Jacki Kellum

Juxtapositions: Read My Mind

Tag: Don’t Believe Everything that You Think

My Memories of the Cotton Fields of My Childhood Home

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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.

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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]

Priceless

Critical

Motherhood – The Tear

It’s one of the things that we don’t talk about, but there are many of us adult children who habitually avoid visiting our aging mothers. The operative word is children here because until this problem is resolved, we children, regardless of our ages, will never grow up.

Does this conversation from The Prince of Tides ring your bell?

” ‘It’s your mother, ‘ Sallie said, returning from the phone.

‘Please tell her I’m dead,’ I pleaded. ‘Please tell her I died last week and you’ve been too busy to call.’

‘Please speak to her. She says it’s urgent.”

‘She always says it’s urgent. It’s never urgent when she says it’s urgent

. . .

‘I hate my mother, Sallie…. p, 10

. . .

” ‘Jennifer said, ‘Why don’t you like Grandma, Dad?’

‘Who says I don’t like Grandma?’

“Lucy added, ‘Yeah, Dad, why do you always scream out, ‘I’m not here’ when she calls on the phone?’

‘It’s a protective device, sweetheart. Do you know how a blowfish puffs up when there’s danger? Well, it’s the same thing when Grandma calls. I puff up and shout that I’m not here. It would work great except that your mother always betrays me.’

‘Why don’t you want her to know you’re here, Daddy? Chandler asked.

‘Because then I have to talk to her. And when I talk to her it reminds me of being a child and I hated my childhood.’ p. 13

. . .

‘At this very moment my mother is crossing the Shem Creek bridge. No birds sing on the planet when my mother is on her way.

. . .

‘My God, I wonder what she wants, She only comes here when she can ruin my life in some small way. She’s a tactician of the ruined life. She could give seminars on the subject. … When my family has bad news, It’s always something grisly, Biblical, lifted straight out of the Book of Job.’ p. 14

. . .

‘Friendship and motherhood are not compatible.

‘…here’s Mom. Could you tie some garlic around my throat and bring me a crucifix?

. . .

“My mother appeared in the doorway, immaculately dressed and groomed, and her perfume walked out on the porch several moments before she did. My mother always carried herself as if she were approaching the inner chamber of the queen. She was as finely made as a yacht–clean lines, efficient, expensive.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides,  p. 16

[As Pat Conroy continues to develop the character of Tom Wingo’s mother, motherhood, shame, and anger become intermeshed.]

“I was not comfortable with anyone who was not disapproving of me. No matter how ardently I strove to attain their impossibly high standards for me, I could never do anything entirely right and so I grew accustomed to that climate of inevitable failure. I hated my other, so I got back at her by giving my wife her role. In Sallie, I had formed the woman who would be a subtle, more cunning version of my own mother. Like my mother, my wife had come to feel slightly ashamed of and disappointed in me.” Conroy, Pat. The Prince of Tides, p. 86.

[In reading more of the book The Prince of Tides, we discover that the Wingo family’s dysfunction did not begin with Tom’s generation of kids. Tom and his siblings were born into a dysfunctional family that extended several generations back–possibly back to the beginning of time.]

Because of her own insecurity, Tom’s mother had shamed her children into silence about things that did not cast the family in a favorable light. The Wingo father was a wife and child beater, and the children were forced into silence about the physical abuse in their homes.

Most of us were not physically abused, but through the rough and tumble process of growing up, most of us were hurt by something that our parents did or said or about what we came to believe that they did or said. Because of our own fragile egos, we may have exaggerated some of our slights. Our parent may have said one thing, and because of our own frailties, we may have heard another, and because we didn’t want to continue to hear what we didn’t want to hear, we may have erected a wall, and that launched a multitude of problems.

Mothers seem to bear the brunt of the blame for saying or doing things that kids perceive as having damaged them. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that mothers do not make mistakes. I am not saying that mothers do not say the wrong things and do the wrong things. As a mother, I have made mistakes and my own mother has also made mistakes, but I am acknowleding the reality that mothers are human.

