One of the most memorable Christmas’s of my life to-date, was observed in the middle of a cotton field a long time ago.
Following is that story, written and posted while with my eldest son and his family at their home in North Carolina, for this Christmas.
The day Miss Annie Ruth (and most of her family) and I first met, at her home located in the middle of a cotton field on a plantation in north central, Mississippi, was an early August, 105-degree, hot, humid, steamy day, almost thirty years ago.
I was serving as one of the volunteer bus drivers of a Wisconsin-Mississippi charitable group, which was returning several children to their homes in the Mississippi delta after spending approximately three weeks living with host families in Wisconsin, a cultural exchange program which began in 1968.
This was my first visit to Mississippi as a volunteer with this group, one which would lead me to make over 100 mission trips back to the state, during the next thirty years.
Before sharing the story of Christmas, some background information needs to be provided.
Miss Annie Ruth, who is black, grew up on cotton plantations, such as the one she lived on when I first met her. They had always been her home.
During her early years, she and her siblings knew well the feel of a ‘chopping hoe,’ in their hands, which she and so many others would use throughout the hot, humid summer months while chopping weeds in the rows of cotton.
Chopping cotton was hard, miserable work, from sun up to sun down, in the hot summer sun and humidity.
Later in the fall, when it was picking time, she would move down the long rows of fluffy white cotton, plucking the balls of white fluff from the plant, putting them into the long gathering bag, which she pulled behind her.
When the cotton is ready to pick, the cotton plant is sprayed with a chemical to kill it. When it dies, the plant becomes hard, and the boll shell pieces which hold the cotton, also harden, and have sharp edges. When picked by hand, the bolls pick away at the fingers as they make contact, and cause the fingers to become bloody during the picking process.
During modern day mechanical picking, a spinning wheel festooned with metal tabs, much like nails, spins at high speed on each side of the plant as the picking machine moves down the rows. The hardened bolls are tough, though, and do not give up the cotton fluffs easily, usually resulting in the fields being picked twice to get as much of a cotton yield as possible.
When Miss Annie was growing up, many plantations found it cheaper to use field laborers to pick the field rather than buying expensive mechanical pickers. For Miss Annie, chopping weeds and picking in the cotton fields, made for a very long, hard childhood.
The home where Miss Annie was living when I first met her, was a small, four-room, share-croppers shack, actually sitting out in a cotton field. Living there, were Annie, her mother, four of her daughters, Linda, Gloria, Gwen and Janice, a son, Jerry, and and seven of the daughters children, a total of 14 people in all.
The shack consisted of two large bedrooms in the front of the shack, heated by a common, double-faced fireplace and chimney, in the wall between the two rooms. In the back, was a small bedroom, and the fourth room was a small kitchen, containing a small round table with one chair, a small dish cabinet and an old, wood-burning cook stove.
In all four of the rooms of the shack, the walls and ceilings were completely black, covered with smoke and soot from the fireplace and wood stove. In the kitchen, the walls and ceiling were covered with cardboard, which was stapled on the walls, as a coating.
The hand-made fireplace heating the two large rooms, did not have a good draw, and consequently, the winds blowing over the home, much of the time, blew the wood smoke back down into the two rooms, thus causing the blackened walls and ceiling.
The home also did not have any insulation in the walls, ceilings or under the floors. There were numerous small openings in the walls and floors where the wind just whistled right in.
The roof of the shack was covered with pieces of old corrugated metal, containing many small nail holes and tears which virtually leaked like a sieve whenever it rained. Unfortunately, the wood roof support structure was too weak for anyone to safely climb on the roof to plug up the holes with tar. So, the leaks remained, and allowed rain water to come through onto those below, year after year.
The home electrical system consisted of a single 20-amp circuit breaker, which provided a ceiling lamp hanging in the center of each room, and one wall plug-in outlet for the entire home.
Oh yes. There was no running water there.
Drinking water had to be toted a quarter of a mile from another share-croppers shack.
Lining the outside, rear wall of the home, were several old, 55-gal. drums and water stock tanks, which would catch water when it rained and ran off the roof (that water which didn’t leak through the roof, that is), which was used by the family to bathe in, and for washing clothes, using an old, wringer-style washing machine (brought down on an earlier mission trip, donated by a Wisconsin family) which sat on the front porch.
The “bathroom/toilet” consisted of a small, hand-made structure, with an open back, located at the rear of the property. A real outdoor “outhouse,” in every sense of the word, but very functional at the same time.
