Have you noticed that childhood memories float through your mind when you least expect them? A sound or a smell triggers something in your brain and you find yourself reliving an experience so far in the past you could almost believe it happened to someone else. That happened to me recently when I trimmed a branch off my grape vine. A few snips with the shears and my mind was back in the fields, working with my parents and brothers.
I grew up in the fields. I was just a toddler when my parents began picking cotton. I sat at the end of a row and dug little caves and tunnels in the dirt. I picked the fuzzy seeds out of cotton bolls and pretended that they were rabbits. I talked to them and made up stories about them.
Cotton looks so harmless! I thought it was beautiful when I was small. The rows of fluffy white bolls shining in the clear sunlight of fall reminded me of snow. When I grew old enough to pick the stuff I quickly changed my mind about it! Cotton plants do not willingly give up their bounty. The cotton must be plucked from sharp little claws that cut and scrape bare skin. Even fluffy white cotton can weigh up to ninety pounds when you’re pulling it in a long cloth bag behind you. I hated picking cotton! I hated every painful, boring, frustrating moment of it.
I wasn’t fond of working in the vineyards either. My first memory of the grape vineyards goes back to when I was about four. I went out with my parents in the early morning while the leaves were still heavy with dew. I couldn’t use a knife so I broke off little bunches of grapes and threw the ones I didn’t eat into mother’s picking box. At noon we ate sandwiches with the rest of the crew and I studied the brown faces and listened to the curious rhythm of their foreign words. By late afternoon I was exhausted and curled up under the vines to nap.
There was no time to nap as I got older. Our family usually leased some acreage each year and also traveled from field to field working for others. My brothers and I were expected to share in the workload. We soon learned to harvest grapes, peaches, olives, oranges, cotton, potatoes, strawberries, pecans, and apricots. We also pruned and tied vines, chopped cotton, tended irrigation ditches, and set pipes in place.
All during the time we were working I dreamed of being free of the land. I vowed that I would never have to work in the fields when I grew up. And I haven’t. But something happened to me out there in the hot sun. My body learned to crave sunshine and fresh air. My hands learned to make things grow, and my heart learned patience and perseverance. Now I willing dig in the dirt and prune vines and harvest fruit. Gardening is one of my greatest joys and my passion for it began in those fields I thought I hated.
Something else began in those fields… a sense of family. From the beet fields of Gilroy to the peach orchards of Highway City to the cotton fields of Madera, our family worked together. My brothers and I went everywhere with our parents. Mom and Dad talked with us and laughed with us and ate with us and worked with us. We didn’t have to ask Dad what he did all day, because we knew. We didn’t have to wonder what Mom did, because we had worked by her side. We felt a bond that many of our classmates couldn’t imagine as they gathered around the dinner table for a few brief moments each night. Sharing the pain and boredom and frustration of the fields forced us to share something far more valuable…our lives.