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Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Mother's Daughter


I just spent an hour washing, starching, ironing and folding the holiday linens.

I love to cook and made way too much food for our Thanksgiving Dinner, but, of course, it was a very 'necessary excess'. I had to send "care packages" of left overs home with everyone, didn't I?

Sometimes, in the midst of a perfectly fine conversation, I find myself arguing a contrary position, just to argue a contrary position.

When I am holding a baby and she yawns, I make the sign of the cross over her open mouth.

Before I go to bed at night, I check to make sure all the doors are locked and all the lights are turned off.

GASP!

I think I am becoming my mother.

Of all the things I do that my mother did, I think I enjoy ironing the most. Well, cooking comes in a very close second, but it is the ironing that connects me to her with the strongest bond.

My mother was a "Mill Girl". Like many first generation Portuguese women of her generation, she worked in the textile mills in Fall River, Massachusetts.

She was a "finishing presser."

In the "piece work" assembly-line of the textile industry, that meant it was her job to steam press the collars, sleeves, cuffs and pockets of the dresses that had been sewn by other women.

After she pressed out all the wrinkles to a farethewell, the pieces were then sent on to other women who assembled the parts by pinning them together. Yet another group of women sewed the dresses together.

The finished product was then sent on to yet another set of women who steamed pressed them to be sent off to be made ready for shipping to retail stores all over the country for other "women of means" to purchase them.

"Textile industry" was the term we used after her shop was unionized. Before that, her place of employment was known as a "sweat shop". Mind you, we were never allowed to use that term, but that didn't change the reality of her place of employment.

It was, make no mistake, a "sweat shop".

I don't know how she did it. Rain or shine, winter or summer, she worked eight hours a day, five and sometimes six days a week, in a factory with no central heat and no air conditioning.

Oh, there were large, institutional windows but the direct sunlight was obscured by the accumulation of years and years of layer upon layer of textile lint on the inside and city grime on the outside.

I remember her grumbling, from time to time, about wanting to take "a pail of vinegar and water and some newspaper" to clean the inside panes of glass. She never did. It wouldn't have made a difference, she said. She was on the fifth floor and there was no way anyone was going to wash the grime off the outside of the panes.

The "sweat shop" environment was made pleasant, however, because it was also a community. Everyone knew everyone else - or was related to somebody. Many came from the same villages in Portugal or the Azores.

There were so many women named "Mary" who often had the same last name - Souza, Medeiros, Pacheco, Costa, Almeida - that they referred to each other by their role in the assembly line.

I grew up knowing "Mary on Buttons" who was not to be confused with "Mary on Collars" who was the cousin of "Bella the Supervisor" and therefore a person of some influence.

People helped each other. If a kid needed sneakers ("sneaks" as they were known) for school, somebody knew someone who worked in another factory where they could be gotten out of the trunk of someone's car for $1 - maybe a bit more if they were a 'brand name' and not 'seconds' ("Eh, the box fell of the truck. Waddya gonna do, let it stay there in the middle of the street?")

If someone's cousin "just got off the boat" and needed a job, somebody knew somebody who could "put in a word for you".

I don't think there were any hard and fast rules, but the system seemed to work. My mother seemed to enjoy "getting out of the house" and "helping the family" with the "little extra's" that were the signs and symbols of some achievement in "The Great American Dream".

Ultimately, it was the money she earned that helped us save up the down payment for our own home "in the country" - well, at least it was away from the second floor tenement apartment above my grandparent's home in Fall River.

I remember when my mother saved up enough money to purchase a new set of sheets for her bed. She was so excited. No more plain white sheets for her. Nosireebob. She got Very Bright stripped sheets.

She brought them home on a Friday afternoon - along with the Chow Mein Sandwiches ($1 a piece at the Mark You Chinese Restaurant in Fall River) for the obligatory, Roman Catholic meatless Fridays of my youth.

While we kids ate our supper, my mother ripped open the package of sheets and - oh, my goodness, can you imagine it - matching pillow cases, and put them right into the washing machine.

We didn't have a dryer (a luxury we couldn't yet afford, but my mother was working on it), so she broke her own mother's rule ("Never go out into the night air or you 'may catch your death of pneumonia.'") and went outside to hang them on the line to dry over night.

