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  • Writer's pictureNuria McGrath

Edith Agnew: I am never picking cotton again.

My father’s mother, Edith Agnew, grew up on a farm in Wedgefield, South Carolina in the 1920s.  This was a farm of good and plenty; it served the community that surrounded it with food, shelter, modern conveniences, and jobs.  My grandmother, being a child of the farm, took part in all facets of the purposeful, habitual, and labor-intensive farm life.  I am sure she had many jobs on the farm, and I am positive that she loved some of those jobs, but one farm job that she hated with a passion was cotton picking.  She hated it so much that she would build a life that would support her achieving her dream of never picking cotton again.  Ironically, that dream would be achieved by using the skills she acquired on the cotton picking farm of her youth. 

The farm was owned by my great-grandparents; a rare occurrence for the times.  The property was land that was once toiled by the hands, feet, arms and legs of my enslaved ancestors, seeded, cultivated, and enriched by their blood, sweat, and tears.  My great-grandparents ultimately purchased and gained full ownership of the land by bartering and negotiating with the numerous title-owning descendants of the slaves, their cousins.  So on this farm there was pride and purpose in the work being done. These technicalities, however, made no difference to my grandmother; she hated picking was hard work, and it made her hands sore.  Even worse, Edith didn’t have the ladylike hands she craved, her hands looked ugly and worn.  Edith vowed that she would leave the farm, go to college and never pick cotton again.  And that’s exactly what happened.  Through diligence, sustained habits, and the support of her family, she achieved her goal of attending and graduating from college; first in her family.  Edith even went on to obtain a postgraduate degree in education.  

However, she could never truly escape the farm; Edith held it close to her heart and carried it with her wherever she ventured.  As a teacher in Philadelphia, Edith brought community to her surroundings, organizing Christmas tree drives, potlucks, being a Boy Scout den leader, Sunday school teacher, a landlord, and countless other good and plenty works.  Each summer, she and my grandfather would drive their sons to the farm in Wedgefield, SC where her sons would spend the summer.  In this way, she passed on the way of the farm to her children.  As a grandmother, Edith moved back to Wedgefield, SC, maintained a garden, visited her mother on the farm daily, and brought her grandchildren to the farm.  Most importantly, she lived her life with purpose by maintaining healthy habits.  Each morning, Edith got up early, made her bed, cleaned her home, ate breakfast, exercised, and involved herself in her community.  Later, she ate an early dinner and then watched ‘The Wheel’ (Wheel of Fortune for those who are wondering) at 7 p.m.  Then, Edith showered, put her hair in rollers, went to her room and got down on her knees and prayed, every evening.  She went to bed early to be well rested for the next day’s purposeful adventures.  

Edith was true to her word, she never picked cotton again but she would always be grateful for the lessons she learned on the farm, lessons that pushed her to dream big, striving for what she wanted, lessons that allowed her to one day look at her hands and and be thankful for their beauty. 

What are the lessons that you learned from this story?

Here is what I learned:

Reflecting on my grandmother’s life, I take many lessons. The lesson I received from this story is that building habits through discipline is a gift, a gift that opens up the doorway to our wildest dreams.  A wise person once said, ‘discipline is the constant state of reminding ourselves of what we want. When we manifest and implement discipline, we have the ability to surrender.’  The hard work of the farm, although not something she lauded, served Edith for her entire life.  It gave her the healthy habits to surrender to her life’s highest purpose, teaching and serving her community. It taught her to allow what she didn't want to lead her to what she did want. “I am never picking cotton”, a simple declaration that became a mantra, a pathway toward living the life of her wildest dreams.  I look back and see that, through her example, Edith gave me the blueprint to success, the blueprint to joy, the blueprint to living a life filled with beauty and purpose.  A pathway to living the life of my wildest dreams.  And for this I am truly grateful.


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