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Lessons from My Mother

My Mother, Margaret Mildred Berge, was born in 1928, a half-breed Japanese-American from Honolulu, Hawaii – had an eighth grade education. Yet she could zip through the daily crossword like a Wellesley graduate, having expanded her vocabulary by looking up the words in an old black Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary that was never far from the kitchen table where she sat in the mornings, dressed in a well-worn, blue and white cotton kimono.

For most of my life she was the only woman I knew who survived a bombing, having been 12 or 13 at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

She was quite beautiful, dark eyed, raven-black hair, high cheek-bones and breasts coveted by every man who knew her. She was a great dancer, a voracious reader and a quick study with intelligence far beyond her formal education. She was a factory worker for most of her life. Starting at a Dynacolor plant in Brockport, NY where she spent 8-hour days mostly in the dark packing film canisters, I think. Then to the Owens-Illinois glass plant where she and dozens of other local women got jobs and worked on the line. When they figured out they were being paid for less than the men doing the same job, they took their grievances to management.

This was brave stuff for the 1960’s. And, as you might guess, not really met with enthusiasm by their manager.

He sat quietly across the table from them, arms folded, staring intently at the strange oriental looking woman who was the spokesperson. And, when she finished, he politely thanked them for their input and sent them on their way.

My Mother was a hero. But the awe and adulation was short-lived.

Within a week though, he summoned her and the rest of “the committee” to tell them that he was grateful for bringing this matter to his attention. Their grievance had been reviewed and it was discovered that none of the women had graduated from high-school and therefor, not only could they not earn what the men were earning … they shouldn’t be working on the line at all. Consequently, they would all be “demoted” to inspection, where they earned less than what they were even taking home prior to the grievance.

Needless to say, my Mother went from being a hero, to pariah. Their job action had been a disaster. Management’s argument left them with no recourse but to take their lumps, be happy they were working at all, and stop all this equal pay nonsense.

This was in 1966 and my brother was a senior at Brockport High School, on his way to graduation.

My Mother – much to the displeasure of my father who had agreed with management and told her that she should just keep her issues to herself – decided that she, too would get her high school diploma.

And so, in an age where no-one did it, she started studying for her GED, which she earned at essentially the same time my brother graduated.

She took her diploma to the glass plant, marched past her astonished co-workers who had been fore-warned of her conspiracy into the manager’s office, slammed her diploma on his desk and demanded she put back on the line at the same rate the men were earning.

He escorted her past her astonished co-workers, where they walked up to the line and he put her back on her old station, saying something to the effect of, “Margaret, I don’t like it – but you’ve earned it.”

She got applause from the factory floor, just like Norma Rae.

She went on to work at both Delco and finally Rochester Products where she was an active and proud member of the United Auto Workers Union – and where she spent the rest of working life except for a year-long stint at Kodak where, she told me, “You can’t even pee without getting an ok from the President of the company.”

Much of what I learned growing up I learned either by watching my mother iron my father’s National Guard Uniforms or sitting on the red, vinyl covered step stool we had next to the stove while she cooked.

“It’s a man’s world,” she often told me. “And, they treat women like dirt. But you aren’t going to be like other men. You’re going to be different.” And she set out to make it so.

She taught me how to iron. She taught me to do my own laundry. She taught me how to dance. She taught me how to shop for food, share the household chores, and how to dust, vacuum, and wash my own dishes. And, she taught me manners, and respect. To open doors for old people and women, pull out their chairs, walk on the side of traffic when walking on a sidewalk with a girl, and to never, never, never, never hit a woman. “Only cowards do that,” she said.

There are a lot of times when I think that anything I learned after that, was pretty much bullshit.

But of all these lessons, perhaps the two most important was that she taught me to cook and she taught me to read.

Around our house, my bedtime was 8:30, my brother’s at 9:00. But, you could stay up an extra hour if you read. My first “real” book was the House on Pooh Corner  which I absorbed like a sponge – and I went on to read from the extensive library we had. We had so many books that our big purchases from the S&H green stamp store were most often metal black bookshelves with brass colored frames to hold the hundreds of books that came from my grandmother. Mysteries, mostly – but classics as well. And over the years, our library grew from Book-of-the-Month Club selections, and rummage sale finds at the Methodist Church around the corner.

