Canning Lessons 1961

There was a colored woman
who came most summer days
to help my old mam
shell peas or shuck corn
or snap beans for canning.
Every third Tuesday
they washed sheets in big tubs,
then hung them to dry
on twine strung between canted poles;
the flat smacks of their hands
carried staccato across the fields.

She had a niece named Sookie
that came along those days;
we would play until our bones hurt
in the fields where old pa's
colored men walked endless rows of tobacco,
popping bright yellow flowers from each plant
with fingers always sticky,
always sore and when the field boss
looked away, they would turn up water
from jute jugs suspended
on straps at their waists.

Sookie and me plucked
fat tobacco worms from their leaves,
saved them in jars with punctured lids;
old pa gave us a nickle for each full jar
because there was nothing
like a greenhorn worm
to attract big cats
cruising the river bottom
while the sun beat its surface
until you saw the heat waver and roll.
We spent our nickles
on RC colas and Moonpies, side by side
and knee to knee eating them
in the shade of a high row.

The woman never came
when the days turned short.
Summer would end, school start
and Sookie sat in a different classroom
at the end of the hall.
When lunch came,
she stood against a back wall
with the colored kids and the white trash
and they all wore bright yellow tags
pinned to their shirts
that said FREE LUNCH in big letters;
they always ate last
because that's the way things were
when seasons changed
worm money and Moonpies
into days sealed like summer jars.

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