That’s the title of the newest songfest of the Labor Heritage/Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus. We will be presenting on July 20 at 7pm at the First Unitarian Universalist church in San Francisco as part of Laborfest, the annual celebration of the labor movement that takes place in July (Laborfest.net). As part of our “opera” about immigration, Director Pat Wynne asked some of us in the chorus to read our own family stories. Please join us on July 20. Here is my contribution.
I come from a long line of white people. DNA testing shows I’m 100 percent European, mostly Scandinavian and Irish.
While I have wished for some colorful genes in my makeup, it turns out I’m really white. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a rich cultural background. My Swedish grandmother and Norwegian grandfather brought their culture with them when they immigrated at the turn of the 20thcentury.
In 1922, they settled in the Yakima Valley in Washington State, a place run by racist xenophobes whose mission was to make America white again by driving out Japanese and all nonwhites. In that period nativism ran rampant. In 1924, when the population of Yakima was only 20,000, 40,000 people came to a KKK rally where a thousand robed KKK members marched in a parade.
The xenophobes in Yakima and elsewhere were able to successfully construct a racial identity, the “white race,” made from hundreds of diverse cultures, people who spoke different languages and dialects, people who had themselves been the victims of oppression, as a way to successfully divide the population. My Scandinavian grandparents were American patriots. They were flag wavers. But they did not identify as the white race.
The Irish side of my family immigrated around the time of the potato famine of the 1840s, what the Irish call “the starvation” because the crops they grew and harvested were shipped to their English overlords, leaving them to starve. A million Irish people died during the starvation and a million more emigrated.
Tom Hayden said that Irish immigrants had more in common with blacks and slaves than the white rulers who starved and oppressed them. Before epigenetics became a thing, Hayden made the case that we have all been affected by the plight of our ancestors. “That the Irish are white and European cannot erase the experience of our having been invaded, occupied, starved, colonized and forced out of our homeland,” he wrote.
Hayden wanted to break the assimilationist mold among Irish Americans. He wrote,
“If Irish Americans identify with the ten percent of the world which is white, Anglo American and consumes half the global resources, we have chosen the wrong side of history and justice. We will become the inhabitants of the Big House ourselves, looking down on the natives we used to be. We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”
The definition of white has changed significantly over the course of American history. Europeans not considered white at some point in American history include: Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Irish, Swedes, Germans, Finns, Russians, French and Jews.
Now, a century after my grandparents immigrated, as militias form to “protect” the white race from foreigners, I choose not to identify as white. I don’t deny my white privilege, but I believe white is a false construct, again being used to divide us.
As a young feminist I tried responding to male groping by groping back, pinching male butts at parties, just as I’d been pinched. I treated all men equally, pinching and groping without discrimination. That got me in trouble with male friends who were outraged—partly at my forwardness (women can’t do that!), but also that I’d think they might do that to women. They really didn’t like being treated as objects. Well, neither did I. It’s the opposite of sexy.
So, ok, some men don’t grope women. All men are not afflicted with frotteurism, the psychologists’ word for the desire to grope unconsenting victims. But, as we’re now learning, oh so many are. My father was one.
I saw him do it. One time at the end of a party in the grange hall, he walked up behind a woman who was taking dishes into the kitchen and grabbed her breasts with both hands in a kind of bear hug. She just kept walking and I yelled at him. I don’t think he even knew who that woman was. He was drunk, so that was his excuse, but he didn’t apologize or even seem to think he needed an excuse. WTF Dad!
And there were many other times, when we gathered in groups and alcohol was present. With Dad, alcohol was always present.
In 1978 my parents traveled to visit me in my collective house of four lesbians in San Francisco. I wasn’t yet out to Dad as gay and my mother asked me not to tell him. She made the argument that she would be the one to have to deal with him when they got home and she was only saving herself trouble. That made sense to me, but I refused to take down the lesbo posters or change anything about our lifestyle. Every day I’d ask Mom if Dad had figured it out yet. He never did (I came out to him a few years later).
By the end of the first day my dad had visited all the bars in the neighborhood, made friends with all the barflies and picked out his favorite bar where he would hang while Mom and I went to the theater or did only-in-San Francisco things.
One evening my roommate pulled me aside to tell me my father had groped her. I was stunned. You invite your father into your house and he gropes your housemates?! I struggled to understand. What was motivating him? Who would not see this as totally inappropriate, or at least extremely rude behavior? But, as I remember, he never apologized, even after being confronted. He wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. I wonder if my father would have groped my roommates if he’d known that we were all lesbians, but I doubt that knowledge would have made a difference.
