Posted on June 7, 2009
One summer, while I was visiting at my grandmother’s farm, I got it into my head that I wanted to go out into the fields and pick cotton. No matter that for years – decades even – cotton had been picked by machine and only ‘gleaners’ went into the fields to pick what was left behind.
I wanted to know for myself what it was like to be a field hand – I wanted to feel it, to experience it, to know what it was like to bring in a crop by hand and how these workers kept going from day to day. Foolish of me, I know.
She tried to talk me out of it – but not for long. I knew she would not deny me in the end, so I perservered in my aruguments. I’m sure that it seem pretty childish of me to tell Kate that I was so going to do it…not realizing that she might have done that – she might have picked in those fields before. That thought had never crossed my shallow little ten-year-old mind. But she did not call me childish or try to disuade me any longer.
She insisted I wear a long sleeved shirt, which seemed crazy to me. I’d know, she said – why she was correct to insist on it once I got out into the field. She also made me wear a bonnet – one of those with not only the brim, but a tie and a piece of fabric that shelters your neck in the back. I never knew why they had that – until the end of that afternoon. I only had shorts or dresses with me – it was late July and the heat of the summer was intense. She took an apron and wrapped it around my legs….again she said I would understand why ‘once I was into the field’. Seemed strange to me to be covering up everything to only make you sweat more, but I knew better than to argue.
Once I was properly adorned, she gave me a large canvas sack that hung over one shoulder and dragged the ground behind me. She explained that when it was filled, I would have picked a fourth of a bale of cotton. Then, she walked me to the turn-row – that’s the place where the tractors turn around and told me to go ahead and enter the rows there – she would wait at the the other end of the row, nearer the house, for me.
I don’t know how many of you have ever picked cotton. It looks so lovely and appealing – those soft white fluffs of cotton hanging on the bushes – almost like little clouds. Yeah, until you reach for the first one and find out – there are thorns on those bushes and they stick you. And behind the fluffy white of the cotton – those bolls are harder and thicker than pecan shells and they’re sharp as knives and tear at your fingers when you try to steal the pretty little white fluffs. . It’s as if the bush had its own persona and did not want you plucking its pretty fruit. It scratches and it bites.
The farther down the row I got, the hotter it was – there was no breeze could reach in there. The sun was unrelenting. There were sounds – buzzing and rustling. I was getting worried – I had failed to ask about this – were there snakes or big stinging insects going to greet me? I was not prepared for that.
I was never one to retreat though and so I kept going. Once I was far enough down the row that I could not see back out – I felt I had little choice. The only way to go was forward – that’s where Kate would be waiting for me. I had to sit down once – I was sweating a lot and the dust that was on everything – that red, powdery dust was mixing with the sweat to make red mud all over my young, pale skin. I itched. I wasn’t sure why – but every time I scratched, my fingers hurt worse and traces of the blood from my fingertips mixed with the dust and sweat left streaks of red, orange and brown on me.
I was also thirsty. The dust was in my eyes, my nose and my throat. What I would not give for a glass of cold water or lemonade! I kept going; however slowly, picking at the bolls the best I could – trying to get some cotton without getting cut any more and failing miserably. I was probably about 2/3 of the way down the row when I realized how stupid I was.
Why am I out here doing this…I could be in the shade reading a good book…and that’s when the hot, angry tears welled up in my eyes and spilled right over – adding to the streaks of color on my face. “Well, this isn’t getting the job done”, ‘the voice’ said to me. “And those tears are just making more mud on you. Remember – you are the one who did this – you wanted to know what it was like to be a field hand. Do ya reckon ya know yet?”
I had to sit right down in the soft dirt on that one. It was the first time in my young life that I realized my heart leads me to strange places where you could suffer or get hurt for what most would call no good reason – but unfortunately it would not be the last. It seems like I just never learned.
I made myself get up and keep picking. After a while, even the bolls tearing at my fingers did not sting as badly, nor the thorns piercing the apron or the long sleeves and scratching at my flesh. I was so dizzy and tired and so disgusted with myself and my idiot ideas that I didn’t much feel anything. I existed only to finish the row, so as not to have Kate think me a coward. I could hardly emerge to her – with all her courage – as a coward or a fool.
I got to a place where I could see her standing out there – parasol in hand – waiting for me. It both encouraged me and made me feel unworthy. I imagined she’d been waiting there the whole time for me to learn my lesson – but she never said a thing about it.
When I came out, she praised me for doing a good job for ‘my first time’. My sack wasn’t even a quarter full. I learned when we got back to the house that I’d been out there for several hours and she stood there waiting for me the whole time.
Just outside the house, she took off my bonnet, the long sleeved shirt and the apron. Despite all the covering, I was still sunburned. We stood next to the well and she drew a bucket of cold water and used her handkerchief – her beautiful embroidered handkerchief to clean the dirt and blood from my face, my neck, my arms and my legs. That cold water felt so good, even though it made all the scratches and scrapes sting more.
We went inside and she fixed me a big glass of lemonade and drew a bath for me. I was able to be clean again…my heart was so happy. Once I was in a cotton shift and she was putting something soothing on all my bites, scrapes and scratches – once the sunburn had begun to cool off …I almost felt like a new girl.
Then, I remembered – those other ones – the ones who had to pick all day. They did not have Kate waiting at the end of one row to clean them up and care for their wounds…they did not have a bath and lemonade waiting for them. They did not have a soft feather bed all plumped up to lie down upon the sleeping porch, nor the breeze filled with honeysuckle smells pouring in thru the screens over the bed to cool them. They had to keep on keeping on. I felt so miserable for them.
Why was life like this, I wondered? I felt so small and unworthy of the love and comforts that I had. I wondered if I would ever ‘measure up’ – be worthy of any of the fine things I had?
That was the first time in my life that I knew no matter what others believed, no matter what was written down – people should not work like that unless it was for their own gain and by their own free choice. It just could not be right.
It was also the first time that I realized what a lucky person I was, for it was not my lot in life to have to do those things and when I chose to do it, I had Kate waiting for me at the end of just one row to soothe all of the hurts that it inflicted upon me and never so much offer up an “I told you so”.
That summertime, I learned two important lessons. One was about equality and how ALL people should be free to choose. The other was about someone loving you, no matter what kinds of stupid things you asked about or did. Both were lessons I would remember again later, long after summertime was gone.
Last edited by katie on October 23, 2010, 10:10 pm