Deanna Benjamin: Pleiades (essay/memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: In 2004, after living in Savannah, Georgia, for three years, a stray dog wandered into my front yard. I guided him to the back yard by his blue collar. My other half printed out “Found Dog” posters and tacked them onto neighborhood street signs. No one called. We named him Charley because he was a chocolate lab-mix. A few people who wanted a dog came by to meet Charley. One of them bent down to pet him, and Charley humped his left arm. No one wanted Charley, so we kept him. We took him to the vet and treated him for heartworm. The sterilized adult heartworm that remained lived for another five years. Charley lived for another ten.

Pleiades

I want to get up from this table and get a glass of water. I want to brush my teeth, then my hair, braid it, pull it back into a bun. I want to put on a linen shift and walk along the Gulf Coast from Bolivar Island to Matagorda Bay. I don’t care that the sandbars are far from the shore or that the tar balls would flatten around my heels or that the water is muddy from river runoff.

But I am in Middle America and yesterday a summer shower cooled the summer heat even though it is October and I read a chapter in Julie Carr’s Objects from a Borrowed Confession which reminded me of that time in Houston when one day I lay in bed from dawn to dusk reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary while you did something I don’t remember. Spring felt like summer. The book cover was ruddy pink, and the bed was a futon resting on a bamboo-slatted frame, the cradle of our passion, the frame we still use. Saturday brushed against the windows of our second-floor apartment, the one in the pink house behind the police station, and the sky was gray with clouds even though the threat of rain had passed.

I want to go back to that apartment, to the time before the clouds came, before I washed the walls and the floors and all the clothes and bedding in the house, before I found a home for Nadine, our cat, and Togo and Kenya, our birds, before that Valentine’s Day when I sneaked into the ICU with a vile of water from your saltwater tank and a copper test kit so you could tell me how to treat the ick that your fish were dying from while you lay there recovering from nearly dying yourself after you collapsed on the black-and-white floor of the emergency clinic deprived of the smoothest of oxygen, your cheeks purple, your eyes frightened like I’ve never seen in anyone’s eyes before or since, your soul bulging from your irises, aching to escape the eternal twist of fate, aching to return to a moment when breath was easy and unnoticed.

But it is a quarter century later and, right now, while I write these words, you are riding your bicycle in a tree-filled park that was once home to the centennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase and is now home to golf courses and tennis courts and the museum that reads in its granite lintel dedicated to art and free to all and the Shakespeare festival that we stumbled upon our first June here while we drove through the park in your red convertible, the convertible you sold the next summer because we needed the money and your Takach press was more important than the Miata you bought in Savannah after we sold the blue Westy that we bought in Tempe a dozen lifetimes ago, and I am reminded of that morning we woke to the sun rising pink into a valley at the edge of Arizona, which took me to the Thanksgiving night in that same Westy two thousand miles away when the ocean was hidden by night and the pine trees towered and we were buried under a pallet of blankets and our two Boston terriers, the same terriers who died some years later here in Middle America, were snuggled under the covers with us, which took me to the night on the beach when comet debris showered in the Pleiades.

It was our first night together alone. The stars dazzled and meteors danced and I danced and your eyes danced and the Gulf waters shouldered little shells onto the sand and the twirl of my flower skirt rippled the wet air: all while I realized long before I knew it that I would love you harder than I would love anyone. Ever.

Elizabeth Pesant: Step and Do Not Step (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement:
I grew up in a small town in South Carolina among the rivers and pines and sandy dirt roads. My mother, a French Huguenot from Charleston, SC, taught me that we have the ocean in our blood and pluff mud in our souls. The water with which I was baptized came, in equal parts, from the Jordan River and from the marsh on Pawley’s Island. I studied at Sewanee, the University of the South as an undergrad and as a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. I now live in Asheville, NC, where the mountains have shown me a different type of Southern than the one I am accustomed to, but one that is rich and messy and tenacious nonetheless.