In every other way Dad behaved like a proper gentleman, a courteous guy who seemed to want everyone to be comfortable. He didn’t swear and wasn’t happy when I took up swearing. He used to lecture me that it takes fewer face muscles to smile than to frown. He believed in smiling and I’ve come around to his view. I just hated it when men told me to smile, which happened with regularity in my work as an electrician.
Dad was a working class guy who never finished high school, but he wasn’t closed-minded. He believed in equality of the sexes and was politically progressive. Of course, he and all of us kids were influenced by my mother, an accomplished woman who’d made her own way in the worlds of work and war for many years before marrying.
My father was a product of his times from a generation of men who could be categorized by the female body parts they most ogled. George H.W. Bush is a butt man. Dad was a tit man. They were born ten years apart—GHWB in 1924 and my father in 1914, so I’d say they were of the same generation in which popular culture permitted and encouraged ogling and even physical violence against women. Men aspired to be “David Cop-a-Feel.” Beating wives and children was accepted practice.
We all have a natural curiosity about people’s bodies. I’ve always been fascinated by bodies in the public baths or sauna. They are so varied! And we are usually so clothed! But, although I believe consensual touching is something no human should be without, I never had an unrestrained desire to touch them, men or women.
One theory about groping comes down to something called projective identification. According to psychologists it’s a pretty common process in human nature that basically means you attempt to make others feel a way you don’t want to feel yourself. The desire to grope unconsenting victims, frotteurism, is a paraphilia. Paraphilia is intense sexual interest and arousal by objects, body parts, fantasies, or situations that do not ordinarily stimulate sexual desires. Masochism or a foot fetish, for example, are paraphilias. Was groping an affliction that my father could not overcome? Is it really a sickness? Is there a cure? (apparently not–all these rehab programs are bullshit). But of course it’s much more complicated and we all acknowledge there’s an underlying power dynamic. Dad called himself a feminist and I think he truly did like women, but some Neanderthal part of him must have seen women as less than.
I still struggle to understand. Was my father even aware of his reputation as a groper, or did he practice self-deception? Was he ever ashamed? What was going on in his head? How did he rationalize this behavior? Did he know he was causing women discomfort? What did he think was going on for them? I did have some heart-to-hearts with him, but never on this subject.
Women in general don’t get it. We are from different cultures in a way. Men’s behavior is reinforced within their own male culture. But when I ask male friends to explain the disgusting behavior exhibited by their gender, they claim to be as perplexed as I, saying it’s a sickness or that (other) men do it just to see if they can get away with it.
This is some odd tic of the male of the species that just doesn’t resonate with me. It’s like daddy from another planet. The same species, but different. I can’t really explain it and I bet if I could ask my dad, he couldn’t either.
The name Orr implies an anonymous other, a potentially magical alternative to the status quo. At least that’s what we think in my extended family.
Orr is my paternal grandmother’s maiden name and so hidden from us except that it is my brother Don’s middle name.
It was my brother searching for our family history who discovered that the Orrs have a gay gene. When he got on the ancestry websites he discovered quickly that others had already researched the Orrs. One of the first he encountered was a man who lived in San Francisco and Don called me, breathless.
“He lives in Noe Valley and I think he’s gay,” gasped my brother.
“Oh my goddess!” I exclaimed. “That’s practically next door to me. What makes you think he’s gay?” I know this about my brother: he has highly refined gaydar.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s how he writes. I wrote to him and he got back to me. The ball’s in my court. What do I do now?”
“Did you get his number? I’m calling him right now.” I know this about my brother: he’s shy where I am not. It was my family duty to follow up and make the call.
And that’s how we got to know Richard, our third cousin. We are all descended from William Burgess Orr and Catherine Hart Orr who lived in Iowa in the mid-nineteenth century.
Richard and I discovered we have friends in common. He lives within walking distance of me in San Francisco and I visit him often. On one visit he gave me a framed photo of our shared great great grandmother, Catherine. She looks sternly into the camera with steely blue eyes.
Richard became our ancestry guru, supplying research and stories about our shared ancestors. He confided that we have another “bent” cousin, Sherry, who lives in Colorado, his home state.
