MY MOTHER NEVER WORKED By Bonnie Smith-Yackel
“Social Security Office.” (The voice answering the telephone sounds very self-assured.)
“I’m calling about … I … my mother just died … I was told to call you and see about a … death benefit check, I think they call it …”
“I see. Was your mother on Social Security? How old was she?”
“Yes … she was seventy eight …”
“Do you know her number?”
“No … I, ah … don’t you have a record?”
“Certainly. I’ll look it up. Her name?”
“Smith. Martha Smith. Or maybe she used Martha Ruth Smith.
… Sometimes she used her maiden name … Martha Jerabek Smith.”
“If you’d care to hold on, I’ll check our records – it’ll be a few minutes.”
Her love letters – to and from Daddy – were in an old box, tied with ribbons and stiff, rigid-with-age leather thongs: 1918 through 1920; hers written on stationery from the general store she had worked in full-time and managed, single-handed, after her graduation from high school in 1913; and his, at first, on YMCA or Soldiers and Sailors Club stationery dispensed to the fighting men of World War I. He wooed her thoroughly and persistently by mail, and though she reciprocated all his feelings for her, she dreaded marriage …
“It’s so hard for me to decide when to have my wedding day – that’s all I’ve thought about these last two days. I have told you dozens of times that I won’t be afraid of married life, but when it comes down to setting the date and then picturing myself a married woman with half a dozen or more kids to look after, it just makes me sick. I am weeping right now – I hope that some day I can look back and say how foolish I was to dread it all.”
They married in February 1921, and began farming. Their first baby, a daughter, was born in January 1922, when my mother was 26 years old. The second baby, a son, was born in March 1923. They were renting farms; my father, besides working his own fields, also was a hired man for two other farmers. They had no capital initially, and had to gain it slowly, working from dawn until midnight every day. My town-bred mother learned to set hens and raise chickens, feed pigs, milk cows, plant and harvest a garden, and can every fruit and vegetable she could scrounge. She carried water nearly a quarter of a mile from the well to fill her wash boilers in order to do her laundry on a scrub board. She learned to shuck grain, feed threshers, shuck and husk corn, feed corn pickers. In September 1925, the third baby came, and in June 1927, the fourth child – both daughters. In 1930, my parents had enough money to buy their own farm, and that March they moved all their livestock and belongings themselves, 55 miles over rutted, muddy roads.
In the summer of 1930 my mother and her two eldest children reclaimed a 40 – acre field from Canadian thistles, by chopping them all out with a hoe. In the other fields, when the oats and flax began to head out, the green and blue of the crops were hidden by the bright yellow of wild mustard. My mother walked the fields day after day, pulling each mustard plant. She raised a new flock of baby chicks – 500 – and she spaded up, planted, hoed, and harvested a half-acre garden.
During the next spring their hogs caught cholera and died. No cash that fall.
And in the next year the drought hit. My mother and father trudged from the well to the chickens, the well to the calf pasture, the well to the barn, and from the well to the garden. The sun came out hot and bright, endlessly, day after day. The crops shrivelled and died. They harvested half the corn, and ground the other half, stalks and all, and fed it to the cattle as fodder. With the price at four cents a bushel for the harvested crop, they couldn’t afford to haul it into town. They burned it in the furnace for fuel that winter.
In 1934, in February, when the dust was still so thick in the Minnesota air that my parents couldn’t always see from the house to the barn, their fifth child – a fourth daughter – was born. My father hunted rabbits daily, and my mother stewed them, fried them, canned them, and wished out loud that she could taste hamburger once more. In the fall the shotgun brought prairie chickens, ducks, pheasant, and grouse. My mother plucked each bird, carefully reserving the breast feathers for pillows.
In the winter she sewed night after night, endlessly, begging cast-off clothing from relatives, ripping apart coats, dresses, blouses, and trousers to remake them to fit her four daughters and son. Every morning and every evening she milked cows, fed pigs and calves, cared for chickens, picked eggs, cooked meals, washed dishes, scrubbed floors, and tended and loved her children. In the spring she planted a garden once more, dragging pails of water to nourish and sustain the vegetables for the family. In 1936 she lost a baby in her sixth month.
In 1937 her fifth daughter was born. She was 42 years old. In 1939 a second son, and in 1941 her eight child – and third son.
But the war had come, and prosperity of a sort. The herd of cattle had grown to 30 head; she still milked morning and evening. Her garden was more than a half acre – the rains had come, and by now the Rural Electricity Administration and indoor plumbing. Still she sewed – dresses and jackets for the children, housedresses and aprons for herself, weekly patching of jeans, overalls, and denim shirts. Still she made pillows, using the feathers she had plucked, and quilts every year – intricate patterns as well as patchwork, stitched as well as tied – all necessary bedding for her family. Every scrap of cloth too small to be used in quilts was carefully saved and painstakingly sewed together in strips to make rugs. She still went out in the fields to help with the haying whenever there was a threat of rain.
