Although I lived most of my life in Mississippi, I actually grew up in Gideon, a very small farm community in Southeast Missouri. This is the area that is called the Bootheel, which is is the part of Missouri that juts down below the rest of the state line– downward into what would otherwise be Arkansas or Tennessee.
When I was a child, I was surrounded for miles by cotton fields, cotton gins, and the dark, rich soil that the Mississippi River had deposited there in earlier years. Because this is the flood zone of the Mississippi River, the soil is so very rich that hardly any of it is wasted on trees. Occasionally, you might see a narrow line of vegetation crossing the terrain; but that would probably be on the banks of one of the small creek-like waterways that was long ago dug there to catch the river, should it flood again.
Collectively, the waterways around my home were called The Floodways. Individually, each of the bodies of water had one of the following less than illustrious names: 1 Ditch, 2 Ditch, 3 Ditch, etc. That is the truth. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, there wasn’t a lot of effusiveness or ornamentation about Southeast Missouri, but it was enough. In fact, it was more than enough, and in many ways, I’d give anything to get back to the Gideon of my childhood again, but that playground is gone in every way but that of my mind.
Fortunately, my memory of childhood is still very sharp and fairly reliable. One thing I recall is that when I was a child, life was rather immobile. We had cars, but there was very little jumping behind the wheel and darting here and there. My diminutive hometown was actually fairly self-sufficient, and at that time, there was not much need to commute far beyond there. That, in itself, added to the quietness and simplicity of my childhood.
Because the Bootheel’s farm children were bused into town for school each day, tiny communities formed around places where the school buildings were established. A few of those communities even had a store or two. When I was very young, there was a little, general department store a dimestore, a hardware store, a drugstore, and an IGA grocery store in Gideon, but those places are gone now. Times have changed, but when I was a child, Cotton was a prosperous King in my hometown, and his people lived fairly well.
The above is my unfinished pencil sketch of a cotton plant. The drawing is fairly accurate but it is messy and it needs to be cleaned up. I always tell my students to draw what they know, and I know cotton.
I especially know cotton when the leaves have begun to dry up, but the cotton is still fluffy and is beginning to fall out of the hulls.
In many ways, my childhood was determined by Cotton, and my calendar was punctuated by the various stages of its growth cycle. The winter was slow and quiet. Spring was an awakening, and summer was a time of growth. During fall, the roads were lined with trailers being pulled by tractors. In ant-like procession, they were going to and coming from the gins. At that time, living became the everyday humming of the harvesting of cotton.
When I was young, a sharecropper picked up us kids and we rode to the farms in the back of an old pickup truck. About the time that the sun was creeping above the cotton fields and the dew on the cotton was beginning to sparkle like diamonds, all of us pickers would begin scurrying through the plants to begin picking back toward the wagon from the farthest end of the row. Every cotton picker had a long and narrow canvas bag strapped over his or shoulder, and picking cotton was a process of plucking the fluffy white part of the plant from the hard and wooden-like hull where it had grown.
As they dry out, the tips of the cotton hulls become sharp shards that are eager for the opportunity to lodge themselves in a picker’s hands. Stinging caterpillars attach themselves to the leaves of the plants, and getting stung is another hazard of picking cotton by hand. On lucky days, I picked from plants that were about my height, but on most days, picking cotton meant bending over and creeping along until I thought that my back would break.
It probably seems that I am complaining, but I am not. Because I picked cotton as a child, I was allowed to experience the last days of a way of life. When I was a child, children were allowed to stay home from school to pick cotton for six weeks during the fall. The days of cotton vacation are over now, and today, machines harvest the cotton. When I was a little girl, I was paid 3 cents a pound to pick cotton, and since cotton is so very light, I didn’t earn much money in the fields; yet, I consider the days that I picked cotton to be priceless.