We began to throw around the idea of the gay gene, but it wasn’t until recently when another “bent” cousin surfaced that we decided our research is definitive. Her name is Deborah and she lives in Oregon. We’ve all arranged to meet up in San Francisco for a bent cousins dinner.
Now, whenever we meet an Orr we just assume we are related, especially if they are gay. We just know we are related to Tom Orr, the talented performer and lyricist who lives in Guerneville. Now that we know we share the gay gene, perhaps we can also claim to share the song-and-dance gene. I know this about my brother: he is a singer and a dancer.
Flo was awakened in the middle of the night by some kind of howling. It sounded like an animal in distress. She was a light sleeper, so she gained consciousness quickly and it didn’t take long to realize the sound was coming from downstairs, inside the house. She threw a robe over her nightgown and rushed down the stairs, her feet brushing the bare floor.
The howling emanated from her parents’ bedroom. There she found Gerda doubled over at the side of the bed keening, holding her husband’s head. Ben’s face was gray but his expression peaceful. He had died in his sleep, painlessly at least, thought Flo. She embraced her mourning mother, hugging her for several minutes as Gerda wailed.
They had known this day would come, but that had not lessened the shock. Ben had been ill with heart trouble for some years and had been recovering from a recent heart attack.
Flo tried to comfort her distraught mother. She would have to take control of the situation. She would grieve later.
Betty and Ruth came out of their rooms at once to find Flo consoling their mother.
“What happened?” they wanted to know, but it was a question born of shock. They knew it was Ben.
“This will ruin my wedding,” wailed Ruth without thinking. Flo glared at Ruth.
Gerda sat on the bed, still sobbing. Her girls surrounded her and offered comfort.
“He said to me this morning that his heart felt hollow,” sobbed Gerda. “If we had taken him to the doctor he might still be with us.”
Flo was closest to Ben of all the daughters. He had set great store by her and made his high expectations clear. Flo had loved him dearly, sharing his appreciation of reading and politics. She was proud of both her immigrant parents for having worked so hard to make a life in a new country. They were exemplary Americans and she had tried to follow their example in her own life. Ben was only 58. What a sad thing that his life had been cut short so young. He had done his very best to support their family during hard times, taking any jobs he could find during WWI and then the Great Depression.
Life on the farm at Meadowview for the girls had been a delight. They were too young to do much work and so they got to play, as long as they stayed away from the train tracks, which ran nearby. Ben and Gerda cut the meadow with a scythe and pitched the grass into piles with pitchforks.
The haystacks had been such fun to play in, but now Flo was keenly aware of the work that had gone into harvesting the hay for their one cow. In her mind she could taste the tart fresh buttermilk that was left after Gerda had made butter and paddled it into the buttermolds. But as a child she was unaware of the effort that went into the making of butter. Gerda had to milk the cow twice a day every day and churn the butter by hand. Then it was stored under the floor through a trap door that Ben had made with a screen-covered frame for foods that needed to be kept cool.
Gerda now had an “Easy” copper washing machine with an electrically operated wringer. She used two tubs for rinsing and bluing. But on the farm she had washed clothes outdoors by hand using a galvanized tub and washboard. Clothes were hung to dry outdoors in the summer and on lines strung across the kitchen in the winter. Flo remembered her mother hunched over her treadle sewing machine making clothes by kerosene lantern, and her father’s rounded back as he worked at keeping the books, squinting to see in the dim light.
Ben had grown delicious strawberries and now Flo was thinking too of the work that went into planting, irrigating, harvesting and marketing. She remembered the brooder house where Ben had incubated the eggs and the pens where rabbits were raised for sale. Ben had taken all the produce and animals to the little town of Junction City five miles away to sell. During the school year he had also worked as teacher and janitor in a one-room schoolhouse nearby teaching all eight grades. The farm had been a losing proposition, but had failed not for a lack of hard work. Their parents had given it their all before they had reluctantly sold it and moved into town where Ben found a teaching job. At heart he had been a teacher and artist, not a farmer. Still, after they moved to Yakima he and Gerda had worked the hop fields in the summers when Ben was not teaching. The family also worked picking brush in Gerda’s sister Ellen’s apple orchard in Selah. Aunt Ellen often “forgot” to pay the girls, but Ben had earned 15 cents an hour, $1.50 at the end of the day, enough to buy some bread and hamburger.
