A cycle that replenishes my soul

Joyce Whitis

This morning I noticed that the cotton I planted in early spring is showing signs of dying. I hate to see that but still it’s almost the end of November and all the good cotton picking days were back in late September and October. It’s time for the plants to wither and die. They have done their thing….borne a bountiful harvest…been a blessing where they were planted…it's time to go. But I’ll save the seeds and next spring, when the sun warms the brown earth, and the early summer rains come, the plants will come up, grow, bloom and produce green boles. It’s a cycle that replenishes my soul.

I’ve been planting a few cotton seeds almost every year that I’ve lived in this house, my home for the past 58 years. I’ve always liked putting seeds in the ground, probably due to my early life on the farm, and I always like to see green cotton stalks loaded with burrs filled with fluffy white cotton. Cotton reminds me of my Dad back when I called him Daddy and I was a sunburned little country girl.

I was born in a four room sharecropper's cabin on the edge of a bare sandy field on a chilly morning in January 1929. I was born there but my family didn’t live in that little house very long. The cotton crop had been good in ’27 and ’28 and Daddy bought a new Chrysler just before I was born. I have an old Kodak print of my family with that car. There’s Mother, Daddy and my sisters, Audrey and June. My brother, Austin is sitting on a front fender.

With a loan from the county bank down the road, Daddy was able to make a down payment on a bigger piece of land a couple of miles up the road toward Chillicothe. This land had a roomy white house on it that could give our family lots of room. There were three bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs along with a dining room, living room and kitchen and a long hall that extended from front door to back door. The house also had a porch across the front of the house and a screened back porch. There was a small room under the staircase with a porcelain bathtub but no connection to running water. Water was piped into the kitchen from the overhead storage tank by the windmill but no hot water heater. Some finishing touches needed to be made but in the meantime, we heated water on the coal oil stove for dish-washing and bathing and made trips to the outhouse out back.

Still this house was the best around and we were happy. For a while life

was good but then in ’29 it stopped raining. The cotton stalks that came up so green and healthy in the spring were cut off at the ground when a sandstorm came roaring down from the north bringing Kansas burned out topsoil with it.

On those days, when chickens tried to stay on their feet as the hard wind drove them across the bare yard the sky turned black.

Audrey married and moved into her own house. Austin and June both worked in the field helping Daddy plant, and hoe weeds and plant over after watching the tender young cotton plants cut off at the ground. Sometimes Mother went to the field too, helping out with whatever harvest there was.

There were happy times when all Daddy’s brothers and sisters and their families came to our house and stayed half the night singing and playing music or else gathered round the big round dining table playing forty-two. There were always cousins to play hide and go seek with. But still, although young, I could recognize the worry in my parents’ faces when the fields of cotton, the only cash crop, withered from burning sand and dried up, producing a very small crop of poor grade cotton. A bale of cotton would bring around $100 and the sale of cotton plus maybe a yearling or fattened pig, say maybe a few chickens, would be the only income for a year for a farm family. If you were a tenant farmer, 1/3 of the cotton crop went to the land owner.

Recently, searching in the genealogy of my family, I noted that the total income for one uncle, a man with a wife and five children, was listed as $850 a year! He was a share-cropper meaning that he didn’t own the land, only the equipment. He stated that he worked every day,365 of them, including Christmas, to make that $850.

I was born and grew up during the Great Depression when it never did rain and the wind blew down out of the North all spring, summer and fall. In the winter it got cold and nothing could survive except the people that had been tempered by heat and blowing sand and hard work learning how to get by on very little. Dad never gave up on cotton, remembering the bumper crops that his daddy grew in Hunt County when he himself was a boy. When the war came, we went to Portland, Mother and Dad working as welders in one of the shipyards. They each made $10 a day, and saved enough to buy a big house and three lots in Chillicothe plus some other things they both wanted.

Dad planted cotton on two of those city lots and it grew and produced big green boles that turned brown and were crammed with white cotton. He used to sit on the front porch, light up a hand-rolled cigarette made from the tobacco in a red Prince Albert can, rock and gaze at his fields of fine white cotton.

So every year, at harvest time, I pick my cotton, smile and remember my Daddy.

Joyce Whitis is a freelance writer who makes regular contributions to the Empire-Tribune. She may be reached at joycewhitis@our-town.com or 254-968-8450.