She bought encyclopedias from the supermarket -- one volume a week – through the alphabet. Some families got dishes or sets of tableware this way. We got a giant dictionary – purchased single letters of the alphabet at a time over 26 weeks and bound with a screwed together binder. We had newspapers, which she and I read together – both the morning Democrat & Chronicle and the afternoon Times Union.

While she may not have known a lot – she knew that what you didn’t know, you could learn from reading a book.

I didn’t realize it till many, many years later that people didn’t like us because she was Asian. Mostly because I looked like my Irish Father and it was my brother who had the almond shaped eyes that gave him the nick-name “chink”. He was the one they picked on. He was the one they made fun of – but I was the one who fought. And many is the time I was called to the office at school because of it. They would call my Mother, she would come in a minute -- and diplomatically save my bacon. Because of it -- she even convinced my father (who had been a dancer and a boxer in his youth) to give me a few fight lessons.

But it was my Mother's fighting "lesson" that got me through most of the time. "Don't fight unless you have to," she cautioned. "But if you have to fight, hit 'em first and squarely in the nose and don't stop 'till he hollers 'uncle'".

Understanding why people didn't like us took a long time.  People like my father’s sister who, when he brought home his “War-Bride” in 1946 to Ilion, New York, she and her husband did not speak to my father agin till the early 70’s when my grandfather died and my Dad and I went to the funeral.

But my Mother could drink scotch like a man. Bowl better than most. And shoot a shotgun in the trap shoots we had to celebrate Memorial Day and Labor Day each year. She could load, shoot and breakdown the .380 pistol my father had – and slept with it under her pillow on the couch in the living room during the riots of '65 when carloads of rioters drove down the million dollar highway toward Rochester. Just like a Mama bear guarding her cubs while my father bivouacked with the National Guard in Cobbs Hill Park.

She could fix her own washing machine, and mow her own lawn, and even change the spark plugs on the Nash we had if necessary.

She could sew. She could cook. She shoveled snow, managed the books, and, she was an activist before I even know what an activist was.

I’m not sure I accomplished all that much in my life – but whatever I have done, it is because of the things I learned sitting there next to the stove or in the “middle room” watching my Mother iron.

And among the shelves of books was one that was a red and white binder of sorts. A Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook stuffed full of recipes, clipped from magazines, passed on from friends and later transferred to 4 x 6 file cards in a battered white file box.

I have both still today as some of my fondest mementos of my Mother.

I’m not sure whether my mother was a really good cook or not, our menus were pretty simple. But I do know that she cooked all of her food with love, and that’s the best ingredient.

Dinner at our house was a big deal. Actually being on time for dinner was even more important. For many years, my father worked three jobs. He was a welder and a civilian employee for the New York National Guard and as part of our chores either my brother or I were charged with watching the highway from our living room for my father’s car to get within blinker range of turning down our driveway. On sighting my father’s approach, the watchdog would signal both my mother and the other of us that he was there.

My mother started dishing up dinner. The brother not on watch was charged with opening the garage doors so that my father could pull in right under the house, get out of the car, wash up in the soapstone basins in the basement and come up to eat … precisely at 5 minutes to five.

We ate. He asked “What did you learn in school today?” and we usually shrugged our shoulders and said "I don't know." He said little else, except “The first thing I ask you all day and you don’t know the answer,” if we couldn’t describe anything interesting. He left at precisely ten minutes before 6:00 to make it to job number two at a truck graveyard where they took wrecks and turned them into spare parts till he got home at eleven o’clock.

When my father got up from the table, I cleared, my brother washed, I dried.

My mother ironed.

It was a ritual that was repeated day in and day out for years in our household.

No wonder I thought it was such a miserable place.

But as the years went by, I started to realize how really tough it was for them back then. My father worked three jobs. My Mother struggled from a lack of education, and discrimination in a world I didn't understand. They did they best the could with what they had. And my Mother taught me as best she knew how.

They were good lessons. And, my Mother was a good woman.