My mother was a migrant farmworker: she was 7

Tracey Folly

*this is a work of nonfiction as told to me by my mother based on actual events that she experienced personally

Do you remember the year you turned seven? I do.

The year I turned seven was the year I started second grade. My teacher was a mean old lady. I thought she was an elderly woman. In reality, she was probably in her thirties. When you’re seven, nearly everybody else seems ancient.

On the first day of school, she passed out long rectangular boxes of crayons and round plastic tubs of paste. The smell of brand new crayons and fresh sticky white paste was the best part of early September.

I loved how the paste stuck to thick paper and made a clean hole when I poked through it with a thumb. I also liked mixing the crayons together on paper until they melted into each other and made brown or green or orange or maroon or a dark purple color.

Things wouldn’t be the same once we switched to pencils and staplers.

They just didn’t smell the same.

The year my mother turned seven, she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in a cargo ship. She hadn’t seen her mother in over a year. Her sister spent the entire voyage seasick and vomiting below deck.

My grandmother had come to America first to find a job and a place to live. Her husband and their four children would have to wait until she could send for them.

When my grandmother was finally reunited with her family, they moved into a chicken coop. It was the only shelter they could get.

My mother spent most of her early life in a house without electricity or running water. She learned to cook, clean, and take care of her younger brothers and sisters on her own.

The older children would sometimes help her with the chores by keeping an eye on the younger ones while they went outside to play.

My mother never forgot the terrible things she had seen while living in these conditions. She spoke about it many times over the years, but it wasn’t until just yesterday that I learned something surprising.

“I was a migrant farmworker,” my mother said casually over dinner last night. “I was seven years old.” She laughed.

“What?” I replied. This wasn’t a story I’d heard before.

“Yes,” she continued. “When I first came to this country, I had to work in the fields. We all did. I was in charge of picking tomatoes.”

“Really?” I asked. “What else did you pick?”

“Lots of stuff,” she said.

I shook my head. What an odd thing for little kids to do, I thought.

It was 1950; my mother was born in 1943.

“What do you mean by migrant farmworker?” I asked. “ Where did you come from? Did your family live here?”

“No,” she said. “I was born in the Azores and came to the United States when I was a few years old. Your grandmother was born here though. That’s how we came here.”

It was my turn to laugh. “My mother was a migrant farmworker at the age of seven,” I said in disbelief.

“That’s right,” she replied. “Somebody had to pick the tomatoes.”

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Ordained Minister, Universal Life Church

Massachusetts State

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