A Labor Day Tribute to My Mother

A Labor Day Tribute to My Mother

I often think of my mother, who died more than 20 years ago, sometimes in ways I didn’t anticipate.  I was always irritated at having to call her on Sunday at 10am, no matter where I was and with whom. Now I’d love to check in with her. No one is as interested as she was in the boring, mundane details of my life (granted, I withheld a lot of the good stuff from her, so she had to make do).

I find I want to discuss politics with her, especially in this crazy season. She wasn’t a political junkie like I am, but she had strong opinions.  She always regretted voting for Ronald Reagan — just that one time, she would want you to know —  and one of her last requests was that I never vote Republican.

Not a problem.

I’m not surprised to find I would like to be able to share my accomplishments with her. No one would have been prouder than she that my writing has been widely published in the last two decades.

But I’m ashamed to admit that I never thought of her accomplishments — that is, until I started this blog. I’ve written how difficult it must have been for my mother to be forced to come over to America on her own, leaving her parents behind. Many things she did that were not dictated by the Nazis were admirable too.

A Seamstress From the Start

I later came to appreciate my mother’s sewing skills. These are just two examples of the many things she made for me (the pictures don’t do the colors or the  intricate detail justice).

My mother loved to sew. She had been a seamstress as a young woman in Vienna. In her later life, she filed for — and got —  a small pension from the Austrian government for the few years she worked there. (It was part of a still woefully inadequate reparations program.)

She made beautiful clothes. But I didn’t want them when I was growing up. I wanted the store-bought stuff from the downtown Brooklyn department stores that all my friends had and that we could ill afford.

I don’t berate myself for that; I was a kid. But looking back I can imagine that it must have been emotionally — and financially — difficult for her.

Back to work

When I was in 11 and my sister 16, my mother went back to work as a fur finisher — someone who sews linings and buttons on fur coats and makes alterations —  at a furrier’s near Kings Highway in Brooklyn: The Elm Fur Shoppe on Avenue M.

She had decided that both her children were old enough, and that it was time to get a larger place in a better neighborhood. Until then, the four of us had lived in a one bedroom apartment in an area of Flatbush that was getting dicey.

She didn’t talk much about her standard of living in Vienna. I gather now, having read No Place Called Home by one of my newly discovered cousins, that the family must have been fairly well to do.

But I never remember her complaining about having to work, or berating my father because he didn’t make enough money. She knew he worked long hours as a dental technician and she probably feared, as he did, that if he raised the prices on the dentures and bridges he handcrafted, his dentist clients would go elsewhere.

She joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and was a union supporter until the end.

In case you don’t remember their catchy song:

I can’t imagine such a cheery — and patriotic — pro-union ad today, can you? I love the multiculturalism too.

Work in Atlanta

Soon after my father died in 1974, my mother moved to Atlanta to be near my sister and her grandchildren. She continued to sew for a living. After she retired, she worked for less than minimum wage at the Jewish Vocational Services Senior Adult Workshop. She kept this picture of herself, featured in an article about the workshop, among her prized photos.

My mother believed in work, no matter how unglamorous. She could have been bitter and selfish after what she had been through, but she believed in helping the less fortunate, and in the need for government programs to lend a hand. As I’ve mentioned, she believed in unions.

So I pay a very belated tribute to my mother on this Labor Day. In a fashion, I even got to talk politics with her in absentia. As I write this last phrase, I get an image of her shaking her head and laughing at that meshugganah Clint Eastwood and his empty chair.

24 Responses to A Labor Day Tribute to My Mother

  1. KL Lance says:

    Beautiful post, Edie. Your mother sounds like a wonderful woman.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, KL. I only wish I had appreciated what she did more when she was alive — but I’m glad to be able to share her accomplishments now.

  2. I remember that ad! Isn’t it funny how quickly it comes back to you. Nice post.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  3. Jill says:

    What a nice tribute to your mother on Labor Day! Our refugee relatives appreciated the value of hard work and making the world a better place for others.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Jill. I was a little nervous about putting this out there since I don’t know the political persuasions of the members of my new extended family, but since it’s a tribute to my mother, I had to tell her truth (and mine).

  4. John says:

    I think you spent your time over Labor Day weekend in writing this much more productively than I spent mine, and the result was something far better and infinitely more moving.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you, though not having seen your work I can’t say. I’m never sure whether to feel guilty or justified in working on Labor Day weekend, since we’re supposed to be celebrating the 40 hour week — ha! — but I’ll choose justified in the case of the tribute.

  5. Lydia Davis says:

    This is very moving, Edie. If only we could check in with our long-gone family now and then! Your mother sounds as though she had principles and courage both, not to mention a sense of humor. And she was part of an industry that was not outsourced in those days–when we look around at all the old brick buildings that used to house one or another phase of the clothing industry, we get a vivid sense of how vast it was, and what we’ve lost overseas. Thank you for this glimpse of the past, including the great video clip!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s funny, I always thought my father was the one in the family with the sense of humor, but when I brought up specific memories, I realized my mother was also quite funny. I love the video clip too; I keep playing it over and over! But it does make me sad to think of all those clothing factories shut down, an important American industry outsourced.