Goodbye to Meadowview
Flo’s note on the back of the photo
He had worked until his heart gave out. After that Gerda and the girls took over. Flo pictured Gerda mowing the lawn, sweating in the sun in her house dress and straw bonnet while Ben lay in the hammock they had put up for him on the front porch, his nitroglycerin nearby in case of an angina attack. Was he ashamed to be seen there by people driving by on 16th Avenue, a man loafing while his wife did the man’s work?
Had Ben regretted fathering five daughters and no son? He had never once indicated that, but friends and family made the assumption. One relative had even put in writing in a letter how tragic it was that there had been no boy. Flo would not allow herself to believe that her father had shared such thinking. Besides, she thought to herself, she had been the best son that Ben could ever have.
The setting full moon shone an eerie light into the kitchen window where Flo led Gerda, sat her down and lit the wood stove to make coffee. The family had prepared for this day and knew they needed to make funeral arrangements quickly in such hot weather. The doctor must be contacted to certify the death. A funeral date must be agreed upon and relatives must be contacted. Ben had two brothers in the US. Erick had gone to the Yukon during the gold rush and still lived there in a one-room cabin. Flo took out a pencil and note pad and began making a list of out-of-town relatives who would have to be sent telegrams. Ben had a small insurance policy and Gerda hoped it would cover the cost of his funeral.
Their father was gone. Life would never be the same in the Wick household.
Flo was thankful for her driver’s license and use of the family car. It gave her the freedom to attend Biz-Pro and YWCA events in other towns in the Northwest, and easier access to meetings and social events at the homes of friends. Having use of a car afforded real power, the kind of power that was mostly reserved for men. She had taken her driver’s test as soon as she turned 16 when she graduated high school in 1929, and she had been the family driver ever since.
Flo had even gotten good at fixing flat tires as they happened with regularity. She and her mechanic had recently solved the mystery of the 52 flat tires the Model A had suffered in recent years. They traced the cause to nails from the old wooden sidewalk on 16th Avenue that stuck up through the asphalt after the road was paved.
After Flo picked up Ruth at the county building, they stopped at the butcher’s shop on the west side of town to pick up Betty, who had taken over the shop’s bookkeeping for her father since his heart attack.
Gerda had dinner nearly ready when the three sisters arrived home. Flo found Ben sitting in the back yard at the foot of Gerda’s vegetable and flower garden in the shade of the big cherry tree reading the evening newspaper. She pulled up an Adirondack chair to sit with him.
“How are you feeling, Dad?” Flo couldn’t help worrying about her father.
“Oh, I feel like I’m on the mend. Soon I’ll be out working in the hop fields again,” he joked. Ben had not been able to do any physical activity for the past three years because of heart trouble and now since his recent heart attack he was confined to a desk where he could do bookkeeping or a chair where he could sit and read or work on his art.
Flo recalled the family’s frequent trips to the Cascade Mountains to fish and swim in Bumping Lake and the Yakima River. The mountains of Washington reminded Ben of the Norwegian mountains and the landscape of his childhood. He had been born Bernt Evensen on a farm near the little fishing town of Borsa on a fiord about half way up the Norwegian coast. Ben’s favorite excursion in his adopted country had been to Mt. St. Helens to pick huckleberries in late summer. He loved camping at Spirit Lake just at the base of the mountain. Ben often drew the mountain and its lake and he had completed a tourist advertisement titled “See Washington First” with a pen-and-ink drawing of the mountain. There would be no trip to Mt. St. Helens to pick berries this season, thought Flo sadly.
She took Ben’s arm and they walked through the bountiful garden filled with flowers. In the far corner was the spot where Ben had dug a little grave and buried the fetus that Gerda had miscarried some years before. The coroner had not reported the stillbirth so as not to charge them for any burial costs, and they were allowed to bury the remains themselves. Gerda had wrapped the fetus in the blanket she’d been knitting along with baby hat and booties. Had it survived, the baby would have been a boy.
The temperature had begun to cool off. Betty and Ruth brought an oilcloth and table settings out to the picnic table near the garden to avoid the heat of the kitchen where Gerda had been canning apricots and cooking much of the day.
Wiping her brow with a handkerchief, Gerda came out of the kitchen to sit with her family for a few moments before dinner. She still wore her long graying hair as she always had, braided in one long braid, wrapped in a bun and pinned on top of her head. She removed her wire-rimmed glasses and wiped them carefully on a hanky pulled from her apron pocket.
“You look a little peak-ed,” she addressed Flo, putting a hand on her daughter’s head and smoothing her hair. “Are you feeling alright, dear?”
