Monday, September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day/The story of one working life

the log cabin where my mother lived before she moved to Baltimore

We got 5 cents for picking the bugs off the potatoes, she says. That was if we did it for the neighbors. On our own crops, we did it free. Babysitting all night paid a quarter, she says. Which wasn't so bad, because you could sit in the movies all day for that--and buy candy, too.

My mother’s education only went as far as the 8th grade and then she went to work. She began her first full-time job at the age of fourteen, living with a doctor, his wife, and their newborn. Never leave the mother alone with the baby, she was cautioned. In the middle of one night, my mother awoke to a commotion, and was told that the mother had tried to kill the baby even though the husband had been right there with her. In the morning, the wife was packed off to an asylum, the baby went to live with relatives, and my mother found herself out of a job. 

After that she and her twin sister worked in the cafeteria a Catholic men's college. She remembers putting the cherry just-so in the center of the grapefruit halves for the priests. They were given rooms there on campus, and there were rules. You couldn't stay out late or the door would be locked. They never missed curfew, she says. 

Then they were a waitresses in Dubuque, Iowa at Diamond’s Bar and Grill and at the Triangle CafĂ©. Thank god, they got a free meal, she says. There were no tips in those days. Except from one guy who always tipped a quarter. The waitresses would trip over each other trying to get to him, she says. They walked to and from work since they didn't have a car. Their feet were always killing them.

Somewhere in there, there was a stint at Betty Jane Candies hand dipping chocolates. Eat as much as you want, she says her boss told her. The eating with abandon only lasted a day or two.

Then she worked in a club across the river in East Dubuque, the seamier of the two sister cities straddling the Mississippi. She worked as a dice girl in the game "twenty-six." Her sister spun the roulette wheel. One night their parents walked in, surprised to see their daughters there. My mom and her sister were just as surprised to see them.

My mom’s twin sister went out to Baltimore first. They had a girlfriend named Janice, whose parents decided to move the whole family east because they could get good paying jobs at the Glenn L. Martin, a company going full throttle in the manufacture of aircraft for World War II. My mom borrowed money from a friend to send Millie out first in the spring of ’43 and then they both worked to save money, and my mom joined her sister in the fall. In 1943 My Aunt Millie started as a riveter, and when my mom went to join her, she worked for Glenn L. Martin as a file clerk.

Then came the jobs that I envy. If I could go back in time and be my mother for a couple of months, this would be it. I'd be a hat check girl at the Chanticleer, or the Band Box, or the Club Charles. I'd live in Baltimore and hear every fabulous band and collect all the autographed headshots of the stars. I'd be the photo girl snapping souvenir pictures, remembering to ask first if the gentleman and his date would like a photo--because you never know, the gorgeous girl on his arm might not be his wife. 

A couple of things happened next. I'm not sure in what order. My mother had a boyfriend, a grocer, who was shot and killed one night when he went back to check on his store. Her sister got married to a guy who didn't especially like her. She went back home.

After my mother returned to Iowa, she worked as a hostess at a bar called The Circle where the bartender introduced her to a snazzy older man with blue eyes so beautiful, you could dive in and never want to come back up. They eloped. 

My father didn't want my mom to work--though she worked in his grocery store for a couple of years until he sold it. She lived in two different little Iowa towns after that. Cooking, baking to satisfy my father's insatiable sweet tooth, canning, filling our back porch with crocks of pickles, sewing our clothes. I'd call that work.

After he died and she was swindled out of his life insurance, she went back to work. She was 51 years old, had an 8th-grade education, and had been out of the workforce for almost 20 years. She made parts for machinery and plastic buckets at two different factories, getting paid minimum wage. Her big break came after she got laid off and heard about a union job at the John Deere plant. She got hired. She drove a fork truck, worked on the assembly line doing whatever job they asked her to for more than 9 years--until she was laid off just a month or so before she would have qualified for a pension.

She took care of an old woman, keeping her company and preparing her food. She worked in a bakery in a town so far away that her wages barely kept pace with the cost of her gas. She had another minimum wage factory job or two. 

When her twin's husband died, my mother moved back to Baltimore where she worked for the City of Baltimore as a custodian cleaning office buildings. She retired with a pension that is not quite large enough to cover her supplementary health insurance. 


Lauren Ward Larsen said...

Wow. Just wow.

Lauren Ward Larsen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth said...

Wow. Portrait of a laborer is right. This is such fascinating stuff, Denise, even without knowing you --

Anonymous said...

My oh, my did your Mother ever work. My hubs a union retail clerk was the last in the whole county to get his paid vacation of 5 weeks..The grocery store he worked at the last year lets see they stole his jacket I had just gotten saved up for 2 years to purchase that Columbia jacket, they had to give him a big fat check, I found another one in the largest city in this state at a goodwill type store for $5.00 brand new..They talked to him like crap for a good long while the union came by one day and told them off and to cool it, the company was fined a big amount, he retired the next week has never looked back. Most of the people my husband knew working 36 years plus only lived a few months with their union pension, so my hubs decided to retire and enjoy some time he slaved for..Your mother's story is not uncommon in our USA too bad companies stick it to their workers..Your Mom sounded and her twin sister like saints on this earth the same as my hubs is almost 40 years!

Ms. Moon said...

Just amazing. Your mother has had one hell of a life.
Thanks for sharing all of that. Gives me perspective about a whole lot of things.

lily cedar said...

Your mother has worked her ass off.

N2 said...

Glad you are helping your mom out and capturing so much of her history. Even though I know quite a bit about my parents, I wish I'd asked more questions.
x0 N2