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Mama Knew What Real Work Meant


Recently, I watched a workman repair a window in my sun room. While we talked about the job, a fax came in.

Commenting on my home office, the repairman sniped through pursed lips that women have no business working.

"They should depend on their menfolk," he declared, like an out-of-sorts Moses defending some fractured commandment.

Forgoing my usual fiery retort, I left him to his screw-driver and mutterings and returned to the upstairs keyboard to tap out my annoyance for narrow, archaic minds.

In memory, I relived a picture that has always brought me unrest. Returned to age 16, I descended the rickety wooden steps of a cheerless brick hosiery mill and entered a world powered by women.

The air smelled of dust, hot machine oil, and musty cotton fibers. Along the basement room extended three rows of serging machines, each centering a nest of burlap bags, bundled socks-some sewn, some unsewn-and worrisome wisps of fluff drifting through stale air.

The clatter, which echoed to the street, rattled like random bursts of automatic weapons, each indicating that the toe of an athletic sock has just been serged shut.

Close to the end of the second row sat my mother, Ella Robinson, out-serging the other dozen or so seamstresses as her arthritic fingers sped through a day's work so she could hurry home to my dad and me. Her hair was laced with the clinging fibers, her shoulders bent toward a tiny light bulb that illuminated a few square inches of work space.

Over the metallic z-z-z of machines came the sounds of somebody's radio tuned to WIRC and several voices humming the gospel Top 40.

At times, the women would cackle at a private joke, those inbred witticisms that are funny only to people who expend their energies and dreams encased in noise, dust, boredom, and the iffiness of piecework.

Each weekday, Mama left home long before I got up for school and returned by 3:30 to cook supper and read the paper, then sacked out early to rest up for the next day's 150 dozen pairs.

Her brief breaks over tomato sandwiches, leftover meat loaf, and a Coke from the vending machine gave just enough time for rehashing the womanly philosophy that kept pieceworkers from self-destructing over mortgages, family illness, wayward children, and the chance that someone would be laid off by week's end.

The wage my mother earned varied. When there was a steady market outcry for jock socks, she made less than $4,000 a year-enough to support me and my invalid father.

When demand fell, she received less per piece or got only a few days' work per week and had to sign up for unemployment compensation.

She despised the job but shared a life-long love for her toe-serging sisters. Bolstered by their cheer and faith, she made it through the years remaining before retirement.

Today, when I hear snide remarks about working women, I seldom give a thought to well-groomed briefcase-carriers. In my mind, I picture the sunless basement where Mama's sock pals zipped a few more dozen toes through the machine before the clock hands pointed to three and six.


Charlotte Observer
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"
October 7, 1992

 

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Mary Ellen Snodgrass Tel/Fax: (828) 324-0155