“I’m just very happy to be home from that hot office. I feel all wrung out,” sighed Flo.
Gerda had made potato salad earlier in the day and put it in the icebox to cool. Ruth set it on the table along with freshly picked corn from the garden, boiled over the wood stove. With the stove already hot for canning, Gerda had also fried chicken in rendered fat. She had sacrificed the old hen that had stopped laying, chopping off her head with an ax, gutting her, then dipping the bird in hot water before plucking her. There was fresh butter, too, cucumbers in brine, and iced tea.
The family sat down to eat and Ben said the prayer. They could be thankful for many things. They had each other. Although the past six years since Ben had been let out of his teaching job had been hard times. Flo could not help but wonder if her father’s Democratic politics had played a part in his being laid off in 1932 at the nadir of the Depression. The superintendent had laid off a man with a wife and four children to support while keeping on a single woman in the commercial department of Yakima High School, very unusual at the time. Protocol required women, single or married, to be let out before any man.
“Remember when we went to high school together, Dad?” said Ruth. “You went to teach and we went to learn.”
Three of Ben’s daughters had attended Yakima High School while he taught business mathematics, bookkeeping and penmanship there. For Flo and Ruth there was no shame at having their father there, in fact for them it was rather comforting. But sister Eva could not contain her embarrassment when she overheard her friends making fun of her father’s foreign accent and calling him a blockhead. His office, such as it was, had been relegated to the basement, an indication of his low status.
“Remember when we met Orville Douglas your first year at the Yakima High School faculty picnic?” said Gerda. “And now he’s William O. Douglas and he’s been appointed to a big job in Washington DC. We met Mildred too, the woman he married.”
“Yes, I was sorry to see them leave Yakima,” said Ben. “Mildred Riddle was the best Latin teacher Yakima High School ever had. She was quite an intellect.”
Ben had overlapped only one school year with William O. Douglas, who had taught English and coached the debate team, but soon enough they were known as the only two Democrats on the faculty. People joked that they were the only two Democrats in Yakima County. And now Douglas had been appointed by FDR to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. Their father’s friend from Yakima had gone to Washington DC and made it big. It gave them all hope.
Flo pulled the Model A into the gravel parking lot at the State Highway Department offices, a single-story brick building on a back street of the little town of Union Gap. Its just-watered closely cropped lawn sparkled in the morning heat, an oasis in dusty brown surroundings that had once been the location of the huge U&I Sugar plant.
Union Gap had been the original Yakima before the Northern Pacific Railway bypassed it in 1883. In 1884, in response to that snub, the whole town, over 100 buildings, was moved with rollers and horse teams four miles north along the Yakima River. After that, the new town of North Yakima grew while Union Gap remained a one-horse town just at the gap between Ahtanum Ridge and Rattlesnake Hills where the Yakima River flowed toward the Columbia.
The office building had stayed relatively cool during the night, but was already heating up when Flo arrived just before 8 a.m. Someone had set electric fans around the office to circulate the air. Temperatures above 100 degrees were not uncommon in the summer. People said it was a dry heat and that was supposed to somehow make it feel less hot. The district chief engineer had put in for an office air conditioner but the state chief’s office, located in the relatively cool western part of the state in Seattle, had not yet been convinced of the need.
The Union Pacific Station
Flo greeted her coworkers, all men since the other female stenographer had recently been laid off when she had married. Jobs during the Depression were reserved first for men, and married women were not allowed to work at all, unless the job was agricultural—picking fruit or sorting it in a packing warehouse. Plenty of women and children worked in the fields and orchards and lived in the surrounding labor camps.
“Good morning, Theron, how was your engineers’ meeting?” she asked the tall blond young man as she went to her desk.
“Very productive,” he replied. “I was elected president of the Engineers Association. Now I’m out to take over the world, one road at a time.”
Flo had been dating Theron B. Stone on and off. It was nothing serious, if you asked her, although he had clearly been courting her. They would go together to dances and engineering events. He had driven her and a group of friends to Snoqualmie Pass to witness the historic paving and widening of the highway that crossed the Cascade Mountains from western to eastern Washington. They’d all had a fine time picnicking near the summit.
But Theron had made some crucial errors. First he had given Flo a subscription to the Reader’s Digest after learning about her love of books. She had accepted gracefully, thinking all the while that anyone who really knew her would know she disdained the Reader’s Digest and that she would instead want to read the actual books themselves.
