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Friday, July 17, 2015

A Prayer of Gratitude for The Mill Girls

Pepperell Mill Girls

First the yoke, then the collar, then the sleeves, then the body.

I hear it as a mantra in my head.

Start with the pieces then onto the body. That's the proper way to iron a shirt.

I grew up with Mill Girls - women who worked as what was also known by its more lofty name of "Textile Factory Workers" and the more lowly but accurate "Sweat Shop Girls".

There were many mill towns in Massachusetts, Lowell, Fall River, New Bedford, Lawrence, Pepperell, Worchester, among them. English women, brought from across The Pond by the owners of the mills were the first. As immigration provided a steady stream of workers, then came the Irish, the French Canadian and then "my people" - the Portuguese.

Fall River Mill Girls
Many of us lived in the city, a short walk from the Textile Mills, in crowded tenement houses with steep walk up leading to apartments behind thin walls and doors that barely muffled human voices that spoke Portuguese and played Portuguese music and could not prevent the amazing smell of Portuguese food from filling the stairwells.

We were fortunate. We lived with my grandparents in an apartment above their home outside of the city proper.

We had a vegetable garden and fruit trees and a grape vine in the back yard and my grandmothers rose bushes in the front yard.

Even so, in our home and all around us were The Mill Girls. Many from the same villages in Portugal or the Azores.  Many with the same first and last names. So, they became known by what jobs they did on "piece work" - the assembly line in the Mill.

Mary on Buttons.

Mary the Presser.

Bella in Finishing.

Bella on Zippers.  No, not that Bella. Isabella. Mary on Buttons' cousin. Joe's wife. You know, Joe. He works night shift down at Firestone Tire and Rubber. She made that big pan of Bacalau for Rosie's daughter's Christening that was so good. Ahhh, right. Her.

When we were kids, we learned Nursery Rhymes and Mill Girl Rhymes - both probably left over from the English.

One I remember was: "I'm Gerty Schmirtz. I iron shirts. I iron shirts 'till me fingers hurts." We sometimes sang that one as we jumped rope.

It was a prayerful mantra that, no matter how much we might have hated school at the moment, it was important not to end up as a Mill Girl.

Sometimes, these women surround me when I'm ironing.

I can hear them calling to me. "Stop being a Lazy Mary! Unbutton that cuff! Now, slide the end over the end of the ironing board. That's why it's narrow like that. Wait! Put more water in the steamer. Now, work that wrinkle out there. You want people to know you don't know how to iron a blouse? A little more steam . . . a touch of that spray starch . . . There! See? Good job."

It's not only a good skill to have, it's a wonderful way to pray.

It's a bit like a Buddhist mantra or praying the Rosary.

Repetitive:  Yoke. Collar. Sleeves. Body.  Hang on hanger. Repeat.

Mindlessly mindful. Accomplishing nothing until, suddenly, it's done.

Unlike many prayers, the immediate results are visible: A finished product. One of many. Hanging neatly - crisply - in a row in the closet.

The Irish Mill Girls
Like so many other prayers, the long term effects are unknown: Surrounded by an invisible cloud of witnesses, who knows the long term effects of a heart filled with gratitude?

Prayer as piecework.

I am the daughter and granddaughter and niece and cousin of Fall River Mill Girls.

I know how to iron a shirt.

Sometimes, when I can't use the Book of Common Prayer, I iron a shirt.

And, my heart overflows with deep gratitude.


Nancy Evans Bush said...

Oh, Elizabeth, thank you! This is more perfect than almost anybody nowadays is going to know.

In 1951-1953,the summer job that helped me through the first three years of college was as laundress for the Edgewater Creche fresh air camp, Englewood, New Jersey. I had sole charge of ALL laundry for 94 campers ages 4-8 and the 24 or so staff members. Oh, my.

For many of the campers, all from New York City, this was their first time away from home overnight; there was lots of bed-wetting. And that was when staff still wore ironed shirts and ironed pants and ironed boxer shorts and ironed everything except maybe bras. Fortunately, the little kids wore only cotton knit shorts and t-shirts, coming out of the huge, hot tumbler dryers. But their clothes were unironed!

Even now, when I pick up a shirt to iron, it's exactly as you say--yoke, collar, cuffs, sleeves, body. I can't do it any longer in under a minute per shirt, but the rhythm is there, and the gratitude for knowing how....and I don't know a soul (except perhaps you) who can do it faster!
So many thanks, and for so much. Nan

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for sharing that memory, Nan. I can't imagine. I do remember my mother and aunts ironing sheets and pillow cases. And, insisting, when we were old enough, that we did the same. My sheets and pillow cases are "wrinkle free" now, but there are times, when I'm expecting guests, when I confess I do iron them. It's just, what I do. Must be genetic.

Unknown said...

Well my mother wasn't a Fall River girl so she taught me Collar, Yoke, Sleeves, body....a little different. I still iron, almost everyday. My ironing story was when I was recovering from traditional gall bladder surgery after three days at home I was so restless that I ironed everything in my closet and everything in my room mate's closet in an afternoon. But it calmed me. I don't remember if I prayed but I know that I felt better after doing it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

There are so many things in ministry - so many seeds to plant without ever seeing the growth - that I love ironing once a week. Oh, and folding towels and putting them on the shelf in the linen closet.

It's the little things.