Step and Do Not Step

I finally decided to get out of bed around two in the afternoon. I had woken up an hour earlier but had hidden under the sheets, trying desperately to fall back into those strange daytime dreams that took me somewhere else. It was quiet in the house, and the air seemed still. The floor creaked as I went down the hall, then downstairs to the kitchen. I had arrived home at dawn that morning, having driven, against Dad’s pleading, through the night. I had stayed on campus longer than any of my friends, pushing a final paper to the very last deadline to turn in work for the semester. I think I had a weird exchange with the young classics professor as I dropped my off my paper. The history building was unlocked, as always, but I hadn’t expected him to be in his office. He seemed mildly surprised to see me too, and uncharacteristically chatty. I leaned against the door frame and made small talk for a few minutes. He made a stupid joke. I laughed. Was there a look and pause there? Or just a pause? Who knows. I was running on mostly Adderall at this point so everything had a surreal sheen to it.  I blushed, wished him a happy break and walked slowly back out into the night.  Back in my dorm room, having done nothing but procrastinate and crank out a mediocre (at best) paper on Heraclitus for the past 24 hours, I packed for break by stuffing heaps of clothes from the closet floor into a bag. I grabbed my roommate’s half-empty box of cheez-its for the road before locking up.

 

 Campus was quiet and mostly dark, and after I drove out through the limestone gates I entertained myself for at least 30 minutes by imagining different conversations and charming banter I might have had with Dr. Owens while I was in his office. I imagined him reading my paper. I could have done better, but I think he’ll like it. He asked us to choose an ancient philosopher and apply their theory to some aspect of modern life or our personal experiences. Fluff. I think he was just as ready to wrap up class for the semester as the rest of us were. I chose Heraclitus and his metaphysics because I learned from an upperclassmen that Dr. Owens had written about him in his own doctoral dissertation.  Plus it was fairly easy to unfold the laws of constant change onto modern life. Ups and downs, pain and joy, it’s all the same- unified by the certainty of constant motion of the elements and the inevitability of change. We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not. You can step in a river, even in the exact same spot, more than once. But the water is always flowing so it can never be the same. Maybe not an “A” paper but he would like it well enough. I wished I had come up with a more clever title. For the remaining hours of the drive I passed the time by counting down to when I could have my next cigarette. I would let myself have eight, one for each hour. I don’t smoke, but the occasional cold air from the open window and the little nicotine burst, accompanied by the perfect song, provided some much-needed punctuation to the drive. I ended up smoking eleven.

Dad was around somewhere, his keys were in the bowl by the door. I had heard him upstairs earlier when he cracked the door to my room and peered in; he must have woken up and seen my car in the driveway. Downstairs in the kitchen, I searched through the fridge and pantry for something to eat. There was dust on the countertops and mail stacked in piles all over the kitchen table like a little paper city.  There was no good food in the pantry, so I ate an orange and took a sleeve of saltines outside to snack on while I walked around the property. The entire place was both familiar and strange to me. This was my grandfather’s estate, and his father’s before him. As a child I spent countless weekends and summer days here, but this is the first time that when I’ve come “home,” it’s been here. Our old house in town, where I grew up, was empty. Had it been sold already or was it just under contract? Dad said he thought people were doing some painting inside but if I called first maybe I could go visit one more time. I didn’t want to. That was my home, I knew every corner by heart, and every square inch of air in that house contained layers and layers of memories. I couldn’t call some real estate agent to ask permission to see it.  If I couldn’t go there and lean on the kitchen counter while my mom cooked, curl up on the sofa, or crawl out of my bedroom window onto the roof to lie back against the grainy shingles and look at the stars, I didn’t want to go at all. Would they paint my parents’ bedroom? I thought of the pale blue-green of those walls and how at night, with the glow from the little lights on machines and the rhythmic hum of the IV pump, you sort of felt like you were underwater. The saltine cracker I was eating stuck to the roof of my mouth and suddenly I felt like I would never be able to swallow it. I twisted the top of the waxy plastic sleeve and left the rest of them on the back porch on my way out. 

