Excerpt from Marj Casswell’s “A Place to Come Home To,”
For years every pack of cigarettes I opened took me back to our tobacco barn. As the red plastic encircling the pack tore away and the silver paper lifted, I would stand under two-foot long leaves drying on oak poles above me. Three tiers that reached the ceiling, and thickened the air with a heady aroma. I knew that no matter how far I traveled or what I did, I would always be a farm girl.
Being back here now is more painful than the worst fears of losing the farm all those years ago, never again to hear the whippoorwill call at night, never again to roll in the pine needles, never to eat warm tomatoes right there in the garden, field dust mixing with juice running down my arm to the elbow.
My tenth summer was the last summer we grew tobacco on our farm. The last September I could walk into the tobacco barn and run my fingers over the browning leaves. The last autumn of pungent bundles of sweet scented tobacco loaded on a truck for auction. They pushed the barn down years ago, but I see its faded red boards and tin roof each time I return to this house. My father’s house, his father’s before, and his father’s before him.
My father steered the John Deere tractor around the Virginia farmland with me in the seat beside him, plowed under clover and manure to enrich the land for tobacco planting.
In January I walked with him or Uncle Lowell to the hot bed to start a new crop: a quarter acre plot seeded carefully, covered with manure and a thick layer of red, orange, and gold leaves. Winter meant more trips to the hot bed. We lifted the tiny leaves, stroked the fragile stems, tested their strength.
We waited for the slow coming of spring. We waited for weather just right, the little plants strong enough to stand up under the shock of moving them from bed to the open field. We waited for a rain so the dirt would make a ball around the tender roots. We waited for the sun to plant them in the field. And a temperature just right to coax their tiny leaves to grow.
“Worse than anything, how touchy these plants can be,” Uncle said, and slid the trowel deep along side the young plant. When Uncle was away I took his place on the planting seat at the rear of the tractor—riding backwards, low in the seat, bent over to scoop holes in the rows where the baby tobacco plants would set. Long summer nights, after supper, after dishes, my father walked the fields, lifted leaves, looked for good color and bad bugs.
They say it is the smells we remember most, some primal gene thing that protected early humans from predators, helped them know their mother and find their way home. The dark Virginia soil produced some of the most aromatic tobacco in the world, and settled its richness deep inside my senses. Our farm had some of the richest tobacco planting land in the state. And then it was gone.
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