mind.
I was already skilled with the hoe, including turning it backwards and vaulting my way down the long, weed-infested path that led us to the cotton patch. The vaulting usually waited until I was on the way home, and excited to leave the searing heat of the field. The gentle breeze along with the cool night air deceived a person into thinking the day would be tolerable. I took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet aroma of the nearby Honeysuckle vines. I would roll around in them and smear myself with its perfume if I could.
Upon arriving at the cotton patch, we were greeted by the pungent odor of fresh dirt, disturbed from yesterday’s hoeing. I liked that smell. It was almost clean.
Paul took the shovel from the fence where he left it the day before, and dug a hole under one of the huge trees that helped line the property of our land owner, You see, we were ‘sharecroppers, ‘ working for someone else. (As I grew older, I learned to feel embarrassed of the fact that we worked for the father of one of my classmates). Paul carefully placed the gallon of icy cold water in the hole, and packed the cool loosened dirt around it. This would keep it cold until we hoed all the way down that long row to the other tree line, and back.
I can’t remember Denzil’s placement in that field. It was probably walking alongside Mom. I know one of his jobs was to walk up to the next field to the Spring, and refill our water jug. One day I even got to leave the cotton field and go with him. I was thrilled until we arrived only to see a snake swimming in it. We ran back quickly with the empty jug, enlisting help. I tried in vain to make that MY job alongside Denzil, but mine was to hoe that cotton and leave enough space in between for the newly sprouted plants to grow. Each of us had our own row to hoe.
It didn’t take long for me to see the others disappearing before my eyes. It was discouraging. Mom and Dad were way ahead, then Paul, Naomi, Sue…and WAY in the back was me. Paul hoed the row next to mine. Once I noticed him looking back at me, but mostly I kept my head down, working hard to catch up.
Then it happened! Just as I got ready to place my hoe, I noticed the cotton had already been thinned. I looked ahead, it was still thinned. I started running, running, running, dragging the blunt end of my hoe behind me. I ran all the way up to stand alongside my big brother Paul. He was smiling real sheepishly, as I giggled and thanked him. It was the first but not the last time that Paul did this for me.
Later in life, he went through divorce. Then when mine happened, he spent hours on the phone with me. He was so full of love and wisdom. “You can make it. Don’t let it get you down,” he would say. I believed him, I trusted him, and I made it through. His having been there ahead of me made my row a little easier to hoe.
Last year at the age of 78. my brother Paul went to live with Jesus. Perhaps he’s helping prepare the way for me. So I’ll wait till I catch up, standing alongside him and giggling to see him.
I miss you, big brother.
*Although everything in this story is true, I can’t say they necessarily happened the same day. They are all memories while working the cotton patch in Charleston, Missouri. Dad lived to be 86. Maybe he was right about that ice water.
This picture was taken later that same year, picking – not chopping the cotton. Yeah, I’m a cotton picker. From left to right: Annette, Mom, and Sue. Notice the cotton sacks over our shoulders the most I ever picked was 98 lbs in one day.