An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Returning Home, Saxon Mills

I walk red roads, unpaved, blowing away,
kicking leeched-dry clay. August.
Near a lake fenced with chain link,
red brick walls of the cotton mill shine
in mid-morning Southern sun.
Mama says I was born with cotton dust
in my chest. I cough once for her, once
for all my aunts and uncles.
Mama quit school at 16 to work this mill.

“Boy, you know the hum of a spinning room,
the clack of the looms.
You know it deep in your bones.”

Now in the quiet of my 24th year, I hear
the hum of the mill, and her humming
the numb walk home after a shift change.
When she wakes in mid-afternoon it is 1945
and her life begins again
to stretch awake, move out into the world.
The biscuits and gravy are still there,
and the Luckies, and the soldiers on the streets
from Camp Croft, all glad the war ended.
The soldier who took her away
from the lint and heat leans on the mill gate
waiting for her. It is October, he holds
a cigarette from the wind.

This same soldier will leave her in a year.
Then she’ll leave to go to Florida, to find
her family, working people, forever poor,
ready to move, carrying her clothes, my unborn sister,
nothing left of marriage but the cheap ring.

There was her father, Lonnie, the house painter,
in Lantana. Lonnie, always drinking,
laughing at poverty. Then he was lucky.
He was always lucky. He bought good cheap land,
sold it for quick profit, bottle,
and a fast car—headed north.
He left their world, returned years later
as a farmer in North Carolina.
In ten years he was crying, when dying of cancer,
he saw my mama, his daughter, then in her own
frame house, coming to visit a last time.
His only life bloomed in the faces of children.

There was her mama, Hulda, with breasts
hanging like sacks, who only got fatter,
sat in a wicker chair, lived like a vine
growing outward through children.
She made biscuits for breakfast,
kneaded the dough with fat hands,
washed clothes of six kids and a grandchild
in a wringer, dried on a line under Florida sun.
The old clothes hung stiff with the heat, many sizes,
the shed skins of seven growing children.

Then mama woke in the Florida heat and it was 1952.
She caught the train north with my sister,
worked mills in the beginning of another war.
She met a man, a wanderer, who would be my father.
They married, something grew, a family and a business
pumping as on the main highway.

In photos I’ve seen my father brooding—
a face stretched tight over some loss in him,
his mind working, like tonguing a hole in a tooth.
In November, the trees stiff with frost, mama
found him dead, as the running car, hose from exhaust
shook off the cold in our driveway.

Once, when I was five, my sister twelve,
in our first rented house in Spartanburg,
the three of us watched the moon circle down.
Mama sang a song to us often:

“See the Man in the Moon. Mama gonna come back soon.
But don’t you worry none. She won’t drink no more bad whiskey.”

Now in the August heat, it’s shift change.
The whistle hangs in the stiff air.
The lake stirs a moment, then is quiet.
People slip like shadows into the last
of the soft morning sun.
A man cracks his knuckles as he leaves,
another checks his head to be sure
of the billed cap
he will plow in this evening.

And I see all my uncles in the shadows—
Tommy, Norman, and the twins, Bobby and Billy,
still young and slim.
This for me is another time, but nothing changes.
The war is over, but which war?
Only now, the machines are not so loud.
Only now, the windows are bricked shut.
Then, in the last shadows, as the people thin,
I see a dark woman humming.
It could be 1945, or it could be today.
She’s headed home,
humming some songs she thinks I wouldn’t know.

Published in Abandoned Quarry: New and Selected Poems (Mercer, GA: Mercer University Press, 2011).

Published: 31 October 2011
© 2011 John Lane and Southern Spaces