I don't think she slept all night, waiting for the sheets and pillow cases to dry. In the morning, she took them off the line and then - of course - ironed them before she made up the bed. She wanted to surprise my father.

Now, my father was a man of few words with an even drier sense of humor. He worked 11-7 at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company while my mother worked 8 - 4 at the sweat shop in the Textile Industry. He would always take a wee nap after supper, getting up around 10 PM to get ready for work.

After carefully and lovingly and meticulously ironing the new sheets and pillow cases, mother called us kids together to help her quick make up the bed while my father was out at the barber shop getting his weekly haircut. We could hardly contain our excitement, waiting for him to take his after supper nap.

We said our "good nights" and then waited at the table, hands folded, to hear his response as he went into the bedroom.

Nothing.

We heard the bed springs creek and knew he was in bed.

Still nothing.

When we couldn't stand it any longer, we followed our mother to the bedroom and peaked in. There he was. Head on the brilliant, stripped pillow case, arms folded over the equally brilliant folded top sheet.

No response.

Except for the fact that he had sunglasses on.

Maybe it's the fondness of these memories that connect my fondness for menial tasks like ironing. Maybe it's that, of all the things I do as a pastor, I rarely get to see the results of my work.

I mean, as I write this, I can look over at the laundry basket waiting to be brought downstairs, which is filled with crisply ironed and neatly folded Thanksgiving linens. I don't often get to do that in too many other places in my life.

Oh, to be sure, I did provide some assistance on Wednesday afternoon to a mom and child who were suddenly homeless. I not only got them enough money through a combination of help from the Office of Temporary Assistance, my discretionary fund and some other donations to spend the rest of the week in a hotel, but also got them hooked up with Interfaith Hospitality Network for some longer term solutions.

And yes, the house still smells faintly of turkey, sage, garlic and onions. Yes, most of the food is gone to Southern NJ, Northern NJ and the Upper East Side of NYC.

Yes, there is some satisfaction in that - all of that.

I must say, however, that, as I sit here and write this, looking over at that laundry basket fills me with a richness and a sense of thanksgiving that is hard to describe.

Perhaps I am become my mother's daughter.

And, for all of her faults - and, God knows, my own - perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.

14 comments:

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Dearest Elizabeth! this made me cry a little ;=)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, but my beloved brother, this is why I love you, even though you are in Sweden and I am in US and we have never "really" met.

KHR+ said...

To Lydia.

whiteycat4104 said...

Great story ... as always!

susankay said...

Elizabeth -- me too, of course we become our mothers unless we spend all (rather than just some) of our energy fighting that progression.

My mother was: a committed fighter for racial equality; wacko on the subject of demon rum; somewhat feminist; liked sex a lot; thought that one should be "pure" except in marriage; tolerant and judgemental.

I am some of these and reject some -- works for me and I honor her for what I took from her and respect her with love for the things I reject.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

KHR+ - Maybe one day again soon we'll raise a glass to her over oysters as the sun sets.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks Whiteycat.

@susankay - My therapist once advised me to 'make peace' with my mother. There is a rule in the cosmos she said. 'That which we reject we become.'

Scariest words I've ever heard before or since.

Leann said...

I truly enjoyed reading this post. We often forget how much of our past is in our present.

I 'found' you through Episcogranny's blog.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Come back any time, Leann. We run from the sublime to the ridiculous in this neighborhood. I was just in one of my moods this afternoon. Exhaustion can make that happen.

David |Dah • veed| said...

O howled with laughter (which made everyone come running) when I got to the sunglasses. My Papá has that kind of sense of humor.

Great storytelling!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Dahveed - do you think it has to do with a certain sort of Latino machismo translated into a sense of humor?

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

"My therapist once advised me to 'make peace' with my mother. There is a rule in the cosmos she said. 'That which we reject we become.'"

Wich is why Jesus said: Turn the other cheek?

textjunkie said...

God bless you for that post!!
Sunglasses. ::chuckle::

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

My Jewish therapist and Jesus. Now, there's an image!