There were a couple of large cottonwood trees in the yard near the house, and a long, narrow ‘greens’ garden beside the driveway, coming in from the plantation road. I always wondered what the greens tasted like in the summer and fall, when the plantation cotton fields were aerial sprayed with fungicides and herbicides to kill critters lurking on the plants. What do you think the chances were that the house, yard and garden also got sprayed when the plane swept low over the fields?
Nailed up on one of the trees, was an old, drooping basketball hoop, in serious danger of falling to the ground if a basketball actually hit it one more time.
There were no bicycles or toys around, as other things had a higher priority for the family, like food, and clothing, and gas, to drive into town to the grocery store.
Although the family may have wanted for some material things, like a lot of families in the nation had in their homes, one thing they did not want for, is love for one another. That most important commodity was there in great abundance.
When Annie Ruth’s children were small, growing up, it was not unusually for the plantation foreman to come by during certain summer and fall days, and pick up many of the black children living in the share-croppers houses on the plantation, and haul them out to the fields in the morning.
The man would drive along the edge of the fields, in a straight line, stopping every so often, give them a can of soda and a candy bar, and tell them to stay put in that spot until he came back later to pick them up.
When all the children had been dropped off, within a short time, the sound of a small airplane engine could be heard. Very soon, the plane would swoop low, approaching the field, and then release whatever chemical was scheduled to be sprayed on the cotton plants on that day, making pass after pass, until the entire field had been sprayed. The plantation children may have been too small to wield a hoe in the fields to chop the weeds, but they were not too small to be used as field markers for the spray plane. Do you think the spray plane pilot was so skilled as to insure that the children at the edge of the field didn’t get any of the chemicals sprayed on them?
Still with me?
And now, for the Christmas experience…
As the Christmas season approached that fall almost 30 years ago, myself and 6-8 others were scheduled to make a week-long delivery trip to north central Mississippi, mainly in the delta area.
This was to be my first Christmas trip there, but there was a catch in my plans, compared with the other volunteers in our group. The rest of the folks were scheduled to leave southern Wisconsin, in two cars and a pickup truck, on Dec. 27th, arriving in the Mississippi delta the early afternoon of the 28th, staying and helping build on a new house, leaving Mississippi on New Years Day.
With the job I had at that time, I had to be back home on Dec. 30th, meaning I had to leave Mississippi on the 29th. Somehow.
With that in mind, I made arrangements to leave my home in Wisconsin on Christmas Day, by myself, and drive a fully-loaded, 22′ long U-Haul truck, carrying hundreds of boxes of donated clothing, bedding, quilts, used toys and other things, down to the delta, hopefully arriving the morning of Dec. 26th.
I would drive directly to the home of Miss Annie Ruth, near Itta Bena, Mississippi, where I would stay for two days, completely re-wiring the shack she and her family lived in. The other members of the trip would meet me at Miss Annie’s home on the early afternoon of Dec. 28th, and I would then join with them in delivering all of the donated items in other, nearby counties, and we would all help build a new home for a widow, so she could break away from another plantation setting.
The man driving the pickup truck, and I, would leave the group on Dec. 29th, and be back early on the morning of the 30th.
Around midday on Christmas Day, I packed my duffel bag, sleeping bag, some tools and electrical supplies in the U-Haul truck, and left my home for Mississippi. The plan was to drive straight through, stopping only for fuel and the bathroom, arriving in Itta Bena sometime in the mid-morning of the next day.
The best laid plans of mice and men…
The trip south was going smoothly, until I was just north of St. Louis and hit FOG!
And I mean stuff so thick that you could almost cut it with a knife!
After a hundred or two miles of driving in that stuff, my neck muscles were so tight, I could hardly turn my head to either side.
And that led me to get tired earlier than I had anticipated.
So, just south of St. Louis, I made the first of two unscheduled sleep stops of two hours, in a truck stop parking lot.
When I woke up, I could hardly see the vehicle 15 feet away, but I had to get moving or I would never get there.
Down in Arkansas, I just couldn’t drive any more, so I pulled into a Rest Area there on I-55 and slept for another two hours. Then headed out again, and by mid-morning, just south of Memphis, I finally ran out of the fog, and in the early afternoon, finally pulled into Miss Annie Ruth’s driveway, out in the cotton field.
