Southern Cross Creations
An Australian Woman's Journal
by Melissa Jeffress
Mom turned on the car engine and rolled down her window, calling out, "Now you be good for your big sister and do what she says!" Watching her from the doorstep, we waved. My brother broke ranks and ran out to the car. He jumped onto the running board, leaned in the window and begged, "Pleeease.....can't I go to town with you? Pleeeeease?" Mom gave him a kiss on the cheek and ordered him back to the house. She waved, shifted to first gear and drove off to do the weekly shopping on that hot summer day.
"Cotton pickers wanted."
Mom eyed the sign as she drove past on her way to Los Banos in the middle of California's San Joaquin Valley. Ripening summer produce, like cotton and cantaloupes, awaited harvest in the fields surrounding the little farming town in this time before the appearance of mechanical harvesters, in the days when cotton pickers were people.
Many such workers came up from Mexico, for the season, and sent money back to their families. The work was hard, the pay small. Local people worked in those fields, too, where there was little shade and the temperatures rose above 100 degrees F.
Mom returned home later that day and prepared dinner. Dad appeared, having finished his 9-12 hour workday on one of the ranches. We sat down to my favorite meal: chili beans accompanied by fresh baked corn bread and a simple salad made of tomatoes and iceburg lettuce. After dinner the usual argument started about whose turn it was to wash dishes. Mom threw up her hands, told my sister to wash and Mom would dry. The rest of us quickly disappeared from the kitchen and settled down to a quiet evening, listening to the radio, reading, playing board games, enjoying summer vacation.
As they stood at the kitchen sink, Mom began to chat with Sister, a teenager anxious to get finished with her chore so she could return to her book. Mom mentioned her worry about the start of the school year. Five children with outgrown clothes and shoes. And what about the required school supplies? Times are tough, Mom said, and Dad works so hard. She paused. "Would you be willing to go cotton picking with me to earn some extra money for school clothes?"
Sister looked sideways at Mom, uncertain if she was serious, then looking away as she realised Mom meant it. Sister frowned at the sink of sudsy water and considered. No one would want to pick cotton unless they had to. What teenager would say yes? But maybe she had to. At least she had to if she really wanted new school clothes. Not given much choice, but not ordered to pick cotton either.
In the silence Mom put away the clean glasses and started drying the dinner plates. She explained where the fields were, how the wages were paid. She had checked it all out earlier that day. She estimated how many days they'd have to work to make enough money. She paused again. "Well, what do you think?"
"OK," said Sister, leaving Mom off balance with a list of unused arguments. Sister grinned. "Can I buy that black skirt in the Penney's window? When do we start? What about the rest of the kids?"
Mom recovered quickly and grinned back. "I like that skirt, too. The kids come with us. We can start on Monday."
We arrived at the cotton field in the cool of Monday morning, piling out of the car in a flurry of misplaced hats and the exuberance of farm kids. No one batted an eye at the arrival of a young mother with five kids, aged 4-13. The older ones would watch after the younger ones, she reminded us. That was the family rule. She set the paper bags containing our lunches in the shade of the cotton bin and hung our canvas bag of water nearby. Other workers had done the same.
The overseer issued each picker a bag with a strap to hang over your shoulder and across your chest, leaving the long canvas bag to drag on the ground beside and behind you. I wanted to pick cotton like everyone else. I wanted a bag, too. Mom looked at me sternly and said, "You're too little." Then she smiled and pulled out an old cotton flour sack she'd brought along for me to use, with a short strap sewn in place. I hated being too little. But I liked having something special made, just for me.
The six of us strapped on our bags and set to picking, working together, moving down the rows of cotton. I was small enough to be sheltered by the sparse shade of the cotton plants and still I grew hot as the morning freshness evaporated. Those that were taller bore the sun's heat on their backs and shoulders, sweat soon running down their sides and dripping off eyebrows despite the protection of a hat. The bags began to fill and grow heavy.
Down the field and back, stripping each plant. Oh, those dried cotton bolls could cut and prick the ends of inexperienced fingers till they would hurt and bleed. Given enough days in the field, hands toughened up and you got cunning about enticing the cotton right out of the boll and into your sack. But day after day your back felt like it was breaking by time you made a complete trip down one cotton row and back up another. And another thing, your mouth and throat got soooo dry, you couldn't swallow or spit. Down the field and back. We stopped for water as often as possible.
It didn't take long before I lost interest in picking cotton. I lagged behind, ripping apart a cotton boll. "Keep up," Mom called out. I grumped along, following this timeless procession of bent backs and plucking hands. My bag refused to fill. I couldn't wait to take it off. Mom took it from me and dumped the contents into her own bag, telling me to take it easy for a while. The sun and heat bore down. I sat under a cotton plant for a few moments. A few rows over, another family laboured. Their toddler sat atop his Dad's bag, towed along with the load of cotton.
What a good idea! Now I found the energy to move ahead. Catching up with Mom, I exclaimed, "I'm too hot! I'm tired! I want to ride for a while!" as I climbed atop her bag. She stopped picking, looked at me sternly and said, "You're too big." I crawled off in great embarrassment as she turned back to picking. Pride straightened my backbone long enough to reach the end of the row and the bags were mostly full. I headed for a drink of water and a nap at Mom's suggestion while the others took their bags to be weighed by the overseer. He kept a tally for each picker and would pay accordingly at the end of the day. After each bag was weighed, the cotton got dumped into the large cotton bin and the pickers returned to the field, all day long.
That extra money made a difference besides paying for school clothes. It taught us something about knowing the price of what you want, about working together, about understanding what our parents endured for our sake, about pulling your weight as soon as you're able, about never wanting to pick cotton again..."in dem ol' cotton fields back home".
Site updated 25 April 2004