Monday, May 31, 2010
Work has always been important to me. Here I am at age three, helping my mother and grandmother do dishes. We are also packing provisions for a road trip. See slices of white bread already mayonaisse-d, on wax paper? My dad's parents lived in Atlanta and my parents, sister and I had driven to visit them from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That trip, and the one to my mother's folks in Chicago were the only vacations my parents indulged in for years. We never stopped along the way, to "squander money" at roadside restaurants. My mother packed whatever we needed in a cooler. If we were making good time, we'd stop at a rest area where my mother would shake out a freshly ironed floral cloth to cover a picnic table. More often, we'd make do with meals in the barreling car, even though this inevitably meant one of us kids would get carsick, which my engineer father considered a small price to pay for making good time.
I'm struck by how dressed up my mom and grandma are to do housework. Perhaps it was a Sunday and we'd been to church that morning. But I recall my mother looking well groomed just about every day, even when there were eight of us kids to take care of. I get tired just thinking about how much work that must have been: finding stockings that matched (no pantyhose then), making sure seams were straight, pulling on heavy foundations, ironing dresses, even aprons. (Not much was dry cleaned. My mother ironed even my father's shirts.)
Dress-wise, my mother had a lot in common with Betty Draper which I guess is one reason I chose to play that character on Twitter. But the resemblance stopped at appearance, luckily for me and my siblings. (Although I do recall hearing that "Only boring people are bored.") She liked to keep up with fashions, but didn't want to shell out for department store prices. She sewed her own clothes and ours. She took us on shopping trips in which we wouldn't buy anything; they were scouting trips for latest trends. I recall a few bouts of embarrassment when she'd pull out a tape measure and surreptitiously place it against outfits on mannequins. But I was always pleased to put on a perfectly fitted new dress with smart buttons and stylish collar. She still dresses well, though she doesn't sew anymore. She keeps a figure that can fit into petites at Talbots.
Unlike Betty, my mother enjoyed being a stay at home mom. She'd gone to Chicago Teacher's College because she liked working with children. But she was always encouraging of my sisters and me to pursue passions that would lead to other kinds of work, too.
My mother and many of her generation wouldn't call themselves feminists. But their quiet work and steady support gave their daughters confidence to claim a stake in the workplace. And paved the way for their granddaughters to consider that stake an inalienable right. This Memorial Day, I'd like to acknowledge them.