I walked down the brick path, behind the crooked old magnolia tree, towards the pool. I don’t know what I was expecting but was still a little surprised. There was dirt, mounded over the rectangular shape of what had been a pool, with the metal slide standing like a tall, gleaming headstone marking a giant grave. I wandered into the wood-shingled pool house and dressing rooms, the floor now covered with dirt and dry leaves. I turned a faucet with a squeak, but nothing came out. There was an old bathing suit hanging from one of the pegs. I touched it- stiff and light- I half expected it to evaporate into a puff of dust. 

Next on my tour of broken things was the tennis court, halfway between the house and the cotton fields. This time I knew what I would find there; it had not been maintained since my granddad had died. Grass was growing up through the cracks. The net was still there, but was rotting and sagged so far it was mostly just crumpled across the court. I peeked in the tennis shed, its door ajar and hanging a little crooked on its hinges. The tennis ball machine was still in there but I was sure it had long since stopped working. I could see sky though the roof. From there I looked back at the house- it really was a pretty place. Looking at it from that distance, it was easy to imagine it as it once was. It’s only when you get close that you notice the little circles of moss growing on the roof, or go inside that you smell the musty air, see the peeling, yellowing wallpaper, and can’t ignore the fact that this is a house that no one has lived in for years. 

A whole week came and went, and I kept my same basic sleep schedule as the first day. Occasionally I caught up with friends from high school, but mostly just wandered through the house feeling like a ghost. I would stay up after dad went to bed and kill time. It was acceptable to start drinking any time after 5. It was acceptable to smoke weed any time after my dad went to bed, especially if I was painting in the room my uncle had set up as a studio when he was my age. I was being artistic. I don’t smoke cigarettes, except for sometimes when I’m drunk or bored. If I turned the bathroom fan on and blew the smoke out of the open window while standing on the closed toilet seat, I didn’t even have to go outside.  I stayed up late and slept all day. It used to drive dad crazy when I slept in, but now he seemed to ignore it. I’m not even sure what he was doing all day, but he kind of seemed like a ghost sometimes too. 

Two of my friends from high school were living in an apartment together near downtown. Not far from my old neighborhood. The first time I drove there I almost turned up my road before I remembered. From then on I would take Lucas Street to get to their place instead of going down Chicory Road. This way was better; I would pass the gas station that never checks IDs so I could bring some beer when I came over. Smith and Josh didn’t go away to college- one of them was taking classes at community college and the other working at his dad’s store. When I went over there we would stay up all night talking. Mostly about our tiny, ultra-conservative, Christian high school, and how glad we were to be out of that place. About all the inconsistencies in our teachers’ world view and the stupidity of their righteous façade. Sometimes I felt bad for the guys for being stuck in the same small town, hanging out with the same people. I liked it, though, being part of that world for a little while, imagining what it might be like if I had an apartment in town and went out to the bars and hung out with people I’d known my whole life. It made the ground underneath me stop falling away for a moment.

I had only been off at college for one semester, but I had learned a lot. I learned about ancient Greek philosophy and American history as I’ve never heard it and how to read poetry. I learned that when cute boys refilled my red plastic cup with beer and got to the part where they ask about my family, that when I say my mom died how? Cancer…when? five months ago, things got quiet and weird and somehow no one felt flirty anymore.  I learned the face people make when they hear what they weren’t expecting and try to convey the appropriate amount of sympathy and sadness. Sometimes, later, they would try to gently prod me to talk about my mom, their solemn eyes said, go ahead, I’m the kind of guy you can talk to about this stuff. Usually I changed the subject. They didn’t hold the cards, I held the cards. But sometimes I would though, just enough, not for me but for them. To show them someone who was vulnerable and who needed them. I learned about the social contract and the Leviathan. I learned that by withholding just enough of myself people would to project what they wanted onto me. And they liked what they had created. I learned that I like cocaine. A lot. I learned about the waves of feminism. I learned that god was dead. I learned that when I was just the right kind of drunk I felt invincible. 

Christmas morning came. I woke up around mid-morning and went downstairs to the small Christmas tree in the living room that only two days before I had insisted we find and cut down. It was so small, my dad and I had no trouble dragging it back up to the house. It was a white pine, not a plump Frasier fir like you get on from the tree lots, so the long needles drooped down under the weight of the lights and the few ornaments I hung. There were the same wrapped gifts under the tree that my aunt and uncle had dropped off earlier that week, along with the sweater I bought in town for my dad. I found my dad outside, working on a fence to keep deer out of the garden. He came inside, we opened the gifts, and then I went right back to drifting around the house, a museum of all the people who had ever lived there. I poked around the attic and looked through boxes upon boxes of old photos. 

