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It is September, and schools across the country are back in session now. Fifty-five Septembers ago, I left my rural farmland to attend college at the University of Mississippi. In terms of the seasons of the year, that was early autumn. In terms of the seasons of my life, it was early summer. You see, just like the seasons that move across a calendar, our bodies have seasons, too.
My freshman year, I attended the Memphis State-Ole Miss game, and my date was in a fraternity that had booked a suite at the Peabody Hotel. I’ll never forget how herds of people stampeded together into the hotel’s ancient and rickety elevator. The frat boys sang their cheer song and stomped their feet. With each foot stomp, the elevator dropped several floors. Over and over, we slipped into free-fall, and that terrified me. But finally, the Ole Miss pep rally began. Thank goodness, that was on ground floor.
Before I attended the University of Mississippi, I had been a cheerleader at my little cotton community’s school, but I had never before experienced a pep rally anything like that one at the Peabody Hotel. Throngs of people, shoulder to shoulder, filled a huge room, and the chant began: “Hotty, Totty…” the walls began to quake. Baptized in the fountain at the Peabody Hotel, I was no longer a little girl from a little bit of farmland somewhere else. I was a new being.“Gosh Amighty,” I was part of Ole Miss! Since that September, I have lived in many places, but Mississippi is the only state that I call my forever home. I say that in spite of the fact that I was born and began elementary school in another state. My childhood home was near the Mississippi River in Southeast Missouri. In 1956, I started first grade there. In terms of the seasons of my life, that was springtime. Although my childhood school was small, it had a nice playground.
When I was about six, I kissed a boy at the top of the sliding board, and he threatened to “tell on me.” To avoid whatever repercussion that might evoke, I blackmailed that kid. Every day, I carried three cents to school to buy a box of chocolate milk. On that sunny September morning, a boy in my classroom drank my chocolate milk, and I did not. That was about 67 years ago, and I remember the incident as though it happened yesterday.
My mother’s childhood was 24 years before mine. About 20 years ago, I asked my mother to respond in writing to some questions about various things that had occurred during her life. I already knew that my mother’s father was a sharecropper. I often say that I grew up in the middle of a cotton patch, but that is an exaggeration. My mother did, however, live down a dusty lane in a shack that truly was in the middle of a cotton field. Indulge me while I share what she wrote about the house where she was living when she first started school. Remember that my mother wrote the following words:
“We lived in a little two or three bedroom house, and I have no idea how we all got into it. My aunt lived with us, and to make ends meet, another character also boarded in our house. He was a gambler who slept by day and gambled by night. This area was as tough as nails back then, and if there was a nickel loose, the gamblers needed it. Anyway, this guy was a big bear of a man with a teddy bear disposition. He loved Mother and her wit and every day, when he came home, he gave her all the dimes he had in his pocket. It may have been one or four. Whatever. This was over and above his board, which was the money that was feeding us.” – Laura Mae Baker
I am telling you this to allow you to experience the kind of poverty that most people endured during the era when my mother was very young. My mother will be 97 in December, and she grew up during the Great Depression. In terms of the seasons of her life, my mother has entered the stage of late winter. As I have visited with some of the people in this area, I have realized that they are about the same age as she is.
Virginia Vanlandingham, from Calhoun County, is almost 94, and both she and her husband attended Pilgrims Rest, an old school that still stands out in the country near Water Valley. Tired and worn, Pilgrims Rest is a monument to the past. When I went out there, I saw no playground, and I found myself wondering what games the kids played during their school days there. They probably played tag and red rover, and no doubt, they picked up sticks and rode them, like horses, all over the yard. Giddyup! During the Great Depression, most parents could not afford to buy their children toys, but fortunately, pretending is free.
By the time that I started elementary school, the Great Depression had ended, but my parents still didn’t buy me many toys. Consequently, I did a lot of imagining and pretending. When I was a young, my mother allowed me to watch our black and white television a few hours a week. During the rest of my free time, I dreamed up something to play. My favorite television show was Davy Crockett, and the kids and I often pretended we were Davy and his family. A massive weeping willow spread its arms across my backyard, and my friends and I crawled into that sheltered space and pretended it was Davy’s cabin in the wilderness.
Pretending filled many hours of my childhood, and I still pretend today. I especially pretend when I write books for children—picture books that might begin like:
There’s a brief, enchanted moment,
As the moonlight turns to day.,
When the bullfrogs hoop and holler,
And the gators let them play.
And somewhere near that river,
Where the cotton plants grow tall,
My mother says, ’It’s cotton time.
It’s cotton-pickin fall.’”
Folks, by the grace of God, I have lived to experience the arrival of another cotton-pickin’ fall. This past weekend, I went to the woods to visit a friend’s farm, and I realized that we have reached my favorite time of year.
As soon as I found new friends in Water Valley, I began trying to scare up someone to take me dove hunting. Don’t get me wrong. I am not in favor of killing anything, but for me, dove hunting is not about killing. In fact, I’m a terrible shot. I couldn’t hit the side of a barn, but I love being outdoors during the dove-hunting time of year. The air and sunlight are different during September, and September is the dove-hunting time of year.
When I went out to the woods this weekend, I passed seas of green fields that were dotted with white flecks of cotton, and I thanked God. This is my 73rd September, and this year, as l watch the leaves turn red and fall, I will understand that I have also reached the autumn of my lifetime. A couple of months ago, when I was moving here, I crossed the Yazoo River, and for me, that waterway felt a bit like the River Jordan. A song rang in my ears: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Coming for to Carry Me Home.”
Thank you, God. You did carry me back to Mississippi, where, with new friends and my church family, I’ll quietly pass through the winter years of my life, until you will, indeed, come to carry me the rest of the way home.