When we had picked enough cotton to fill our canvas sacks, we would heave it across our shoulders and carry our pickings to be weighed at the wagon. Before we returned to our spots in the field, we would drink a swig of rusty-tasting well water from the aluminum ladle that was strapped to a bucket. At lunch, we would gather back at the wagon and sit in its shade while we nibbled on whatever had been packed in our sacks for us to eat. It seems that my lunches were primarily fried Spam and mayonnaise on Wonder bread. In the place where I picked, the sharecropper’s large family were all singers–Pentecostal singers. Throughout the day, they would warble glorious hymns. They sounded like a band of angels. My memories of picking cotton are almost surrealistic now, but I believe that they are close to the way that things actually were.
Late in the fall, after the pickers had saved a few dollars, the carnival rolled into town. That was about the only time that there was much excitement in Gideon. During the night time, the air would become crispy and moist and colorful lights would begin to reflect across the sky. The smell of corn dogs deep-frying would hover in the air and from anywhere in town, the children could hear the carousel’s calliope playing, up and down. Late in the fall, the hard choice was whether I would spend a few of my hard-earned quarters at the carnival or whether I would save all of my money to buy new school clothes from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
For the most part, my childhood was a sweet and simple time–or at least, that is how I remember it, and my memories are invaluable. But like my home town, my childhood is gone, too, and memories can be deceptive.
“You can never go home again.” – Thomas Wolfe
Thomas Wolfe is correct in saying that people can never go home again. The folks of home change and die and in some cases, like that of my hometown, businesses close, people move away, and the town itself disappears. There are other problems with returning to our childhood homes, however. Often, as we look backward in time, we look through ruby-colored glasses, and we don’t actually see the truth of what was really there. In other words, we cannot believe all of our memories of home.
When I was a child, I lived in a little white house that was situated on a gravel road, and my grandparents lived in a brick house on the next road. My grandmother was a gardener, and she filled her yard with flowers. At least once every day, I would walk through my neighbors’ yards, through my grandmother’s flowers, and I would end up at my grandmother’s back door. My grandmother was a gentle and kind person, and I was her only granddaughter. Life was idyllic at my grandmother’s house, and in my child’s memory, my grandmother lived in a grand home. After a more critical analysis, however, I realize that my grandmother’s house was actually rather small. It only had 2 bedrooms and one tiny bathroom. Because many of our memories of home are romanticized and deluded, we cannot return to the home that we remember because the home that we remember was never actually there. Our understandings of homeare more than that of a brick and mortar or wood and nail place.
Because most of the people have moved away from my Bootheel town to places where they can find work, the businesses and offices in my home town are closed now. Children don’t pick cotton any more, and the life of cotton-picking children is gone. Cotton farming isn’t even the massive industry that it once was in the place where I grew up. At one time, the autumn air around my home was filled with gossamer-like lint that floated from the cotton compresses. Like spider’s work, the cotton lint attached itself to trees, poles, and other things nearby. Gauzy and ghostly, the lint-webs seemed to be warning me–even many years ago. They were hinting that the simple, quiet times of my childhood would eventually end. While Cotton flourished in my little town, his people flowered, too. I don’t believe that people realized then that Cotton was the King in the Bootheel. They didn’t realize that not until later, when time took cotton’s throne. Now, the little farm communities of the Bootheel are shadows and their specter-like people are silhouettes. In my hometown, life itself was boarded shut many years ago, and now it is stone-stagnant, cold-condemned. and left gasping for remnants of itself.
I can never go home again, but many years later and thousands of miles away from my cotton-field home, the rhythm of my country childhood still pounds through my veins. As soon as the weather begins to chill in September, I begin to long for my homeland–for its dewy-covered cotton patches and for its little general store. I still have my cotton clock, it ticks my cotton song–a song about a place that no longer exists, and I am out on the pavement, holding a tin cup, crying: “I am still a cotton-child, a child that lost my home.”
©Jacki Kellum September 3, 2017 [Reprinted from several previous versions of this material]