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
Alexander Pope

While adult children are willing to forgive almost anyone in the world for almost anything that they have done, we find it difficult to forgive our mothers–the people who, in most cases, did everything that they possibly could do to be good moms. If we consider the irrationality of the degree of our anger and our acting out against our mothers, we may begin to understand that our inabilities to forgive our mothers may have more to do with our own weaknesses than it has to do with the misdeeds of our moms.

“There is no hospitality like understanding.”
― Vanna Bonta, Flight: A Quantum Fiction Novel

We consider ourselves to be a  hospitable bunch of people. We are good at being hospitable with perfect strangers, but we hesitate when it is time to be hospitable with those who have loved us as much as they humanly could have loved.

Hospitality is the act of opening our homes and our hearts and allowing others to enter. I believe that hospitality stems from understanding and from empathy. Until we are able to view our mothers as humans who had problems of their own and who did the best that they could with what life dealt them, we will never become hospitable toward them.

“You’re busy. You don’t have the skill set. Their problems are too much. Their life is a mess.
Your life is a mess. You’re too impatient. You’re not kind enough. You don’t even like them.
You have nothing to offer. What does it really matter?
Turns out, in the end, it’s all that really matters.”
― Edie Wadsworth

If we could simply shut out our mothers and close the doors of our pasts and walk away, it might be okay. It wouldn’t be kind and it would be dreadfully unappreciative, but it might be okay if we could completely remove ourselves from our families. but none of us can do that. We might convince ourselves that we are fine about divorcing ourselves. We might sufficiently harden our hearts enough that we feel nothing at all about it, but does anyone really want a hardened heart? We might become completely narcissistic and only care about ourselves. Whoa! Is that a good thing?

The truth is that there is no healthy way to eliminate our mothers, and until we quit trying to do that, we will be trapped in hamster cages, spinning the go-nowhere wheels of our own making.

“If you’re busy blaming your mother or wishing you could “divorce” her, you are caught in a psychological prison. You can’t get free, and you can’t really grow up. There are practical problems. For example, you dread family parties: Your mother might not like what you’re wearing. Or she might love what you’re wearing and say to everyone, “Doesn’t my daughter look gorgeous?!”—and you’d be mortified.

“That kind of practical problem is a symptom of the fact that mother-blame limits your freedom: you can’t be an adult who freely considers all of life’s possibilities. You restrict yourself to certain activities, interests, and friends to prove how different from Mother you are. You can’t look honestly at who you are, because you might discover ways that you are like her! Frantic to avoid what you consider her failures, you overreact, throwing out the good with the bad: you grow tough because you think she’s sentimental, or you become a doormat because she wasn’t warm enough. All that reaction against her, that desperate drive to prove your difference, restricts and damages your relationships with the other people you love—your mate, your children, your other relatives, and your friends. You offer them only a part of your true self, a caricature.” Caplan, Paula. The New Don’t Blame Mother

My children are mad at me, and I suffer from their anger every day. I grew up longing for the day that I would be a mother. When I was a child, I never wanted fashion dolls or any kind of pretty dolls. I only wanted baby dolls, and I wanted diapers and Johnson’s Baby Powder to sprinkle on their bottoms. When I was a little girl, I had play baby bottles and warm blankets to draw my babies near to me to protect them from the cold. I couldn’t wait to be a real mother, and I never dreamed that my real children would ever be mad at me.

One of my children called me to wish me Happy Mother’s Day. I had not seen that son for five years and I had only talked to him once in that time. I could have elected to pout and not to receive his call, or I could have elected to welcome any amount of attention that he felt he could spare me. I chose the latter. I cherish the fact that he called. Because he had moved to a different state and had a new cell phone, I didn’t know how to reach him. My son’s call was the first step toward tearing down a wall. My sons live over 1,000 miles away from me. They live 8 hours away from each other, but they are both living in the South, and I told both of my sons to expect me this summer. I am returning to my own roots in the South, and I want us to have an old-fashioned family reunion. There is something about breaking bread and drinking that is ceremonial and healing. Fried chicken, deviled eggs, and potato salad. There could be no better way to commune.

