I understand my mother much better now.
She’s been gone a long time, and I thought I pretty much knew all about her – or at least all I was ever going to learn. After all, she is tucked away in that place in my heart and mind where our shared lives reside, only revisited from time to time when an experience or get-together triggers a memory.
But mothers are never done teaching.
She was quite a trailblazer, though that’s not what she set out to be. One of the younger children in a large immigrant family, she was born and grew up poor in the South Bronx. She learned to get to the dinner table on time and get that fork moving fast, because if she didn’t, she would leave the table hungry.
She went to work at 14. It was the Great Depression, and she was fortunate to get a job. A good student, she job-shared with another girl – school one week, work the next. She was a messenger girl at Macy’s in Manhattan.
That was the beginning of a lifetime career in retailing, moving up from that very humble beginning to become a ladies’ ready-to-wear buyer on Fifth Avenue back in the department store heyday of the 1950s. Most of those jobs were held by men, but there was a small cadre of women – about four, three in New York and one in Boston – who were the powerhouse buyers in the garment industry. My mother was one of them.
That was back when women may have had jobs but not careers, unless they weren’t married and became nurses or teachers. But she was both married and a career woman, and eventually a mother, though she did tell me she had to hide her pregnancy as best she could when she was carrying me.
She was no aloof career woman. She was amazingly attentive to her only child. And though my grandmother lived with us and took care of me during the day, my mother put me to bed, read me stories, came to my school events, took me to the theater and had long talks with me way into the night.
There were career moves in her life, the last of which was after my father died, when she left her position as a merchandise manager at Burdines in Miami to step back to being a buyer, this time at the Crescent in Spokane, where my husband and I had settled. That move involved the loss of her pension and a big salary cut, but she chose family – as long as she could still work. And she worked hard.
Adjusting to life without my father was difficult, as it is for anyone with a good marriage. In addition to working long hours, she filled up her weekday evenings and weekends with theater, symphonies, service club activities, church committees, voracious reading and lots of travel.
But, suddenly, her body failed her and she could no longer work. She did not go gently.
For a while, she felt reasonably well, and I figured she finally had time to do the things she never had time to do before. But, really, she had made time to do all the things she ever wanted to do. What she wanted to do was work.
I didn’t get it.
Fast forward to today. I loved working, but it was time for me to leave (long story). So I retired from my regular job and returned to freelance writing, which I had done when my sons were young. I know a lot of people just can’t wait to retire. My mother and I, I now realize, don’t really belong to that group, and I hope to be able to write until I drop.
But I do miss the energy of the workplace. I miss the sharpness that comes with working with other people, the exchange of ideas, the imperative to get up in the morning and put my shoes on, the stimulation of joint purpose and the satisfaction of group problem solving. I feel a sense of loss at being an outsider. The circumstances that brought us to “retirement” are different, but I can see through my mother’s eyes now.
Though some jobs are surely a drudge, the ability to work is a privilege. And for my mother, hard work was also the thing that allowed her to achieve the dream of many second-generation Americans like herself – a good life in the middle class, something solid for herself and her family.
It’s been 22 years this month since my mother died. I’m sorry I didn’t understand that when she lost the ability to work, she lost a part of herself, a part of what made her who she was. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize the pain that came with that loss.
Now that I, too, stand outside the formal workplace, I get it.
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