Briana Loveall: The Wool-Gatherer (essay/memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My grandmother raised me on cornbread and southern stories, the anecdotes of her girlhood among the cotton rows.

The Wool-Gatherer

I buy the strawberries grown and shipped from Watsonville because my grandmother’s hands once picked them there. Nestled safely in the center most part of California, this farming town was the hub of Hispanic, Portuguese, Filipinos, and Japanese families, and for at least one generation, a white southern family of nine.

In an old Model T, five hardy children, a weary woman, earnest wander-lust driven father, and the family dog, Trixie—all the dogs were named Trixie— spilled out of the car and onto the hot bed of earth where they would spend their years tending. They were gypsy laborers: cotton in the south, apples in the north, and now strawberries and cotton in the west. There, on the Californian coast, they would walk barefoot in dirt rows of cotton, bending and picking until their fingers bled.

There the girls would sneak out to dance in the rain, the brief and wild waves of wet that unleashed from the sky and seeped into their clothes, cleansing them from the land. There they greeted the slow summer mornings, waking as the fog rolled in from the ocean wild, and Mamma called them to breakfast before a full day of picking. There, my grandmother spent a decade growing up alongside the cotton rows. 

The last time I was there, at the home of my great-grandmother, the house on the hill, I was three. I made mud-pies in her garden; there are pictures showing my cousin and me, ankle deep in the mud, blonde hair falling into our faces. I have memories of a steep climb up to her house, a fear of her house falling off what seemed a cliff, but I’m not sure if these images bubble up from the mind naturally, or are artifice, inspired by the yellowed photograph I keep on my wall. 

For my grandmother, there is then, and there is now. Then, they rose at six, to a breakfast of coarsely ground oatmeal. Now, she drinks endless cups of coffee, from early morning until midnight, when she finally sleeps. Then, they trudged out to the fields, endless oceans of white, the fog trapped them in a silent world of work and sweat. Now, she wakes to the sound of the garbage man and his rumbling machine; the clang and bang a familiar melody of the city. Then, up and down the rows they worked, hands moving slower than their mother. When they tired, their mamma sang hymns to quicken their fingers. Now, my grandmother sings to her great-grandchildren, songs from her past, in a voice deepened with years of smoking.  

She is displaced from her latent girlhood by only a few hundred miles, though I know she hasn’t been home since her mother, my great-grandmother, died when I was three. I have one memory, though I don’t know how old I was, of visiting my great-grandmother in the hospital before she died. The images are brief and sputter, there she is in bed, scary and foreign, and there my grandmother is beside her, silent, aching, beautiful. Afterwards, when we’d moved outside to the front of the hospital, my grandmother ate circus peanuts, those horrible orange chewy candies made entirely from sugar and orange no. 4. I danced around her, begging for some, while her mother died thirty feet above us.

*

Everything I know about the cotton industry I learned from my grandmother: a white woman born in the south, not as a plantation owner’s daughter, but one of the millions of migrant workers struggling to stay alive, and I toil in her history like a child making mud pies in a garden. If I labor long enough, with enough imagination, my mud pile takes on the shape of a hut, a house, a home, where I can sit at my grandmother’s calloused soles and soak up her stories. I was seven or eight when I first began unconsciously layering her life over my own, a practice, once recognized, I adopted in an effort to wrap my narrative around her own. 

I winced as the red-black thorns of the berry bushes sliced the tender flesh of my hands. Midday sun cooked my exposed shoulders, but it wouldn’t be until after I left my grandmother’s garden, returned to the cool air-conditioned home, that my skin would tighten against the cold until tightening turned to tingling turned to burning. “Oma, how come you don’t get pricked,” I whined. 

“Because, I’ve been pickin things all my life. I’ve got tough skin.” I sighed and kept working. It felt like I was playing the game Operation, my hand deep in a bush and shaking so hard to keep from touching the vines. My grandmother, barefoot, and Indian-tan, picks in the space between the fence and the bush, a narrow tunnel she navigates with confidence. “Here, like this,” my grandmother said as she came to stand next to me. She reached into the thorny depths, fingers and thumb close together and quickly procured a fat blackberry. “When I was little my fingers used to get pricked all the time when we were pickin cotton. Mamma would say, ‘don’t get blood on the cotton boll,’ and then she’d tell us kids to hurry up and pick faster or we’d be late for school. When you pick cotton you have to make this shape with your hand,” she showed me her hand, hard and knobby knuckles covered in calloused and weathered skin, “that way your fingers don’t get pricked when  you reach in and twist the cotton out.” 

We kept picking and I tried to imitate the litheness of her hands. My own hands were Scandinavian pale-smooth as paper, my feet covered in new shoes from PayLess. I was picking and letting my imagination turn the plump, bulbous berries into soft tufts of white, images of lazy creeks and fields that burned hot on bare skin, except I would not get in trouble if I didn’t finish helping my grandmother pick berries.  