Christmas is a holiday, and on holidays it is acceptable to start drinking after lunch. I didn’t eat lunch, but if I had I would have been finished with it by two, which is when I mixed my first drink. The light coming in through the windows moved all the way across the floor, across the piles of family photos I found in a file box in the attic. I heard my dad leave to go down the street to have Christmas dinner with some relatives I never see and hardly know. I wasn’t dressed yet. I would meet him there later. The squares of window-light reached all the way to the wall on the other side of the room before fading away all together. I switched to wine. At some point I must have crawled into bed; I passed the invincible stage and had arrived at just numb. 

The phone rang. I never answered the house phone; it was never for me. It rang and rang. A few minutes of quiet and it rang again. I pulled myself down the hall to the study to answer. It was my dad. Where was I? Dinner was supposed to be at eight and everyone had been sitting at the table, waiting for me for half an hour. I would not be going to dinner, I told him, please go on without me. I went back to bed. I woke up some hours later when he came into my room and turned on the light. There were empty bottles on the floor. He picked one up- are you drunk? What were you thinking? What is wrong with you? Do you know how many people you inconvenienced tonight? Do you realized how rude that was? He stared at me with anger and disbelief. I’ve never been more disappointed in you.  

I broke. The tears just started running down my face, and all the sadness I felt so proud of myself for conquering came bubbling up to the top. “I miss Mom,” I croaked, and started to try to say how sad I felt this Christmas. I couldn’t put the words together, everything I was trying to say just dissolved into sobs and frantic gasps. He turned and walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so sad and angry at the same time. I had to get out of this house. I had to go home. I grabbed my sleeping bag from my closet and my keys, ran out to my car, and drove into the night.  My eyes were blurry and my head swam but I’ve never needed to get anywhere so badly. Somehow I made it, past my old high school, by the park, down Chickory Road, through my neighborhood and to my home. I still had my keys. The driveway was dark. I walked up to the back door like I’ve done so many times before, and let myself in. I blinked in the dark and at first thought that it was my mind, filling the void in this familiar place with shapes of furniture because emptiness didn’t make sense. But my eyes adjusted, and the shapes remained. Someone had moved in. There were things. Photos. A Christmas tree. I shined my cell phone screen across the darkness as I backed up, locked the door, and left. This was not my home anymore. The things I needed to experience again were gone forever; changed in a way that can’t be undone. You can’t step in the same river twice. 

Sela Breen: March For My Life (memoir/essay)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Sela wrote about herself instead of writing a SLS but we forgive her. Read the following essay and you’ll see why. “I am a ninth grade student at Mamaroneck High School. I am fourteen years old, and love sing, dance, and spend time with my family. I have always loved to write, and want to share my work outside of a class room setting. I greatly appreciate all time given to my piece.”

March For My Life

When I was in elementary school I remember coming home to a somber house while my parents told me that young kids had been shot at their school, just a couple hours from us. The kids were my brother’s age, around six or seven, and the shooting had taken place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. At the time, I barely gave the event a second thought, but fast forward six years and I am marching with my mom in New York City, protesting the very same issue that led to that disaster.

As I grew older, my interest in politics propelled me towards activism. I became more aware of the privileges I am lucky to have and the restrictions I am subjected to. As a child and student people take advantage of you because you can’t stand up for yourself. In restaurants, you are overlooked for seats because there are adults waiting behind you. And now, apparently, our safety is being looked over as well. But I am done being taken advantage of, and so are millions of others. When I saw what had happened at Stoneman Douglas High School and how the students were standing up for themselves, I knew I wanted to be part of that. 

Flash forward and I’m at the March for Our Lives NYC with my mom and friends, holding up a sign and chanting “VOTE THEM OUT” and “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE” at the top of my lungs. I walked alongside all of the other fed up teens who are ready to stand up for themselves and speak their mind. I had the honor of watching activists speak their minds and show me what it is like to be the change you wish to see. I was surrounded by other people like me, standing up for what we believe in, standing up for our basic rights. 