Although it was a chilly day outside, with a light drizzle coming down there when I arrived, Annie and her family, who all knew I was coming and why, were all glad to see me and welcomed me with open arms and hugs. It was good to finally arrive, and I was really beat from the trip down.
Three of the four rooms of the house were used as bedrooms. The one large front room, where the main entrance door was, contained five beds, and was where 10 of the family slept. The other large room had only two beds, one for Annie’s mother, and the other for Jerry, Annie’s son. In the third, smaller bedroom, slept the other two people living there.
Grandmother’s bed was beautiful! It was a full size, carved wood poster bed frame, where only grandmother slept. However, on this special occasion, Annie and Grandmother insisted that I sleep in this beautiful bed, and share the room with Jerry. Jerry’s brother, Neil, who would help do the re-wiring project with myself and Jerry, was living with another sister in nearby Itta Bena.
After visiting with the family a short while, I brought in my duffel, sleeping bag and pillow, and stowed it away next to Grandmother’s beautiful bed.
It was when I went next door into the other large bedroom, to visit some more with the family, that I experienced for the first time, the reason the walls and ceilings were coated black throughout the house.
The ill-blowing wind moving over the top of the house, pushed the rising smoke from the double-faced fireplace between the two large bedrooms right back down into the rooms, and BAM, I got “smoked” big time, in a hurry! My eyes stung and I couldn’t help but cough from what the smoke was doing to my lungs!
After a few minutes in the room, I begged to excuse myself to go outside so that I could clear my eyes and lungs of the heavy smoke. And as I was going out the door after that first blast, I couldn’t help but hear snickers and giggles from Annie’s family at my reaction to the fireplace smoke.
Their bodies, God Bless them, were accustomed to the smoke, but their Christmas guest from far away, was going to have some problems during the next two days of living and working there! I could only stand the smoke in the main room for more about 20 minutes at a time, without going outside for a few minutes of fresh air. Many, many trips did I make outside during those two days!
That afternoon, Jerry and Neil and I started stapling #12-2 w/ground Romex electrical wire directly on the walls and ceilings of the four rooms, to get the re-wiring product started. Of course, every 20 minutes or so, I would have to go outside for fresh air, while they continued working away, just fine with the smoke.
Jerry and I had a piece of tin across the fireplace in our big room, which although it blocked us from getting much heat in that room, it did greatly help keep most of the fireplace smoke from filling our room and our lungs, and I credit that tin with allowing me to survive sleeping through the night both nights without going outside for fresh air (and cold, damp) air.
Miss Annie, her daughter, Gwen, and her son, Jerry, and several grandchildren, as seen recently in front of her current home. Gwen graduated from Mississippi Valley State University with classmate Jerry Rice of the SF 49ERS fame, and is a Supervisor on death row at the nearby State Prison.
The next morning, the boys and I continued stringing and stapling wire, installing plastic outlet and switch boxes right on the walls, which looked rather strange with the white-coated wire running this way and that on those blackened walls and ceiling.
By the end of the day, we had all the circuits run, over to the old circuit breaker, on the side of the large main room, in preparation for replacing it the next morning, with a 60 amp, used fuse box that had come out of a barn in Wisconsin, given to me by an electrician in my home town, to ‘recycle’ in Mississippi.
The new wiring set-up included a switch-controlled ceiling light and at least three outlets in each of the four rooms, as well as an outlet on the front porch, to plug in the wringer washing machine. Previously, there were small, light-use, brown extension cords running everywhere in the house, all originating from that one outlet in the main room.
During the day of the 27th, I observed at least two very memorable incidents, the first of which was when we were preparing to eat the noon lunch. Janice had cooked lunch on the wood cook stove, and called myself and all the grandchildren into the kitchen to eat at the table. There was only one kitchen chair in the house, and everyone insisted that I sit in it at the table when we ate.
So, at lunch, I sat there, in the only chair, while the grandchildren all stood around the the table and ate off a few old plates and pie tins with their fingers. There were only a couple of forks and spoons, and they again insisted that I have one of each, while the kids just used their hands.
That experience humbled and affected me deeply, being treated with such respect and dignity. The kids were laughing and joking with me while we ate, and it was a one of those moments I will never forget as long as I live. It was such a learning experience in human appreciation, hospitality extended to others and brotherly love in everyday action.
The other incident occurred during the middle of the afternoon then, when the kids were hungry for a snack of some kind, and Annie instructed them to go to the boxes in my room. I happened to be in there when it happened, and was mildly startled when four or five of them came hustling into the room, dived under my bed, and came out with two bushel-sized cardboard boxes, one filled with apples and the other with oranges, from which they each took one of each, before putting the boxes back in place under my bed, and then scampering out.