“The engineers have hairy ears. They live in caves and ditches. They screw their wives with butcher knives, the dirty sons of bitches.”
His other error was to reveal to her the secret motto of the engineers: “The engineers have hairy ears. They live in caves and ditches. They screw their wives with butcher knives, the dirty sons of bitches.” What did he expect her to do with this information? she wondered. How was she supposed to react to something that appeared to her to be disgusting, vile and, at the very least, inappropriate? She had smiled uncomfortably to conceal her shock and perhaps he had been sorry he’d said it. But the words could not be taken back. It had changed her view of the men she worked with. Could they really want to screw their wives with butcher knives (surely they didn’t really do it) and why would they want to do it in the first place? The whole thing was very puzzling, but she had not asked Theron to explain.
On the whole, Flo had a positive relationship with all who worked at the Highway Department. She had started working there just out of secretarial school at 18 and the men had teased her mercilessly. She was a naive rube in a sea of cynics. The practical jokers chose her, the youngest and smallest, as the butt of their endless pranks. The young stenographer’s face remained in a permanent blush for the first year she worked there. But she was a good sport and saw that the attention grew partly from the mens’ fixation on a pretty young woman in their midst. And now she was an old hand at 25. She knew them all and had learned how to play along.
The constant ribbing was one reason Flo had joined a women’s organization, Business and Professional Women. There she met other young workingwomen and they could commiserate about their jobs and talk about ways to improve them as well as just having fun with each other away from the men. The national organization fought against laws that prohibited married women from working and supported equal pay initiatives. Women’s pay was far less than men’s, even when they worked in the same jobs. Through Biz-Pro under the umbrella of the YWCA, Flo had already traveled to the big cities of Chicago, Columbus and Minneapolis as well as Seattle and towns in the Northwest. Her sojourns away from the small town of Yakima fed dreams of traveling to New York, Paris and London.
Flo’s desk was a handsome oak government issue with three drawers on the right for typing paper and carbon paper, envelopes and typewriter ribbons. The shallow drawer above the space for her oak rolling chair held pencils and pens. Her best friend and most important tool was the Royal typewriter that sat on its stand next to her desk. It featured typewriter ribbon with both red and black colors. To get red she only had to lift the carriage with a lever. Flo’s mastery of the typewriter had grown during her year at secretarial school. She was a fast typist who made very few mistakes, and that was good as mistakes were not easy to fix. All letters were typed with two carbon copies. Each carbon would have to be pulled apart and erased with a typewriter eraser before being retyped, so it was far better not to make any mistakes at all.
When one of the engineers called her into his office, Flo took a steno notebook and pencil to record his thoughts in shorthand. Then she would recompose his letter using proper English and grammar as she typed it. The bosses, who often did not excel at writing letters, depended on her to make them look good.
The Washington State Highway Department was tasked with engineering, building and maintaining the state’s roads and highways. In 1938, teams of engineers were assigned to survey the state’s entire highway system. There were several high mountain passes and thousands of miles of roads under the department’s purview. Engineers were in demand in Washington in the 1930s as FDR’s New Deal funded infrastructure projects across the state, including the Grand Coulee Dam, bridges, sewers, stadiums and, of course, roads.
The office workers took lunch at noon daily, leaving one person to answer the phone during the half hour while the others ate. The men routinely brought their lunches to work, made daily by their wives or mothers. On nice days the workers could walk over to the Yakima River to eat lunch under a cottonwood tree. On this day Flo remained in the office with the electric fans rather than confront the blazing sun outside. Her mother had packed a butter sandwich, a tomato from the garden and some fresh apricots for her lunch.
Flo looked forward to lunch break when she could be alone with whatever book she was reading. Today it was Man’s Hope by Andre Malraux in a new English translation, about the Battle of Teruel in the Spanish Civil War. The war continued although things were looking bad for the Republicans. The fascists had bombed the town of Guernica the year before, killing hundreds of civilians in the historic first targeting of civilians by a military air force. It was the shape of things to come.