The experience was so empowering. Not only was I standing up for what I believe in, I was standing up for myself. I was standing up for my friends, my brother, my cousins, and all children. For years people have stepped on young people because they don’t know how to fight back, but we do. I fight back for what I believe in and I will continue to until I see a change. 

Barbara McLay: Five Faiths (essay)

Southern legitimacy statement: I was born and raised in Florida and am still living here, two miles from Georgia. My dad and grandparents were also native Floridians, and I can’t find a maternal or paternal ancestor who was born or lived north of the Mason-Dixon line. Mom was born in southern Georgia and crossed the border into Florida when she was sixteen.

Five Faiths

I was, I suppose, a Holy Roller when I was born, though you aren’t an official member of the Holiness Church unless you are baptized into it, and the Holiness Church doesn’t baptize babies.  I don’t remember being a Holiness. It was my mother’s faith, but my father was a Baptist, and my parents changed our family’s religion to Baptist before I was five. 

I enjoyed being a Baptist, and I’m thankful for the legacy of Bible knowledge I acquired in my formative years. There was always something going on at church. We spent Sunday morning in Sunday school followed by a church service that lasted until noon, went home for lunch and an early supper, then back to church at six-thirty for Baptist Training Union and another service that was mostly hymn singing.  Monday nights were for visitation, dedicated to persuading backsliders to return to the fold. Tuesday nights there was choir practice, and Wednesday nights we had prayer meetings. The deacons met on Thursdays (I hoped to be one someday), and on Fridays and Saturdays there were parties and Bible study for young people to entice us away from school and recreation center dances. What I like best about the Baptist church is the music. I find it ironic that Baptists consider dancing a sin, but their music makes you want to. 

My sophomore year in college, I began to attend the Congregationalist Church, the only church anywhere near the University of South Florida back in the early sixties. They had the biggest and most active student union, and all my new friends were Congregationalist. I was already unhappy about being told I was going to Hell for dancing, and my parents would be there too, for drinking and smoking, so I was ready to find a gentler path to the Pearly Gates. The church building was beautiful—glass walls with woods all around. It was a pleasure to sit in that lovely place, guilt-free about having gone to a dance the night before. The singing lacked the Baptist vigor, but I liked the setting and the sermons better. 

I considered myself a Congregationalist when I met David, an Episcopalian and love of my youthful life. He insisted that married couples need to be of the same religion, and I agreed. I attended confirmation classes, had the Bishop say some words over me, and we were married at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension.  I taught Sunday School, served on the vestry, and was a very active participant until my marriage ended.  

David got the church in the divorce; so I looked for another. I loved Episcopalism—the stained glass windows, the poetry of the prayers, the predictability of the services, the comfort of being in an elite group. There was something gratifying about writing “Episcopalian” in the slot for “religion” when I had to fill out some form that had the audacity to ask. Just the fact that I could spell it justified my pre-eminence. But Episcopal churches aren’t on every corner, and I didn’t want a church that was miles from my home. Besides, at that time, women could not be priests.  I was willing to allow men to think they were superior as long as I had control of one, but when my husband departed, I decided to look at other denominations that might realize and admit that women were equal human beings. 

I began an intensive investigation into my own beliefs and into the philosophies of various churches.  This was the first time I had ever deliberately decided to change my religion—or at least my denomination.  I read the Book of Mormon, listened to Jehovah Witnesses, attended classes at the Jewish temple, studied religious history, and went to a different church each week. 

When I attended the Unitarian church, I found a home. I liked the building, the music, the sermon, and the people. And the minister was a woman. I didn’t know much about their beliefs, but after the service, I went to the church library—I loved that they had a library—and found as much literature as I could about the church. The more I read, the more I liked. Within a few weeks, I signed on. 

I miss the Baptist music; I miss The Book of Common Prayer, but the Unitarian philosophy fits my beliefs as close as I can find without starting my own religion—a possibility I consider now and then.  

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.