Me and Mom and ‘them old cotton fields back home’
By late August all of the cotton had to be gathered from the fields. As soon as us poor kids were old enough to drag a sack we took to picking cotton. We’d hit the field while the dew was still on the ground, pick all day in the scorching south Louisiana heat with dust in our nostrils and mouths dry as cotton. The water in the old water jug, put in the shade of the cotton plants, was hot but wet. I can still taste the flavor of that water. I’ve never tasted any like it since those old cotton days. Mom and I wore straw hats. The old folks said if we didn’t line the hat with cotton leaves we’d get sunstroke.
South Louisiana cotton was a killer, the plants were small and cotton sorry. If it made a half bale to the acre it was called a bumper crop. I drug that sack and picked that cotton until my skinny legs could barely stand. My fingertips would constantly bleed from being pricked by the dried cotton boles. At the end of a long day Mom and I might weigh out 35 cents worth of cotton, around 100 pounds. I always looked forward to late evenings after supper when I could sit on Grandma Availa’s little front porch. I enjoyed those visits with her. She never spoke English but told me stories in French, Taught me how to count and do my alphabet in Cajun French.
Today, Aug. 25 is the date of her birth. I didn’t realize, it until just now, that I was writing this on the day she was born in 1878, 130 years ago. She died in 1969. I’m glad that all of my children got to know this strong lady who helped mold me. She was tough and didn’t cut me, Mom or anyone else any slack. She would have made a good prison warden. That was in my early years, but as Grandma Availa got older and got us all grown she mellowed and became a sweet, kind person. However, until her death she was the family monarch, no one ever doubted who was the boss.
After we got in from the cotton fields my mother’s chores weren’t done. Often, in the early morning, before we left for the fields, she washed clothes and hung them on the line. Grandma took them down when they dried and Mom would spend the evening ironing them. She took in washing and ironing for town folks while also working in the field. The clothes would be picked up from Grandma and a new load left for her to do the next morning. Her chores were never done and cotton-picking time just made it harder on her.
We had no adult male around to help us survive. My grandfather Nelson had died when I was 5 and my father had abandoned us. We weren’t alone; many people were fighting just to survive through the Depression. Our struggle just seemed to be harder with one young woman and her young son pulling the whole load. Often her efforts just weren’t enough. Rainy days, sickness or just no work cut our income to nothing. Unless you have faced hunger you can’t fully appreciate the hardships of poverty. Doing without material things is inconvenient, lack of food is devastating, scary and leaves you with a feeling of insecurity. Each day shortly after 4 a.m., Mom would wake me and I’d walk nearly a mile to milk two cows and feed the calves. I received a two gallon bucket of milk a week as pay.
I have been asked why I work so much today when I don’t have to. True I’ve probably got enough beans in the cupboard for Phyl and I to get by, but I’ve always worked seven days a week as long as I can recall. Some of it is out of habit, some enjoyment but mostly I suspect is that insecurity thing. I never want to go back to those cotton-picking days.
I’ve always had a problem understanding people who don’t or won’t work. Then on the other hand, they are apparently smarter than I if they have been able to get by without facing daily chores. I guess one reason I’m not very wealthy is I’ve never learned how to designate work, like some people who have others making them rich while they play.
No doubt our youth, circumstances and people who surround us are what molds us into who we become as adults. My Mom was my hero. Her sacrifices, strengths and her shortcomings are all part of what I’ve become. Next Tuesday, Sept. 2, marks about the time each year when the cotton had all been gathered for another season. Four years ago, on that day, Mom laid down for a long rest, one she had earned a long time ago. Not one she had bargained for but one she accepted as the hand dealt her. I miss her everyday but find comfort in the fact that her work is done. She didn’t do too bad a job with her boy either.