Monday, October 5, 2009

When The Cotton is High....short story 5/4/2005

left to right...Aunt Sugar, Grandmommy, Uncle Buddy, Mama, Sweetie.....and down at the bottom is me about 5 years old.
It is September of my 5th year. I am called Doll by my Grandparents, but Mary Ellen is my name. My Grandmommy loved to nickname kids. I lived with them most of the first 7 years of my life. Aunt Sugar, Aunt Sweetie, and Uncle Buddy lived here too. My Mother was the oldest, she was called Sweetheart. So many stories of my days with all this family, but we will save that for another time. My Mama & Dad were busy trying to grow up.
We lived in a farming town named after the founder Tipton, in California. The street where we lived was tree lined, no sidewalks, a lot of picket fences and everyone knew each other. It was a friendly town. Hot and dusty in the summer, cold and wet in the winter. Grandmommy would talk to the lady next door over the back fence. They had the same laundry day so they would hang clothes and chat. Ross Graham was the only person we didn't talk to, Grandmommy did not trust him. He walked all over town with his pants half down sometimes and this made her nerves. If you see Ross Graham coming you get into the house.
And so my story begins....
The car is going very slow down a dirt road throwing a cloud of dust behind us. We are heading to the cotton fields in a little town near Bakersfield, California called Pixley. It is still dark except for a golden glow way off in the distance. Soon the sun would be up. Granddaddy had carried me still half asleep to the car wrapped in a quilt Grandmommy had made. Five days a week while the cotton lasted this was our routine. I could see the lights from the other cars as we reached the section that would be picked that day. You cold smell the cotton, a clean woody scent mixed with the morning dew hanging over the field. In the distance the shadows of the Eucalyptus trees seemed to stand like soldiers. I love the smell of Eucalyptus. They were windbreakers to help keep the earth in place during the windy season. As Granddaddy parked the big black car with the red seats, I could hear the sounds coming from the other pickers and their families. I would settle back down on the mohair back seat and complete my morning sleep. Meanwhile my Grandparents would prepare themselves with hats and canning jars filled with water for the morning picking. They would walk all the way to the end of the row, slipping out of my sight and then work all the way back to the car with long cotton sacks made of stiff caves strapped to their shoulder. The cotton wagon with the high wooden sides sat waiting for the long sacks to be hung on a hock that would weigh the cotton. Then Granddaddy would climb into the wagon and throw the sack high into the air to release the cotton from the sack. White fluffy cotton would then fall like snow into the wagon. I loved to chew on cotton seeds. The nutty taste was really sweet and a common treat for us kids.

The red handkerchief was a common sight as the morning turned into noon and the heat burn through their heavy clothes. Even if it was hot, they had to cover their bodies to protect them from the sun and the sharp ball the cotton rested in. Their figures were bloody from the picking out the cotton from their sticky ball. I remember the smell of medicine that they would use to help them heal. But no ones hands healed till the end of the season.
There were rules that had to be followed when you are left at the end of the row. Don't leave the car. You can get out of the car, but stay right by it. Don't talk to strangers, and if anyone bothers you...scream for help. Drink your water from the jar, and use the coffee can to pee in. We will be back at lunch when the sun is straight up in the sky.
Cars were parked in a row and each morning we would swing open our doors and out would come kids. All of us were little, if you were 7 or 8 chances are you were in the field picking cotton. Black and white men and women along with all ages of kids worked side by side in the cotton fields of California. Although I played with most of the kids, my best playmate was Ulan. He was a dark skinned boy about my age. He would say to me, " you is as white as the cotton."
And I would say that he was like looking into a cup of coffee. He called me Doll because that is what he heard me called. When I think of Ulan, I think of the towns we built in the dirt and how he would laugh when everything we had done would fall down. I wonder if he ever thought of that cotton skinned redhead that was so dirty you would not know what her color really was at the end of the day.
Lunch was special. Grandmommy packed enough for an Army, that's what Granddaddy would say most every day. Hard boiled eggs, fruit, cookies and left over chicken, and sometimes a piece of cake. Everyone came out of the field about the same time. You could hear soft talking, laughing and sometimes a spanking was heard. Someone probably didn't follow the rules. Granddaddy would lay back on the blanket and Grandmommy would put everything away. Soon they would head down another row and work their way back. The day was long, so I would crawl back into the car and nap. It made the day shorter, and the sun was so hot.
The pickers sometimes would start singing church songs, or humming. The sun would be going down as we left the field heading home. They must have told funny stories while they worked, because you could hear laughing too.
The old kitchen table was the hub of the house and soon all the wonderful smells of food filled the house. Beans that had cooked all day, fried potatoes, biscuits and corn, lots of butter and milk with ice put in it. Granddaddy always said a prayer for the food, and gave thanks for another good day. I loved it when we were all together at the table. It was where everyone talked about the day, somethings good, and not so good. The front door and back would be open and a soft breeze would come through. It was not always perfect, but it was good. Like any family we had our hurts and misunderstandings, questions and often the answer was we will see.
I missed my Mama.
So at the days end when we were all washed, Grandmommy got out her Bible and began to read.
there was honor in doing a hard days work. Never having a lot, just enough. The day ends and another begins.....To my Grandmommy who was the heart of the family.


