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Pea-Pickers’ Child (1935)

Pea-Pickers’ Child

“Lucretia Penny” An article in Survey Graphic, July, 1935

The death notice in the county paper was not more than two inches in depth but it had, nevertheless, its modest headline: PEA-PICKERS CHILD DIES. Already there had been three deaths in the pea-pickers’ camp: a Mexican had been murdered, stabbed; a child had died of burns; a baby had died of what his young mother referred to as “a awful fever in his little stomach.” And now the shallow headlines spoke of Zetilla Kane, the seventh child and only daughter of Joe and Jennie Bell Kane.

“We come from Texas,” Joe Kane had told the “lady from the government.” He sat on a box beside the makeshift stove that warmed the tent where Zetilla had died. The odor of onions stewed for a poultice still hovered in the air. Joe Kane’s broad, blunt hands rested on his knees. His tall body slumped. His dark eyes showed a want of sleep.

“We been back three times in the five years we been messin’ ’round like this without no home. They sure ain’t nothin’ in Texas for us. The last time we was back my woman even owned to that.”

He glanced around the tent with its three cots for the family of nine—eight now—with its stove that once had been a gasoline container, with its oilcloth-covered table on which was a pan of boiled potatoes black with flies. He picked up a Western-story magazine from the pile of stove-wood at his feet, opened it and placed it over the potatoes.

“This here was sort of pushed on to me and Jennie Bell and the young ones. None of our folks—neither side—never lived like gypsies, and we sure never set out to. We ain’t never owned nothin’ much, but then we ain’t had to move every time a crop was laid by neither, lessen we was a mind to. We always farmed it. Then back in 1930 things had got so doggone tough we sold off our furniture and radio and cow and chickens and all and pulled out of Texas for Missouri where my woman’s folks is. We thought for sure we was goin’ where things was better.”

He paused and sat hunched over the little stove, gazing out across the camp-ground, playground of white and Mexican children, of dogs of a dozen breeds. A black and white puppy snapped at the heels of a goat leashed to a tent stake, and a little girl in a dirty chiffon dress from which torn ruffles fluttered like kite tails paused on a hopscotch field to drawl gently, “Cut it out, you durn fool dog.”

“Zetilly like to had a spell over that there goat when we moved in. She was always after the boys to take her to ‘see doat.’ And they’d sure do it. They was sure silly over her. She’d had the whooping-cough back in Oregon and it got her flesh. She never tried to walk none after that; she’d just been learnin’ when she took down.”

He motioned across the camp-ground to where a Jesus Saves banner was pinned to a closed tent. “Them folks over there—that lame fellow they call Deacon and his wife—has went with Jennie Bell down to where Zetilly’s at. You reckon we’re goin’ to have trouble with the County? Some say that they won’t let you go to the buryin’ or have a preacher at the funeral. It’d pretty near kill my woman. Back in Missouri they think preachin’ can’t start till about two benchfuls of her folks is there.”

He sighed. “Our next to the last one was born in Missouri. That’s him out there coughin’ now. We thought we was goin’ back to Missouri to get a place to farm it. Jennie Bell’s folks had wrote and said they’d try to find us somethin’. Well, when we got there they was all on the County and there shore wasn’t no sign of nothin’ there for us. The County wanted to send us back to Texas but we couldn’t see it that way, so we traded off our car for a Model T and twenty dollars to boot and pulled out for Kentucky. Before me and Jennie Bell was married I ust to work in coal mines and I didn’t know but what I could get on again.”

He shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “A body’ll try any fool thing when he’s up ag’in it. It never surprised me none though, when I seen I’d been stung some more. We sold our trailer then, and some old-time quilts that had been Jennie Bell’s grandmammy’s and wasn’t thick enough to be much use to us noway, and we started on down toworge Texas. We got in a little cotton pickin’ but cotton was sorry and we seen there wasn’t no chance to make a trade for a place to stay another year, and we heard pickin’ was good over in Arizona. Well, we went and it wasn’t but we got in enough to keep us eatin’ off and on, and we run into a fellow that said fruit pickin’ was good out here, so we come on to California. We been messin’ along like that ever since, pickin’ hops and cotton and oranges and peas, prunin’ a little and spacin’ peaches and cuttin’ lettuce and workin’ at one crop and another, and then movie’ on some more. We might’s well be gypsies and be done with it. When Zetilly was born we was campin’ on a picnic-ground up in Washington. We’d been up to see could we get on a homestead.”