While typing up a chart for the roads survey report, a thing that required lots of underscores to make the horizontal lines, Flo felt a the dreaded hot gush of blood of her period. She was wearing a pad, but she knew from past experience that the pad might not absorb gushing menstrual blood. It could quickly stain her underwear and her skirt when it came out so fast. She grabbed her bag with its supply of Kotex and walked quickly to the bathroom, hoping it was free. There was one toilet room for all the employees in this office and very often it was in use, but she found the door unlocked. She rushed in and locked the door. Sitting on the toilet, she found that the blood had overwhelmed the pad and stained her underpants. The sight of the pad covered with bright red clots repulsed her and made her queasy. It sometimes seemed to her that her period was like birthing a baby every month. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and intense pain from cramping often came with it.
She was relieved that she had chosen a dark skirt to wear. When she examined it she found her skirt was still unbloodied. Luckily she had thought to bring an extra pair of underpants with her. She quickly washed out the bloody underpants, wrapped them in a wax paper bag and stuck them back in her bag. She used a wet paper towel to clean the insides of her thighs where the blood had seeped over the sides of the pad, then put on the clean underpants and a new pad. She wrapped the stained pad in a paper towel and pushed it to the bottom of the wastebasket hoping the used towels might absorb any smell. Then she swallowed two more aspirin from her bag with a glass of water from the sink. Someone was trying the door. She unlocked it and saw Theron there. She exited with as much aplomb as she could muster. The crisis had been averted although she still had four hours to go till the end of this workday and the possibility of another accident loomed.
The stifling afternoon moved along tortise-like. Flo downed more aspirin to dull the radiating pain. She desperately wished to lie down in a cool dark room. By the time the workday ended at 5:30, the office temperature was nearly as hot as it was outside. The thermometer on the wall read 85 degrees. After changing her Kotex pad once more, Flo bid goodnight to her coworkers and left the building to drive home. At least there was a slight breeze outside. She would pick up her sisters at their workplaces.
“Breakfast, girls,” called Gerda. She had already been out to open the chicken coop and the hens’ cluckings came through the open upstairs window. The smell of coffee boiling wafted up from the kitchen below where Gerda cooked breakfast on the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Gerda always served coffee in the morning, and also as the Swedish custom, in mid-afternoon. This afternoon the coffee would be cooled with ice delivered weekly by the iceman. Betty and Flo made their way down the steep stairs.
The family had taken out a mortgage for $3500 to buy the house on 16th Avenue South in 1921. It had been built by Gerda’s brother, Albin Lunstrum, who had brought his carpentry skills from Sweden. Most of the houses on Johnson’s Corner, the Swedish neighborhood, had been built by hand by Albin and his brother-in-law partner, Axel Jacobson. They were boxy two-story clapboard-clad frame houses with generous front porches, a popular style at the time. The family had come to Yakima after having failed at chicken farming near Roseburg, Oregon during WWI. When Ben was offered a teaching job at Yakima High School, Gerda was happy to join two sisters, two brothers and some cousins who had also immigrated from Sweden.
Ruth smiled good morning from her place at the dining room table which she had set for the family. She had fixed her light brown hair in a neat Marcel wave and she wore a floral cotton dress. Her well-scrubbed rosy cheeks shone with radiant good health.
“Don and I have set the date for our wedding,” she blurted. “I wanted to wait till you were all here to tell you. It will be August 30 at the Presbyterian Church. Of course I want my sisters to be bridesmaids.”
“Congratulations!” chorused her sisters, mother and father.
“Will there be time for Momma to make your dress?” asked Betty.
“Oh, I won’t need a dress. I can wear the suit she made me last year. It’s very stylish,” Ruth said.
“Gee, you’re in an awful hurry,” said Flo. “Where do you and Don plan to live?”
“We’ll find an apartment in Yakima. Of course you know this is all your fault for introducing us.” Ruth was looking forward to having her own home, away from her bossy older sister.
Flo was happy for her sister, but worried about the family’s welfare. She silently calculated the loss of Ruth’s contribution to the mortgage payment. Ruth brought in $60 a month from her job and she could thank their father for that. He had rung doorbells for the Democrat running for county auditor who had won the seat in 1934 in the wake of FDR’s election two years before. Ruth got a patronage job and now she would lose it when she married. Women were expected to give up their jobs when they married and there were even laws prohibiting married women from working. She and Flo had paid the hospital bill for their father’s care after his coronary. If he ended up in the hospital again it would be all on Flo this time. Ruth would be a married woman starting her own family. At least with the vacated bedroom they would be able to house a boarder, thought Flo.
“Good morning Daddy. How are you feeling?” Flo bent to give her father a kiss on the cheek and a hug. At 58, Ben was looking old. His still abundant head of hair had turned from black to gray and his blue eyes seemed sunken.
