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.
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"