With the cotton harvest upon us in LA (Lower Alabama), I remembered a short memoir my oldest son wrote for his grandmother, Mom Dot, on her 91st birthday (two years ago). It is a beautiful tribute not only to her, but also to the magic of childhood in the south, and I thank him for letting me share it.
The Cotton Gin
The dirt I wore around me in the cotton fields was my cloak and in it I was home. We were home, Bethany and I, tearing through the fields, the intermingled smells of clean blossoming cotton and the hot earth alternating as we ran, and fell, and ran again. The dirt was always our clothing but the cotton would be whatever we asked them to be. Our fortress, our hideaway, our adventure, almost every trip was constantly padded by soft cotton and their woody unbreakable shells woven around into tunnels and roofs.
Mr. Trantham didn’t know it, but we owned the cotton. Our boundaries extended as far as our three-foot frames could see and to wherever never tiring legs could run. While there was safety in the field it ended abruptly, imposingly, at the trees surrounding the cotton; immediately trading the obedient cotton stems for omniscient green sentinels. We owned the cotton field, but the trees were strangers and we never dwelled among them for long.
It was in this border we lived during the warm dusty months of the summer. Between the lines of leafy sphinxes in which the wind never blew with any great enthusiasm and the dirt hung in the air as well as over the earth. Through our adventures and discoveries we lived and ran and hid. As it was, we marked out our territory; the washout at the edge of the field where the cotton became so short that we were exposed, the low rolling mound near the edge of the field belonged to us, and the telephone pole that signaled we were almost halfway to my grandmother’s. We began claiming the cotton field and the cotton field claimed us as well.
Our discoveries, not quite to the telephone pole, were made largely along the low, almost invisible, mounds that served as our fort, our second home, our hideaway. These would only come out in the winter, when the cotton stalks had been torn away and the ground had revealed itself at last. Dirty cotton strung along it that could look like yesterday’s snowfall, if you want it too. It was here we found that snakes can look like cotton and that I was not as brave as I thought. It was here that I discovered the adventure that is given by the unknown, as Beth and I braved the green silent strangers and poked hesitantly into their territory, stick in hand, there was safety in sticks. And it was here that I came to understand that all change occurs in time and that time changes all, as the cotton would brave the ground to form whatever we requested, yield its cotton, and at last whither away before the cold of winter.
As the cotton grew and changed so did we, getting older, marking out larger swatches of the field to call our own. And while the trees never ceased being foreign strangers, we prodded our way slowly into their terrain, sticks still in hand.
I learned the concave back of a cursive s and still the cotton broke the ground. I developed my first crush while leaves developed, concealing our fake snow and ensuring the coming warmth of summer. And by the time I went into the next grade, to find she liked me too, the cottonseeds had tangled up in the soft crop and presented themselves for harvest, tiny clouds floating above low green matte leaves.
The next grade saw her separated and the cotton had been leveled to the earth again. He dirt on our paths was packed harder and harder with each month, the trails reaching deeper into the mysteries concealed among the corners of the field. The hard bulbs of the plants rattled against our bare limbs, counting time, as we ran and the year crept by. The metronome motion continued and time was counted off until it brought the news that we were leaving the cotton fields. We moved. The cotton stayed.
We would visit my grandma every Sunday. She would cook for hours and as we arrived roasts, casseroles, and cookies, to name a few, would crowd out the table so you could barely see its top. Over the years my family continued to grow and our adventures were undertaken by ever-greater bands of heroes until our boundaries encompassed the entire fields. The telephone pole with its stunted stalks, the tunnels built of tangled stems, and the clacking metronomes all belonged to us now. We taught our new brother the safety of sticks and the imposition of the trees that had given them to us. We took on the challenge of the trees and the knocking of cotton bulbs was replaced by the whispering of the leaves. As we grew the trees seem slightly smaller, slightly less impenetrable, though their territory was never fully ours.
I left the small private school that taught me cursive to be introduced to public school and saw sphinxes once again, teachers and kids I had never met. But this was only new terrain, and I had braved that before, stick in hand and siblings at my back. It was the cotton field that taught me the unknown, the foreign, and it was the cotton field that revealed those same mysteries to me. As I met friends and my family grew I saw again how the foreign became close, become home. And even still the cotton continues to grow a thousand miles away, and change for the next year, so do I.