“Did you always have to pick cotton,” I asked. 

“Hmmm mmm,” she hummed, plopping a berry into her mouth. “Didn’t pick cotton then you didn’t eat.”

“What if you didn’t want to?” I pulled my hand away burn-quick, and sucked on a finger that’d been stabbed by a thorn. I tried to imagine an entire day spent in one place, doing one thing until I was so sick of it I could scream. 

“Ha. Then mamma’d give you the switch. Plus, family comes first. Have a berry.” I opened my mouth like a small bird, and crushed the berry she placed in there, felt the way the seeds hid in between my teeth, like a secret. 

*

Cotton picking looks like the shadowy slope of tired figures moving forward through the fog until they arrive at the edge of the field. It isn’t their field. They don’t own it. It owns them. The mother breaks through the foggy bank first, like she’s leaving the tail end of a fantastic dream. Her children shuffle behind her. Slavery ended some years before but economics hadn’t stopped to consider the color of skin. In this secluded Arkansas town, in a small one room house, a poor white family woke to pick cotton, to give to the sharecropper, to earn enough money for oatmeal in the morning and potatoes in the evening, and start again the next day. The younger girl, a small and wiry child with fierce eyes, didn’t know a world outside her own, one filled with acres and rows of white, white, white. When a neighbor came to help her daddy slaughter a pig, her mamma invited the man to stay for dinner. 

“I thank ya, but I can’t,” the man said, wringing his hands. Mamma had insisted. “I’d appreciate to eat on the porch if thassa right wit you.” And the young girl, my grandmother, sitting to her meal of hot and crispy ham and mealy potatoes, had watched their black neighbor eat his on their back porch, and hadn’t understood why. Of course she understands now. 

“That was my first introduction to racism, although I didn’t know it,” she says on the phone, her voice thick with age and years of smoking. She slurps coffee, sucks it through her teeth, which are false but not wooden like George Washington, she says, and recounts the first time she’d seen segregated drinking fountains. “I was fourteen and I’d just stepped off the Greyhound bus in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Girl you’d never seen someone so culture shocked. I was thirsty and I went to get a drink of water,” she says it with a drawl, wuter, “and there was a sign saying Colored, and Whites. I had no idea what it meant. Luckily my sister showed up right then to take me to her house, or I’d probably drank outa the wrong one.” She sighs. “I was so sheltered. Imagine that, a white girl from a cotton farm in the South who didn’t know what racism was.” 

I ask my grandmother to tell me these stories, of being a girl who didn’t know that outside their secluded little home in the South, skin color dictated more than where a man could eat his dinner, of walking half a mile to draw water from a well, and the lilt of her mamma’s voice rising over the cotton rows while they picked and picked and picked, so that I might understand a life different than my own. Her stories are a caricature I carry with me, at the grocery store selecting produce, or while helping my oldest daughter with her homework; my grandmother is a lens I try to see my world through.

She starts at the beginning: her father had wanderlust, and her mother loved her father, and the children loved their mother, and they followed him, like perfect white lambs, out to what he hoped were greener pastures. 

*

The scientific name for the cotton grown in America is Gossypium hirsutum. Scientists may have named the plant, transcribing field notes into tiny leather-bound journals, but scientists weren’t dragging scratchy brown sacks through row after row of white ocean; could they accurately name something they weren’t intimate with?  Did scientists know, as they kneeled beside thick stems, the leaves and bolls drifting lazily in the afternoon heat, that cotton would eventually become an economic burden? That cotton wasn’t just thirsty for water, but the sweat of those who worked it? Did they know, as they sketched and labeled and called it good, that the biggest burden might come at the worn hands of the people who picked it? 

My grandmother says a field of cotton looks likes rows of tiny clouds hovering precariously over the dark earth. It is an innocuous looking thing, deceptively soft and nestled inside the jagged maw of the boll. She told me stories of picking the fibrous material, from the early morning when the fields still hung wet with dew, to the late evenings, when her burlap sack was lumpy, full of finger-pricked, rust stained cotton. I drank up these stories while my grandmother yanked and pulled at my hair, brushing it into tight ponytails while I tried not to yelp. I’d draw my knees to my chest and shiver as the air conditioner hummed loudly in protest against the hot Santa Ana winds. I tried to imagine what my grandmother looked like as the small girl of her stories, trudging through row after row of dusty, prickly fields.  

It was the image of the final product, dark blue Levi’s and simple t-shirts that I imagined whenever my grandmother began a story. I’m sure as a child my mind even drifted so far as to see a field of shirts and pants growing off thick vines, a sea of clothing waiting to be plucked and sent to the store. I was too young to weave my grandmother’s narrative into the fabric of a time I could not comprehend. 

Slave owners watched the glistening backs of men and women and children: black against white shimmering in the midday heat.  

A man envisioned a cotton gin. 

Perhaps the sharecropper glimpsed the opportunity of wealth.  

A father was witness to another day of work, another day to feed his family.