  6. Caroline says:

    you have a really interesting blog & this was a lovely post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you for coming by and thank you for your nice words. It’s been fun slowly e-meeting other geneabloggers. I hadn’t realized how many fellow research geeks there are out there!

  7. Clare says:

    I have a lump in my throat, but won’t repeat all the richly deserved compliments on your Labor Day cum Mother’s Day encomium.
    All I can add is that your mother provides a perfect example of why the anti-immigrants, like Jan Brewer, are dead wrong. What does this country need more than intelligent, responsible hard-working people raising exceptional children?

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I’m blushing. Or at least I was until you mentioned Jan Brewer, and then my face just stayed red with anger. Thanks, Clare.

  8. Marilyn says:

    I just received the Labor Day post today; wonder why it took 3 weeks to reach my in box? I’ll just have to stay logged into the Freud’s Butcher site in order to keep current.

    First, I need to wipe away the tears. I never saw you as sentimental and after 50 years of friendship I am seeing (or rather, reading) about a ‘different’ you. I am touched by your honesty and your ability to reveal so much of yourself. I could use a lesson here! So, on this eve of the Day of Atonement, I am going promise myself to take time to appreciate my Mother while she is still here.

    Thank you for these wonderful glimpses into your family’s history and to what we share as the first generation of Jewish immigrant parents.


    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Hmmm…that’s odd that it took three weeks for my post to reach your in box. Another friend said she was having subscription problems. I’ll have to look into that.

      You know, it’s hard to see your parents clearly — often until it’s too late. Although I wish I had asked my mother more questions about our family history, I’m grateful that I had a last year to talk with her after she was diagnosed with cancer, one where I let go of all (ok, most) of my irrational anger about childhood stuff. So, yes, do appreciate your mother while she’s around. And say hello for me.

      It’s great to have among my readers people like you who knew my mother — and me. Your nice words mean a lot to me.

      P.S. I was always a closet sentimentalist 😉

  9. Anna Redsand says:

    What a great tribute. Love the photos and the Union Label song. My favorite sentence in this piece is “My mother believed in work, no matter how unglamorous.” I relate to it profoundly myself, though I would say, “I love to work.” I took the 3-day weekend away from writing (a rarity for me to take 3 days in a row), and I may not be able to sustain it. I realized just this morning I need the balance between writing and the physical work I alternate with it to keep from becoming a pretzel in my writing chair–gardening, which is mostly weeding at the moment; cooking, cleaning, repairing.

    I inherited my mother’s sewing machine when she moved out of her home into my brother’s home. I remember how excited she was when it replaced her treadle (I was 11) . On it she turned print flour sacks into shirts and dresses for the 9 of us and even old sheets into bras for herself! Oh my! She faithfully cleaned and oiled the machine once a year, and it’s on my list of tasks for this week to do the same.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I think my mother loved to work when it came to things like sewing for her children and being a seamstress (as opposed to a fur finisher) but was never good at leisure activities in any case — with one exception. She loved to swim, and did that as often as she could.

      Me, I love my work too — well, for the most part — and have to drag myself away from the computer. I don’t have any physical hobbies. Now that I think of it, I guess getting another dog was my way of forcing myself out into the world every day — not to mention of getting a literal nudge to move away from the screen throughout the day!

      • Anna Redsand says:

        I’ve been considering (never, ever thought I would) getting a dog, and you have mentioned one of the reasons–getting out to walk with him or her.

  10. MelF says:

    What a beautiful tribute Edie. Your mom sounds like an amazing and strong woman. It’s a shame they don’t do commercials like that anymore. It would help educate the young people today. So much has changed when it comes to the American worker. Now workers fall for
    The Fox News B.S. and actually fight against themselves than for. Strange world we live in. A salute to
    Your mom.
    MelF recently posted..Celebrating Labor Day with your dogMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Mel. I never thought of my mother as strong because she was fearful in many ways, but once I started writing about her life, what she had been through, I realized how wrong I was. I agree about the American worker. I think my mother would be shocked to see how far backwards we’ve gone with things like wages and unions.

  11. Leo says:

    I have deep respect for people like your mother with such a work-ethics it make all of us look pale. She would be so proud of you today.
    Btw. I learned where the Dutch “mesjogge” is coming from now, forever connected with CE’s empty chair.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks, Leo. I suspect my mother would be as proud and as worried about me–so little money, no family to take care of me!–as she always was, even when she was critical and I didn’t recognize it. As for the work ethic, it’s partly a generational difference, I think. We (in spite of my mother, I) grew up to believe that there’s more to life than work. Including dogs 😉

      That is too funny that there is a Dutch word “mesjogge”! I had no idea.

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