GULFPORT - The old Live oaks lining the streets of Gail Cotton's neighborhood are slowly turning green again. Spring is trickling back, infusing life into communities that have been seemingly devoid of it for the past seven months.
Cotton, who lives in a modest house near U.S. 90, is representative of this life - at 81, she's lived a long one. Ask her what her secret is, and she'll tell you about the healing powers of herbs, her faith-based outlook on life and unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
"I do it because it's exciting," she says, explaining her interests. "If you ever get too old to learn, you may as well fold up your book and die. There's no point in it."
She has an appetite for hard work and learning keeps her strong. Age and hurricanes haven't fazed her.
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"Of course it's hard," she says, describing the recovery process. "I mean, you feel like you're under constant stress. But no one can afford to live in fear."
As the leaves return to the branches, Cotton's life is returning to normal.
A Gulfport resident for 12 years, she managed to move back into her home, gutted by the storm, several weeks ago.
Now, she sits comfortably in her small living room, feet propped up on the coffee table in front of her. On her wall hangs a painting of three cotton pickers at work, a watercolor rendition of the classic rural Delta scene she grew up around in Lula.
It's one of her favorite pieces of art, she says - and one of the few she managed to salvage when sifting through the muck in her living room.
Cotton's unbridled optimism keeps her strong. And whether she's interested in art, herbs or helping the less fortunate rebuild in her neighborhood, she finds the life lessons that help her persist.
"You've got to live with a dream, that it's going to get better," she says. "And I know it is. We're coming back stronger and better than we did before."
Seven South Mississippians who are defying the storm and age are being profiled this week by students at Ole Miss:
Sunday: John Kelley
Monday: Yvonne Mallett
Today: Gail Cotton
Wednesday: Betty Bittner
Thursday: Gigi Hines
Friday: Alice Eldridge
Saturday: Austin Lindsey