For my grandmother it meant the heat and thirst and tears and singing and pulling sacks beside the weary hands of her family. 

*

“Once,” she says, “my sister had a city boy over. He had taken a liking to her and so he came on to the house on the hill and had dinner with us. well afterwards, it was my sister’s turn to do the dishes. And you know, because we didn’t have water and we had to go down the road to Aunt Hazel’s and draw the water from the well, that took a lot of time. So when we did dishes, we just washed em in soapy water. We didn’t rinse. We had a bowl of drinking water and a bowl of soapy water. Well that city boy dipped all the soapy dishes in our drinking water, thought he was so smart and helpful. Ha. Turns out he was kinda handsy with my sister. She put him in his place and he didn’t come around anymore.”

*

My grandmother paints her life like a kaleidoscope of monochromatic hues: browns of the earth, the dust, the soles of her feet, the crust of baked bread; white skies, white rows of unpicked cotton, singing Jesus washed me white as snow, at church on Sunday at the little white chapel. We sit at her feet like disciples while she sips her coffee and tells us about living on a farm without running water or electricity. She tells us that pigs are mean, chicks cute until they turn into chickens, walking to school barefoot, and hauling water from Aunt Hazel’s well down the road. And it occurs to us, probably for the first time, that our grandmother was once a child. Her stories make her sound like she was born a grown-up, and she is only now, with her grandchildren experiencing the joy of wild play. 

She shoos us away from her feet. She has work to do. We go to her backyard, a self-contained world with high walls that we cannot see over. We feel safe in the square space of our grandmother’s life. From inside the house we hear the cacophonous clanging of pots, her barky laugh that turns into a cough, and the smell of browning beef and red sauce hang heavy in the hot air. I am a small girl-child like my grandmother had been. At some point I stop to think what it must be like to have been raised in the wildness of the country—I have never seen the country—and now exist within a tiny plot of land, the equivalent of a few rows of unpicked field. 

*

Here is how you pick cotton: First, we must assume that you are picking cotton to engage in the textiles industry for remuneration. It will of course, not be any sort of hefty remuneration, but you will of course, have already known that starting out. Probably you are poor and the industry is rich with opportunities for you, the laborer. Perhaps you are good at other things, like reciting scripture or nursing babies, calming wailing cries deep in the night. Those things, though virtuous, will not put food in the hungry maws of your children, like baby birds craning their papery necks out of the nest.  

Now that we have established why you are picking cotton, it’s time for you to find yourself a ramshackle house, courtesy of a landlord of a farm.  If you’re not sure how to obtain a landlord of your own, wait outside the nearest grocery store until you spot a family that wears their desperation like a thin layer of dirt and powdery insecticide; they will know how to help you. These houses are designed for the wandering family: a simple structure with one or no rooms, without running water or electricity. The house does not serve the purpose of a home; it’s a place to work, eat, fall into bed exhausted, rise early, and do it again. 

So you have your reasons, your place to stay, and the first day of picking rolls in with the mist off the Californian coast. You rouse the children that look like caterpillars, perfectly wrapped in their scratchy blankets. You sit them down to a breakfast of oatmeal, and then you all trudge barefoot to the field with a burlap sack in hand. 

Since you have decided that living is what you will continue doing, you will have therefore found yourself looking down, at this innocuous thick stalked bush. You must eye the white tufts warily, note the way the boll hides itself. You are a warrior, this plot of farm-land your battlefield; do not let the thorny army know that you do not know the sting and prick and ache and weary. You reach down and with delicate fingers held close together, pinch and pull the cotton away. Careful, do not touch the thorny boll with your soft fingertips. Now shove it into you burlap sack, and contemplate the term wool-gathering while you pick and pluck and remove and confiscate and defeat the stems in front of you. When you have depleted the area, take a small step forward and begin again. 

Your children will undoubtedly begin to complain: it is hot; they are thirsty; their fingers have been pricked. Sing them a song about soft mist in the pine trees, a shaded hillside, where love is lost and cannot be found. Keep picking.

*

I read to her, the things I’ve drawn together, the way I’ve gathered and pulled and threaded together her history. You’re missing the good stuff, she says. Like what, I say. Everything you said is true, but even though it was hard, there was lots of good. There were the nights mamma and daddy sat on the porch while us kids chased fireflies. It was hard, but we always had family. 

I know my grandmother has other stories besides these. That she isn’t defined by a childhood filled with labor, marked by socioeconomics and class. Perhaps it is in those years of drawing water from the well and trudging barefoot through fields and listening to her mamma’s voice rise over rows of cotton and tending to her younger brothers while mamma and daddy made hominy and slaughtered pigs, that she returns to a place when her secluded impoverished world started and ended besides the working hands of her family. 

When I ask her to tell me a story, she stops the laundry she is folding, grabs her cup of coffee, settles into her worn couch, and starts at the beginning. 

Author: Dead Mule Staff