Summer Sun Bonnets

Published 12:45 pm Saturday, April 20, 2013

by James D. Howell

My mother is cutting out flower printed material on top of our dining table. She tells me it’s for a new sun bonnet. She has a pattern for the loose fitting, extended front, head covering. The cloth is new; the pattern and work is not. She’s made, and worn out, several of these articles before. Or maybe she just wants a new one.

The pattern, cloth, and effort will yield a distinctly country work garment, worn by countless ladies to shield their eyes and skin from the damaging effects of the sun. Sunburn is a hazard of outside work on the farm. Virtually any contemporary photograph of women doing field work shows examples of this head covering. It has a longish front shade, supported by cardboard strips inserted into sewn channels. The cardboard provides a little rigidity to the front panel; strips are cut from any available sheet of cardboard, saved from any available box or insert.

The back of the bonnet is a gathered pocket, of sorts, that fits a wide range of head sizes. A drawstring runs through a sewn channel around the bottom of the pocket and is tied under the chin. Under the hat can be a lot or a little hair; the bonnet is non-discriminatory. It is a one-size-fits-all garment.

My father favors a wide brimmed straw hat for protection from the sun’s heat and brilliance. A new hat seems to show up every year about planting time. Last year’s hats (or bonnets) are worn by my siblings and myself in emulation of working adults. It’s a ruse. All of us have turns at farm work, according to our age, size, and sex, but none can possibly do the work of an adult farmer. Our hat wearing is a pretend prelude to later, grown up years.

Along with tomato, sweet potato, onion, strawberry, and other plants, a variety of straw hats show up at local hardware, feed, and seed stores each spring. Maybe that’s where my father gets his. Hats protect the head and eyes form the sun; most farmers always wear long sleeved shirts year round for other body parts protection. Short sleeved shirts are for children.

My mother tells me that pulling fodder was the meanest, hottest, most disliked job that any farmer had to do. She’s relating farming techniques from her childhood, recalling the need for long sleeved shirts and other coverings for protection against cuts and irritation. This fodder is the leaves of corn after harvest. The leaves are stripped from the stalk, gathered and stored for winter feed. It’s a very low nutrition feedstock for animals, and the practice has been abandoned by modern farmers.

Each spring, along with row crops and vegetables, my mother plants a flower garden. The small plot is plowed up and rows set by someone on our tractor. It’s a little dicey having to manage a large tractor on the small garden plot, but somehow it happens. My mother does the seed planting; I am called upon to do the chopping and pulling of weeds. It’s not a favorite pastime; mostly I turn to with little appetite and slow action. My mother seems tolerant of my sullenness. We generally get the job done.

Rows of marigolds, snapdragons, asters, bachelor’s buttons, dahlias, phlox, and other fragrant and showy annuals are seeded in the garden. A row of sweet peas forms a border with the yard. Iris beds are scattered around the yard and increase or decrease in size according to the whim of nature. Minimal attention is paid to hedges and shrubs.

On warm spring days, I tend my tomato plants, set in a narrow band of earth alongside my driveway. This year I have eleven plants, three varieties. I check them daily, maybe with a belief that the force of my will alone will produce fruit. It’s an unfounded belief. My soul knows that if I do a lot of work, with just a little good will from Mother Nature, my family will enjoy rich, red, juicy tomatoes this summer. It has been that way since I, grudgingly, hoed the weeds from my mother’s flowers.

My hat today is a canvas marvel that has been my companion on treks in tropical jungles and arctic tundra. It is fairly rugged, is washable, and has a certain fashionable flair. It bears little similarity with the straw hats of my youth. It will never attain the status of a simply sewn, cardboard stiffened, flower print sunbonnet.

I can see my mother’s sun bonnet covered head bent, working along the rows of flowers in her garden. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at