I love the smell of cotton in the morning. It smells like…success.
Let me explain. Much of what I have and much of what limited success I have achieved in my career owes a debt, a strong one, to cotton. Just to be fair, I also appreciate corn, soybeans, rice, sorghum, vegetables, livestock, and so on. But cotton played, and continues to play, a unique role.
When I was a child, three or four years old, I had a perfect view of a cotton field from my bedroom window. The field probably covered no more than an acre, two at the most. But that fall it turned into a sea of white—stretching from the edge of our six-room, frame, uninsulated, un-plumbed house to the dirt road that connected us to what substituted for civilization in Anderson County, S.C.
My mom, probably 23 or 24 at the time, hired on to pick that field. A farmer’s daughter, she was an experienced hand. She piled her three kids, my older brother, younger sister and me, beneath the shade of a big oak tree, always in sight but out of the way as she made her way down the row dragging that picker sack. She picked enough cotton, at a few cents a pound, to buy winter shoes for us.
I have a vague memory of her piling those sacks of cotton onto a big sheet, and of the farmer weighing it on a set of scales suspended from a tree limb to tally up her pounds. I remember the smell of that raw cotton—a dusty aroma, but a clean smell at the same time.
I remember that same aroma when my dad got me a summer job at the cotton mill where he worked. That’s the second debt I owe to cotton. Daddy spent almost all of his adult life working in textile mills, almost always cotton. He was an hourly worker, which meant if he missed a shift, he missed a day’s wages. He worked many days when he should have been home sick. He sent five kids through college on cotton mill income.
It seems only fitting, somehow, that I have made a career out of an occupation that keeps me close to cotton. I am reminded of the contributions it has made every time I walk into a field, a cotton gin, or –rarely these days—mill. The touch, the feel—perhaps, too, the aroma of cotton—makes up the fabric of my life.
The memories flooded back a week or so ago as I walked into a Mississippi gin. The first thing that registered—other than the deafening noise—was that familiar aroma—it smelled like home.