Her life, now, is constrained by dementia, age, and a recent stroke. But my mother’s fascinating and full life stretches from the beginnings of the Great War to the mess of Afghanistan, 2009. The daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, one of her jobs at General Mills in the early 1940s was answering letters as Betty Crocker. She knew the whirlwind nature of a World War II romance. In 1957, as the United States was fretting about the implications of the Russian launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, she designed a Sputnik Halloween costume for her first grader. In the 1960s, she helped women get abortions and advocated for migrant workers. By 1970, she participated in the Women’s Strike for Equality (and wondered if my father noticed she hadn’t cooked dinner that night). Without the resources of Facebook to keep her family connected, she wrote wonderful letters (in triplicate – one for each daughter). Now, she is in a fragile state of health. But this simply means it is not too late to celebrate this American woman – who never accepted “No” as a final answer. I say “Yes!,” a resounding yes to the life she has led.
Let me plunk her down in the middle of the 1960s in a chicken coop. She’s gone there with Willard, a physics professor and a Quaker, his wife Laura, and Tom, a Methodist minister. They are there to clean it. Dried, flaking chicken shit is flying everywhere. All of them have been very involved in improving the living conditions of the migrant workers who arrived in Western New York every summer to pick crops. Each year in January, farmers would fly to Puerto Rico to hire laborers. Then, when they were needed, the men would be flown to Buffalo and from there be taken to lodgings the farmers provided. Mom and her friends had learned that a local farmer planned on keeping his migrant workers in an old chicken coop. They went to inspect it and were shocked by its condition.
That day they returned with buckets, soap, rags, and determination. With my mother (and the others as well) determination always prevailed. After hours of cleaning, they felt the place was habitable. And for many, many years, they laughed about the day that they returned home covered in white.
My father was a local attorney, and represented many of the farmers whom Mom was encountering in her work to improve migrant camp conditions. On another occasion, Willard and Mom went to the migrant camp of one of the large growers in Chautauqua County. Each spring, he brought about thirty-five men up from Puerto Rico to help him plant the tomatoes and vegetables. In the summer, he would add more men to help with the picking. By the fall, when the grapes had to be picked, he had about eighty-five men in his lodging. The rooms that housed the men were each about 8 by 10 feet, with double bunks. The little stove they had to cook on was an open gas flame burner. The cook slept on one of the bunks in the second tier, and had hung a blanket from the ceiling to keep the light from the open gas burner out of his eyes. The blanket was suspended perilously close to the open flame. Willard and Mom saw this fire trap and Mom reported it to the gas company. The gas company came and replaced the open stove with vent pipes and an enclosed heater.
The farmer was really angry about that because the gas company immediately sent him the bill. The next time the farmer saw Willard he referred to my father, who was the farmer’s lawyer. The farmer complained, “he’s such a good lawyer, if he could only control his wife.”
I love these two stories! Before anyone claimed that shit happens (and caregivers know that fact for a truth better than anyone!), we kids knew that chickenshit happens, hazardous conditions exist, and as a result advocacy and good buckets are always needed. Yes, Mom showed us how chickenshit happens. It’s what you do about it that matters.