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My mom’s story about rocks, cotton, work ethic and having fun

Since I began writing a column for the Salisbury Post several years ago, I have interviewed many wonderful people and heard a lot of interesting tales. The columns I seem to get the most comments about, though, have been the ones about my mom. Perhaps that’s because her stories are told from the heart.
Mom always enjoys sharing details about her life with me and anyone else who will listen. Through her storytelling, I’ve come to realize she was a mischievous little kid who loved having a good time. Even though she grew up during the depression years, when hard work was necessary to survive, mom and her siblings still found ways to enjoy themselves. Sometimes that meant making a game out of work.
One of those times happened when Mom was about 9 or 10. On this particular occasion, she and several of her brothers and sisters were hired out by their dad (my grandfather) to pick cotton for a neighboring farm. With 21 children, my grandfather was always looking for ways to make money. Yes, that’s right, 21 children. People traveling by his farm often were amazed at all the workers in the fields and would stop to ask, “Mr. Gardner, how can you afford to hire so much help?” He, in turn, would answer, “What help? Those are my younguns.”
Continuing with her story about picking cotton, Mom said, “When we got to the neighbor’s field, we began walking up and down the rows carrying a long bag on our shoulders, putting the cotton in as we went along.
“After awhile, hot and tired, someone suggested picking up a rock here and there to put in our bags, so they would fill up quicker. I’m not sure who thought of the idea first, but it almost became like a little game. We had to be sly about it because if we had been caught, we would have gotten a ‘whipping’ for sure.
“When it was time to take our bags to be weighed, it looked like we had worked hard because they were full. We fooled everyone for awhile because the rocks went to the bottom, while the cotton stayed on top. No one was the wiser until the bags were opened and separated out.
“The next day when Dad went back to get his pay, the owner of the cotton gin told him they had found rocks in the bottom of the bags. Dad didn’t get paid as much as he thought he would, so he was mad. After that, he never hired us out to work on other farms.
“Although in a way we had won, what we did wasn’t right. Then again, if you had been a kid, standing out in a hot field, wishing you could sit down for just a little while, or go to the house to get out of the sun to drink a cool sip of water, you might have played a game, too.”
It saddens me to think of what Mom must have endured as a child, but this scenario wasn’t unusual during those years. In spite of the hardships while growing up, Mom admires her dad because he provided for his family. She said, “We never went hungry and always had a roof over our heads. Many other families had nothing to eat and no place to stay. Dad believed in hard work, expecting nothing less from us kids. I believe that’s why we survived.”
Although we don’t want our children working this hard, I’m of the persuasion that teaching them a good work ethic is one of the best gifts we can give. For example, assigning daily chores around the house or helping a neighbor teaches responsibility and life skills, which in turn helps with self-esteem. Think how far reaching that can be, following a child through life to school, college, a career path and even a future home with children of their own.
Mom learned how to work from her dad, but learned how to play and have fun from her brothers and sisters. Thinking back, she said, “I was never bored because there was always someone to talk to and something to do. When it was warm enough, we went swimming or fishing in the creek. Other times, we stayed home and made up games.”
While it is true a work ethic is an important tool in life, Mom would be the first to tell you it should be tempered with fun and laughter. Perhaps that’s the secret to her longevity, as she will be 93 in September. If we all could find a balance of both work and play, maybe the word “stress” would disappear from the dictionary. Now that would be something to laugh about.

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