(excerpt from All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg...buy it here)
"The first memory I have is of a tall blond woman who drags a canvas cotton sack along an undulating row of rust-colored ground, through a field that seems to reach into the back forty of forever. I remember the sound it makes as it slides between the chest-high stalks that are so deeply, darkly green they look almost black, and the smell of kicked-up dust, and sweat. The tall woman is wearing a man's britches and a man's old straw hat, and now and then she looks back over her shoulder to smile at the three-year-old boy whose hair is almost as purely white as the bolls she picks, who rides the back of the six-foot-long sack like a magic carpet.
It is my first memory, and the best. It is sweeter than the recollection I have of the time she sat me down in the middle of a wild strawberry patch and let me eat my way out again, richer than all at the times she took me swimming in jade-colored streams and threw a big rock in the water to run off the water moccasins. It is even stronger than the time she scraped together money for my high school class ring, even though her toes poked out of her old sneakers and she was wearing clothes from the Salvation Army bin in the parking lot of the A&P. It was not real gold, that ring, just some kind of fake, shiny metal crowned with a lump of red glass, but I was proud of it. I was the first member of my family to have one, and if the sunlight caught it just right, it looked almost real.
But it is the memory of that woman, that boy and that vast field that continues to ride and ride in my mind, not only because it is a warm, safe and proud thing I carry with me like a talisman into cold, dangerous and spirit-numbing places, but because it so perfectly sums up the way she carried us, with such dignity. We would have survived on the fifty-dollar welfare check the government decided our lives were worth. The family could have lived on the charity of our kin and the kindness of strangers. Pride pushed her out into the cotton field, in the same way that old terror, old pain squeezed my daddy into a prison of empty whiskey bottles.
I asked her, many years later, if the strap of the sack cut deeper into her back and shoulders because I was there. "You wasn't heavy," she said. Having a baby with her made the long rows shorter, somehow, because when she felt like quitting, when she felt like her legs were going to buckle or her back would break in two, all she had to do was look behind her. It gave her a reason to keep pulling."