Trail of a Heart 3 – Cotton Picking

 In Autobiography

My first awareness of Daddy’s work was that he drove a bread delivery truck for Good Eats Bakery. It was such a thrill to be invited to go with him on his route. We children would often be singled out for that honor during the summer months. It was more than just being with Daddy, there was also the treat of eating all the donuts we wanted. I remember meeting the shopkeepers and grocers to whom we delivered. They always made us feel special, as if we were honoring them with our visits. It was great fun.

It was during these summers that Mother would make an effort to supplement the family income by taking us all to pick cotton. She would get Daddy off to work in the morning, and then load up a lunch, sweet tea, water and all of us kids and head to the cotton fields.  Being the seamstress she was, Mother custom-made our picking bags so we could all work, with the exception of baby Michael who rode on her long bag as she drug it down the rows.  Our little bags would get emptied into hers for the weighing in. The work was hot, dusty and painful.  I think I can still see the scars I got from the sharp cotton bolls having cut into my fingers.

As we set out on one of those mornings, at first we were all excited. It was an adventure. We didn’t have to drive very far to a cotton field. There was one just outside of town. At the side of the field was what was left of the original farmhouse, but no one was living there at this time. There was a pool in the back yard that had been drained for a long time. The entire area was as cool as a refrigerator even on a hot day because of all of the overgrown trees.

As we drove up to the fields we all looked longingly at this little oasis. We knew that we wouldn’t get to be there until our lunch break, which we always took under those trees. But first, there was the picking. Mother would have a conversation with the men by the weigh-in area. There was a large scale with a hook where the picker’s full bags would be weighed prior to being emptied into the huge screened-in trailer. When a trailer got full, they would hitch it up to a truck and take it to the cotton gin. That would sometimes happen several times a day depending on how many pickers they had.

Our family didn’t set any records. Mother and the older girls would help all of us get our bags over our shoulders. Then we would put baby Michael on Mother’s bag and we usually gave him a bottle. We had to be careful that he had some kind of covering as there was no relief from the scalding hot sun. They don’t grow trees in cotton fields.  We all had scarves and hats covering our heads and eyes. We wanted to wear gloves as the cotton bolls are so sharp, but it was impossible to get covered fingers into the boll the way we had to in order to extract the cotton.

It was a slow, painful process, not the least of which was having to drag the bags that were increasing in weight as we were decreasing in energy. By the time we got to the end of a row, we would hope we had enough cotton to get them emptied so we could start down another row with an empty bag.

Sometimes one of us would get to take Michael from his lumpy cotton bed because he was getting cranky. It was such a relief to be the one to get to go into the shade with the baby. Usually the younger girls, Anita and Linda, would also be ready for a break. The sun would get hotter by the minute as we got closer to noon. It was sometimes hard to see because of the sweat dripping into my eyes.

Just when we thought we couldn’t go down another row, Mother would call us to the weigh-in so we could go to lunch. I have had some favorite meals throughout my life, but I don’t think I have ever tasted anything so wonderful as those sandwiches and big gulps of sweet tea after picking cotton. The contrast with the work of the day made it seem that this must surely be Heaven.

We usually did not pick all day. Mostly we would go home after the lunch break. Sometimes Mother would pick on and she would let us play together in the cool of the trees while the younger ones napped. The sun in Southern New Mexico is pretty unforgiving in the Summer time. Every time I hear that line from the old song, “Summer time and the living is easy,” I want to launch a protest. That songwriter knew not of what he wrote. Nobody we knew ever got to relax in the summer heat. When your existence is tied to growing things, the work has to be done in the heat.

Picking cotton is only the tail-end of this job. Another equally difficult part of this work is referred to as “chopping cotton,” which is oddly named as the chopper is not cutting down the cotton, but rather chopping the weeds that want to take over the cotton field and threaten the life of the cotton plants. I don’t remember doing this job as a family, but I did it one summer when I was visiting an aunt and uncle and cousin.

They grew cotton and we all got out to chop cotton. Then the problem is blisters and always the relentless sun and dry earth. It didn’t do much good to cut off the weeds, as they would just grow back. The job was to cut them out of the earth. The weeds seemed to have minds of their own and they held onto the soil for dear life. I lost many a battle with them that summer.

But that was also the summer of the Tarantula. While working at my uncle’s, I had sat down to take a breather. I was suddenly aware of something fuzzy in my peripheral vision. By the time I had turned to see what it was, my Hero Uncle was using his hoe to chop up a large, hairy spider the likes of which I had never seen.

I look at cotton clothing with more reverence than most. I cannot take for granted what has been wrested from the dry earth with such personal sacrifice and hard work by so many. We weren’t the only family out picking on those days. We were fortunate that this was not the only income for our family. We knew that if we didn’t pick one day, we would still eat and have a roof over our heads. I never knew about the other families.

Watch for the next installment

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