His voice shook and, waiting to gain control of it, he bent to straighten the stove-wood at his feet. “Zetilly was born on the road and she died on the road. The undertaker’s is the first house she’s ever been in, and some say the County don’t aim for us to be there when she’s buried. She sure did hate being left by herself. She was such a little thing and she wouldn’t hardly rest a minute lessen some of us had holt of her. Do you reckon it’s so that they don’t aim for us to be there?”

It wasn’t.

Joe and Jennie Bell Kane and their six sons went to the brief service at the undertaker’s, followed Zetilla’s body to the small grave the County had prepared for it. Deacon, his wife and five other pea-pickers went also. Deacon was short and white-haired and walked with a limp. It was he who selected the burial song from a book he carried in his pocket.

The minister from the local church said a prayer and spoke briefly to the little group at the undertaker’s. He had to leave them and Deacon led the song at the grave. The local minister had spoken of immortality and reunion and incorruption, had dwelt upon the glory that is celestial. To his hearers his words were words without associations. It was different with the song that Deacon and the others sang, the song that told about “that beautiful city my Lord has prepared for His own.” [1]

They sang it vigorously, boldly, swinging eagerly from the final word of one verse to the beginning of another. It was at once a boast and a taunt hurled at those who might dare to disbelieve.

It had to be true. Hope of something better just ahead, in another state, in another season, had failed so often, but this time it could not fail. The beautiful city was real. It had to be. How else could they bear to leave Zetilla in the grave the County had dug for her—Zetilla, the frail, darkeyed baby who had liked to be held, who had died just as she was beginning to learn to sound the names of her six brothers?

There was nothing difficult to understand in the words of the song. The youngest of the Kane boys, the one with the cough, need not find them difficult to understand. There was no mention now of the exchange of terrestrial for celestial glory, of the putting off of the corruptible for the incorruptible. Simply, baldly, the song set forth the promise that what had made earthly life so sore a trial need not be feared in that beautiful city to which Zetilla had gone, that there one might have the necessities of life.

Vigorously, boldly, with an eager swing from verse to verse:

“We’ll never pay rent for our mansion,
The taxes will never come due;
Our garments will never grow threadbare,
But always be faceless and new.”

One of Joe Kane’s broad, blunt hands held the hand of his youngest son. The other rested awkwardly on his wife’s shoulder, toyed with the collar of the pink rayon dress she wore. The rayon, a deeper shade of pink then, had been new when they left Texas. “But always be faceless and new.” Boldly the song that Deacon led offered the comfort of its promise to Zetilla’s mother.

Perhaps already her baby was attired in faceless clothing and new, in a dress that was starched and ironed, in such a dress as she might have worn to church on Children’s Day back in Missouri. Would there be tatting on the collar perhaps, a little yellow duck appliqued on the pocket? Zetilla’s mother hid her face with her hands and sobbed.

“We’ll never be hungry nor thirsty,
Nor languish in poverty there.”

Joe Kane’s hand tightened its hold on the hand of the child who had so recently been “next to the least one” and was the least one now. The child coughed.

“There’ll never be crepe on the door-knob,
No funeral train in the sky;
No graves on the hillsides of glory,
For there we shall nevermore die.”

Jennie Bell Kane uncovered her face and pushed back a brittle strand of blonde hair that was streaked with grey. She was thirty-four. Whenever she told her age to the women in the camps they shook their heads and made lamenting sounds. “These hard times sure ain’t made none of us no younger,” she sometimes said in apology.

“The old will be young there forever,” they sang.

A woman had brought a tight bunch of wild flowers—lupin and California poppies and baby-blue-eyes—wrapped in a newspaper for Zetilla’s grave. Zetilla’s mother stooped when the song was ended and took four of the blossoms. She looked at her husband. Then she put her flowers back with the others, on the mound of earth beside the grave.

“I might’s well leave ’em,” she said brokenly. “I wouldn’t have no place to press ’em. Back home we ust to press ’em in the Bible.”

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Penny, L. (1935, July). Pea-pickers’ child. Survey Graphic, 24(7), 352. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=11173.

Source: New Deal Network,  (March 17, 2014).