I hurt for my wounded family, and one of my greatest wishes is that we will be healed. I never saw it coming, but I have learned that there is more to motherhood than holding babies and powdering them and caressing them. There is also a time for giving them a healthy amount of space, and there is pain. Years ago, Erma Bombeck wrote a touching piece that tells the story of God’s creation of Mothers. It is titled When God Created Mothers. For me, the title should be Motherhood – The Tear

©Jacki Kellum May 14, 2017 Happy Mother’s Day

“When God Created Mothers”
by Erma Bombeck

When the Good Lord was creating mothers, He was into His sixth day of “overtime” when the angel appeared and said. “You’re doing a lot of fiddling around on this one.”

And God said, “Have you read the specs on this order?” She has to be completely washable, but not plastic. Have 180 moveable parts…all replaceable. Run on black coffee and leftovers. Have a lap that disappears when she stands up. A kiss that can cure anything from a broken leg to a disappointed love affair. And six pairs of hands.”

The angel shook her head slowly and said. “Six pairs of hands…. no way.”

It’s not the hands that are causing me problems,” God remarked, “it’s the three pairs of eyes that mothers have to have.”

That’s on the standard model?” asked the angel. God nodded.

One pair that sees through closed doors when she asks, ‘What are you kids doing in there?’ when she already knows. Another here in the back of her head that sees what she shouldn’t but what she has to know, and of course the ones here in front that can look at a child when he goofs up and say. ‘I understand and I love you’ without so much as uttering a word.”

God,” said the angel touching his sleeve gently, “Get some rest tomorrow….”

I can’t,” said God, “I’m so close to creating something so close to myself. Already I have one who heals herself when she is sick…can feed a family of six on one pound of hamburger…and can get a nine year old to stand under a shower.”

The angel circled the model of a mother very slowly. “It’s too soft,” she sighed.

But tough!” said God excitedly. “You can imagine what this mother can do or endure.”

Can it think?”

Not only can it think, but it can reason and compromise,” said the Creator.

Finally, the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek.

There’s a leak,” she pronounced. “I told You that You were trying to put too much into this model.”

It’s not a leak,” said the Lord, “It’s a tear.”

What’s it for?”

It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and pride.”

You are a genius, ” said the angel.

Somberly, God said, “I didn’t put it there.”
― Erma Bombeck, When God Created Mothers

Hospitality

 

What A Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice to Deceive OURSELVES

Next week, I’ll be 67-years-old, and as I look back across the string of events that have been woven together to create my life, I wish that I could see a clear chain of well-considered decisions that were based on sound, unflawed reasoning. Unfortunately, however, denial has a tendency to enter the equation. I find myself wondering if much of what I have done was based on the partial or flawed bits of information that I allowed to pose as truths. I wonder how much I have deceived myself.

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Yesterday, I watched the Denzel Washington movie Out of Time, and I literally cringed as I watched one of my favorite actors wade through the swarm of problems that he created while deceiving himself, and I thought, for about the millionth time, about how this swarming nature of problems is true of life.

What a dangerous web we weave when first we practice to deceive ourselves

Many of our problems evolve because we assume that everything that we think is true. It is not. We often think things that are not at all true. That is the nature of Denial, and once we buy into Denial, our minds become gnarled circuit boards. Maybe when I was first born, my brain’s wires were orderly,  but I could not have been very old when things that should not have happened did happen to me or when I simply did things that I should not have done. I have compounded the effects of the unfortunate events of my own life by making flawed decisions–primarily as efforts to compensate for the things that should never have happened. Like the tangling web, my internal wires seem to have gotten more and more tangled.

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I definitely think too much, and all of that thinking muddles things even more; but my writing helps me to manage some of the knotting, but writing does not help the twisted web of problems that have arisen outside of my mind. I am thinking about family problems now. I am not sure when my family became such a dismal affair. I am quite sure that my family’s kiss of death lay somewhere within my nasty divorce. Like a bomb, atoms separated during my divorce, and time has not healed any of the wounds inflicted during that  time. To the contrary, like Denzel Washington’s problems in his movie Out of Time, my family’s problems have compounded and swarmed since my divorce, and they have taken on a life of their own. Like Humpty Dumpty, we are broken, and I doubt that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can glue my family back together again. Yet, I never completely give up. I leave my porch light on and my key under the mat.

©March 6, 2017

Swarm

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