• Vol. 09
  • Chapter 05

Rural Hours By a Lady: An Elegy for My Mother

Although wealthy debutantes get all the attention, real ladies keep the rural hours that keep the South alive.

Unsung heroines
Each nameless face lined with stress
Dying far too young

Keeping rural hours is difficult.  For the lady, this means rising before the sun to get to the factory, where she’ll spend years toiling in eight to fourteen hour shifts before it shuts down, leaving her with broken hands and hungry children.

Hands calloused from work
Show no love, no affection
Too reserved, too tired

Then she’ll cook and join the men in the tobacco fields, only to outwork them all.

Up before sunlight
Her life traded but for what?
Just more suffering

There she’ll labor on the setter in spring, delicately planting the young seedlings that will eventually kill her, handling them with tenderness and care.  Once setting is complete, she’ll spend evenings and weekends weeding, hoe in hand, bending repetitively, her back aching.


Rural Hours By a Lady: An Elegy for My Mother

Excellent worker
Efficient and accurate
She puts men to shame

Next is topping - removing the flowers - and suckering, or pruning.  Later, she’ll hew the large, mature plants, dangerously sharp knife wielded with precision, spine bent again to lay the leafy crop to the ground, just as her sobbing children will lay her gently in the ground entirely too soon.

Poverty and strife
Southern belle mortality
Echoes through the fields

Spiking - putting the chopped plants onto sticks - follows.  Then she’ll climb the rafters of the tobacco barn, taking her turn alternately walking the beams to place the heavy sticks and handing them up to fellow laborers.  During her brief reprieve, as the plants fire in the barn, their heady scent wafting across the countryside, she’ll spend time with her kids.  Once the plants have cured, it’s stripping - spending the icy winter nights in the barn removing the leaves and compacting them into unwieldy bales.  She’ll work late into the evening, by dim light, amid the freezing cold, inhaling the inch thick dust of crumbled tobacco.  

Staying up too late
Racing old, immortal time
To that finish line


Rural Hours By a Lady: An Elegy for My Mother

She’ll spend almost all year working tobacco, somehow holding a full-time job, cleaning, cooking, and ensuring homework gets done.

Head on her pillow
Too much work, too little pay
Very exhausted

Finally, she’ll go to bed, too tired to dream, tossing and turning instead.

Worrisome nightmares
Haunt sleep and reality

The lady won’t keep her hours long.  She’ll survive tobacco poisoning - the nicotine from the leaves agonizingly claiming the lives of lesser men.  No, she’ll die a slow, quiet death, peaceful and painless, in the early hours, surrounded by loving children.

Plagued by worry and men, she’ll turn to tobacco herself to ease the stress of rural hours, only to be killed by the same species that she nurtured so carefully; that she sacrificed her hands, her back, her youth to; that only ever gave her blisters, pain, and heartache.

Keeping rural hours
Makes young girls grow up quickly
Into true ladies