Janet said...

Mary, what an interesting story about your family. I never thought about cotton growing in CA....I always think of the South. I'm sure it was a hard job but it sounds as if your family stayed close with each other while they worked so that must have been a comfort.

Thank you for sharing this with us. I love learning more about you.

Julie said...


What a great post! Our histories are alike in that we each lived with a grandma and aunts and uncles when we were young - a wonderful, extended-family experience for us. But I have never had experience with cotton picking, except in books. Your description of the cotton field is so evocative - I felt as if I were there. You are truly a great writer - please write that book someday. PS - Also loved the scene at the supper table - ours were like that too.

♥Mimi♥ said...

No, you can write about anything on your blog, kiddo. What they are talking about at the government level is truth in advertising. Lots of blogs and bloggers will endorse a product about how great it is and how much they like it to entice folks to go out and buy it. But, what they don't tell us is that they got the item free and were paid to blog about it. They might not even like what they are blogging about so they are not truthful.

The FTC wants more truth about the products and for the public not to be led on by bloggers.

♥Mimi♥ said...

The song on your blog. I'm curious why you picked it. I have the same song on one of my blogs because the words speak to me and speak about me and for me.

Why did you pick it and why do you like it?

Sharon said...

I so enjoyed reading your story. And have some similar memories of grandparents.

Lynn said...

Mary, this is absolutely beautifully written. It could definitely be published in a magazine or book. You should think about it. You write so well.
I was very touched by the story, all of it. A hard life, good people, love the thought of you and Ulan playing in the dirt together, being friends, the meals. All of it, the hot sun. I could feel it all, smell it, taste it. So well written.
Nice photos too. Oh and I love all the nicknames!!! Thanks for writing and sharing this. I hope you'll do more.

The Feathered Nest said...

Oh Mary!!!! Your are an excellent writer!!!! I couldn't stop reading..and I love hearing about your childhood. I wish you'd write a book starting from the very first time you can remember til now ~ I would buy it and read it through and through!!!! hugs and love, Dawn

Shopgirl said...

Thank you so are all so good to read my little story and leave such sweet words for me.

Beth said...

What a great story, Mary! I grew up in Northern Alabama, the Land of Cotton. We had a hugh Cotton Gin in our town and the ground was so white in the Fall until it was picked. My dad's office was close to the Cotton Gin and I remember smelling it in the Fall, I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks for reminding me of my youth.

Bandit's Pack said...

Mary, I saw this story of yours posted last week and made a mental note to come back and read it once I got through my last school assignment. It was a delightful read. I love all the names of the people in your family. As someone else mentioned, I didn't realize cotton was grown in California. It just seemed a Southern thing to me. I love vintage pictures, and yours complement your story so well. Nancy

Mrs. Staggs said...

This post has brought tears to my eyes. My grandma picked cotton. I know that it is hard, hard work, and the line you wrote about there being honor in doing a hard days work, and never having a lot, but having enough, are words that capture the essence of much of my family while I was growing up. There is such an honesty to that sort of life, that is hard to explain to those who haven't lived it. It is a beautiful post you've written here, Mary. Thank you for sharing it.

Celestial Charms said...

Mary, I'm enjoying reading all your older posts, now that I have discovered you! The writing and memories contained in this story are inspirational. I was touched by your befriending of Ulan, your grandparents, the cotton fields. I love the phrase "enough to feed an army," as I use that old fashioned saying too.