In 1959 my mother’s last child graduated from high school. A year later the cows were sold. She still raised chickens and ducks, plucked feathers, made pillows, baked her own bread, and every year made a new quilt – now for a married child or for a grandchild. And her garden, that huge, undying symbol of sustenance, was as large and cared for as in all the years before. The canning, and now freezing, continued.
In 1969, on a June afternoon, mother and father started out for town so that she could buy sugar to make rhubarb jam for a daughter who lived in Texas. The car crashed into a ditch. She was paralyzed from the waist down.
In 1970 her husband, my father, died. My mother struggled to regain some competence and dignity and order in her life. At the rehabilitation institute, where they gave her physical therapy and trained her to live usefully in a wheelchair, the therapist told me: “She did fifteen pushups today – fifteen! She’s almost seventy-five years old! I’ve never known a woman so strong!”
From her wheelchair she canned pickles, baked bread, ironed clothes, wrote dozens of letters weekly to her friends and her “half dozen or more kids,” and made three patchwork housecoats and one quilt. She made balls and balls of carpet rags – enough for five rugs. And kept all her love letters.
“I think I’ve found your mother’s records – Martha Ruth Smith; married to Ben F Smith?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Well, I see that she was getting a widow’s pension…” “Yes, that’s right.”
“Well, your mother isn’t entitled to our $255 death benefit.” “Not entitled! But why?”
The voice on the telephone explains patiently:
“Well, you see – your mother never worked.”
My Mother Never Worked
In Bonnie Smith-Yackel’s story, My Mother Never Worked, it was clear that the author’s mother dreaded the thought of getting married. She confessed that the thought of setting a date when she could get married, have children, and begin married life scared her. The thought of the tasks ahead of her in her married life scared her. She said, “… picturing myself with half a dozen kids to look after, it just makes me sick…” (Smith-Yackel, 2). What was there to dread about married life? Why would the thought of looking after a half a dozen kids scare her? Married life presented her with many challenges. It not only robbed her of her freedom to explore other things in life but also it became a full time job to take care of her family. The responsibility of marriage meant that she would have a full time job of looking after her husband and children and ensuring that she could provide the best for it. Unfortunately, that was not considered as work. Even if she sacrificed her whole life sweating for the benefit of her children, she did not work unless she was in someone’s payroll.
One of the most well illustrated concepts in the story was the rate at which the fact that the woman was hard working. Apart from taking care of the family and the light duties of the home, she engaged in other activities that helped the future of her family. Despite the fact that she was tow-bred, she engaged in learned other activities that could help generate income for her and her husband. She reared chicken, cows and pigs, plant and harvest gardens among other activities. She never used the hardships she faced as excuses to stop her from working. Despite the fact that the well was approximately a quarter a mile away, she never lacked enough water to care for her children and livestock. She worked hard and helped her husband clear thistles of 40-acre field and turn it into farming land (Smith-Yackel, 3). Despite all her hard work, the government could not pay her benefits because she was not employed. In her old age, no one could recognize her hard work simply because she was not employed.
Parenthood is another factor that remains unappreciated in the modern society. Parents have to work daily to provide for their children and shape them into responsible adults. Apart from being a hard worker, she was also a good mother. She did her best to take care of her children. Despite the fact that she did not have much in terms of wealth, she did her best to raise her children. She was the best mother that she could, not only providing her children with the best facilities she could but also taking them to school. She gave she children sew jackets and dresses made clothes for them to ensure that they had all they needed to survive. (Bonnie Smith-Yackel, 4). She also ensured that all her children went to school and the last-born child of her eight children graduated high school in 1959. Despite all her hard work in raising educated responsible adults, she could not get any benefits because she was never employed.
The notion of
measuring work in terms of employment papers and pay slips is one of the common
phenomena of the present day. People are considered to be working only if they
have formal employment. This notion leaves out great numbers of people that
have acted as the backbone of the economy (Westman, 45). The work some of these people do cannot be
quantified in monetary terms. Despite the fact that some of these people might
lack formal employment, their work and sacrifices as parents of the successful
people in the country makes them deserve better retirement benefits. The
definition of the word ‘working’ ought to go beyond formal employment and
consider other ventures that have helped the survival of American citizens.
Bonnie Smith-Yackel My Mother Never Worked: Crossing Boundaries McGraw-Hill, 1994
Westman, Jack C. Licensing Parents: Can We Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect? New York: Insight Books, 1994. Print.