As I observed that happening, I was struck and impressed with how health-minded Annie was about the nutrition of her family, especially the grandchildren. From what I had observed in other towns and the homes of some of our black friends living in poverty and in material want in the delta, it was pretty commonplace for the children to be snacking on potato chips and candy bars for their snacks, bought from the nearest Double-Kwik or other convenience store.
During those two days of being with Annie and her family, I observed numerous examples of the children and grandchildren displaying sincere signs of respect to Annie and her mother. And although Grandmother was ailing when she was living there, it was expected that she would never live anywhere else; that Annie and her children and grandchildren would always provide a home and loving care for her, no matter what.
What a beautiful example of a family’s love for the eldest member.
The morning of the 28th, the boys and I installed the ‘new’ 60-amp fuse box and seated the meter in its socket again, and the new electrical system was complete, worked just fine and was ‘good to go’. Neil and Jerry were both pretty proud of their work, and the family praised them for making the home so much more brighter, with outlets in every room now.
The feelings I had then were many, including happiness at being able to help this beautiful family have a more comfortable home, and joy at having the privilege of witnessing such family love for each other, in what most people would describe as tragic living conditions.
For Annie and her family, it wasn’t what they didn’t have that was important to them, it was what they did have that was important in their lives. In my estimation, if any family in this world had their priorities straight, it was them.
After we finished the wiring project, I had the boys come out to the U-Haul truck with me, and we unloaded a number of boxes from the truck which they carried into the house, including some boxes of beautiful, hand-made quilts from Lutheran women in southwestern Wisconsin, a couple of boxes of toys, and a dozen boxes or so of good, used clothing.
As the boys carried the boxes in, I opened the cab door to start the truck up and warm up the engine before the others from Wisconsin arrived, and it was then that I happened to spot an old shoe box that I had stuck under my seat when we had loaded the truck from storage a few days prior to my leaving Wisconsin. I had forgotten about the box until that moment, as I hadn’t been in the cab since I had arrived two days ago.
I reached in and pulled out the shoe box, which looked very old, was discolored and wrapped tightly with some old twine, and walked back to the house. As I walked through the door, into the main room, Annie was sitting just inside, on the bed (hers) nearest to the door, listening to others in the room talk.
I held out the box, put it into Annie’s lap, and said, “Here, Annie, this is for you.”
She looked at the box, and then up at me, and said, “What’s this, Lance?”
I didn’t say anything, and a few seconds later, she untied the twine, removed the top of the shoe box and carefully set them off them both off to the side on the bed.
She reached into the box and took out one of several wrapped parcels of white tissue paper, and started carefully unwrapping it.
As she opened the paper and finally saw what was inside, she lowered her head, pressed the opened parcel against her chest and started moving forward and back, sobbing.
Everyone in the room stopped talking, and looked towards her.
As she wept, she reached out and gripped my arm firmly with her hand, and said, “You don’t know how long I have prayed for this. Oh, dear God, Thank you!”
Inside the box was a complete, 40-piece serving of an old, tarnished set of silverware, all carefully wrapped in tissue paper, which had probably came from an elderly, white-haired lady in Wisconsin, who likely had had the box stored on a basement or closet shelf for many years, and finally retrieved it and sent it to our storage center that it might be used by another, less privileged.
Someone’s cast-off had become another’s treasure.
Annie must have cried for at least five minutes, and, as I stood there beside her, tears flooded my eyes, too, as I held my lips tightly together, and did my best not to break down.
It was one final lesson for me on the really important things in life, given to me by that beautiful family.
It was an incredible Christmas, the likes of which I had not experienced before, nor since.
The author and Miss Annie. This photo taken by Maggie, of Okay, Fine, Dammit, who also is a friend of Annie’s.
I stopped to see Annie and her family this past Thanksgiving Day evening, at her brick, three-bedroom home in Itta Bena, which her children purchased for her several years ago, so she could finally move out of that old, cramped, drafty house, she called home.
As she struggled for breath as we talked, I said another silent prayer for this beautiful friend, and couldn’t help but wonder how much of her breathing difficulty might have come from her life on the plantation during those thirty years she lived in that old share-croppers shack, in the middle of a cotton field.
I know what living there for only two days did to me, so long ago, one cotton field Christmas.