My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university. I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She didn’t tell me her reason to do it then, but I knew. When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.
Mom quit school early to work. She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ron, my brother. Mom was bright. Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write. She taught her father to read English when she was a girl. In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, paced – determined, also. He was smart, although illiterate in his native language. He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.
So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself. The life of a working class woman in that era intervened. She was married and divorced by the age of 22. She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman. Although she had greater earning potential than my father, she quit her job when she married again. That’s how things were done.
When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week. She must have read all of the books in the “mystery” section of that library. It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries. In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles. Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary. For awhile as an undergraduate, I flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.
When Mom and I left the Center Street Library to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead. I see now that Mom was living her mantra, handing it to me: “you learn something new every day.” I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand. And I came to see that the learning that comes every day is not always in books!
Mom taught me how to wash clothes, too. During summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes. I remember the smells – the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer. Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear. Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing. Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes. I know the smell, I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air. As I write, I can smell the air, too.
If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries. Like most of what has been held and used over the years, that wooden stick is gone.
I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis. She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words. “You learn something new every day.” I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.
The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books. I keep your mantra, Mom.