“I’m feeling quite well today,” he answered. “Did you see that we got a letter from Eva yesterday? She says she’s doing well in her nursing program. I think my brother Erick’s loan to her was a good investment.” He had retrieved the morning Yakima Herald and was dividing the sections to be shared. Both Flo and Ben usually read a book or newspaper as they ate. For breakfast this day Gerda served homemade toast, boiled eggs she had collected from the little hen house and the first of the fresh apricots she had gleaned from the Pacific Fruit Packing Co. The canning season had begun and Gerda was preparing to get started on stone fruit. As hot as it was, this would still be a canning day. Gerda had procured boxes of culled apricots from her seasonal job as a fruit packer and they would spoil if held for processing. Apples, the primary crop of the Yakima Valley, did not ripen until the late fall.
Flo scanned the front page. It seemed little news was good in this Depression year. Five of the Negroes who had been attacked earlier in the month by a mob of 200 whites in Wapato had filed a lawsuit against the local marshal, deputy marshal and the county sheriff for failure to enforce the law and protect them from the mob. (They would later lose in court.) The Anti-Japanese League, the American Legion and the Grange were still harassing Japanese farmers in the Lower Valley where they leased land on the Yakama Indian reservation.
“The American Legion is still trying to run the Japanese out of town,” said Flo. “No matter that they’ve been here longer than most of the Legionnaires.”
Abroad, Jews in Germany were being ordered to report to police to receive identification cards. The war in Spain continued, but, even with thousands of volunteers from around the world joining the Republicans to fight, Franco’s fascists were winning with Hitler’s help.
“Why won’t our government take a side in this war and send armaments?” asked Flo. “Can’t they see this is the ultimate fight for democracy?”
“I don’t think public opinion supports our intervention,” said Ben. “But that doesn’t mean it’s right.”
In Yakima, agriculture was always front-page news. The cherry crop, harvested in the first week of July, had been ruined by the hot weather.
“The farmers complain every year, no matter what the weather,” said Ben flatly. “It’s either too rainy in June or too hot in July.”
Orchardists and farmers nervously geared up for harvest season, hoping they would have enough migrant workers and that labor agitators demanding higher wages would stay out of the Valley. A strike by the Wobblies had been put down five years earlier and the stockade built to hold the strikers still stood downtown, daring any to stand up for better conditions in the fields and orchards. None had.
Farmers advertised for migrant labor and migrants traveled from Mexico and other states hoping to find work. They were housed in several labor camps called shacktowns. Some had tiny cottages built by the farmer. Others were built by the migrants themselves of scraps of wood and found materials. Growers did not want to let the migrants get too comfortable. They were urged to move on after harvest season.
After breakfast Flo would drive the family Model A to work at the State Highway Department in Old Yakima several miles away, dropping off Ruth at the county offices downtown. Betty would take the streetcar to her part-time bookkeeping job at the butcher’s on the west side of town. Ben had a summer break from part-time teaching jobs. Gerda had arranged for her sister Anna to come over to help her can the apricots.
Flo slid into the driver’s seat and put on the horn-rimmed glasses that corrected her nearsightedness so she could see to drive. Girls with glasses were seen as bookish and unattractive, and she only wore them when absolutely necessary, never when her photograph was being taken.
Flo sometimes imagined that the four sisters were like the sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, although the comparison didn’t altogether work. They had lost a sister to typhoid fever just as the March sisters had lost Beth to scarlet fever, but Elizabeth had died at seven, not 17, and that was 18 years ago now. The Wick sisters hadn’t written and produced plays like the March sisters had and they weren’t genteel poor like the Marchs, just plain poor. But Flo saw herself in Jo, the tomboy reader, writer and intellect of the four. She pushed against the constraints of gender and rejected the idea of romance and marriage just as Jo had in her youth. As the oldest sister after Elizabeth’s death, Flo saw herself as the family caretaker, not in the traditional female role, but as the wage earner who took over the father’s role after he had been laid off from his teaching job six years before. The school superintendent who laid him off seemed to think that Ben’s four daughters could support the family and Flo took up the challenge.
As I delved into my mom’s scrapbook from her time as a Red Cross “donut girl” in Europe during WWII, I began to wonder what motivated her to sign up for a job so close to the front lines in the war. What were Americans in small towns thinking about the wars in Europe and how were they affected? I was moved to look into my mother’s childhood and young adulthood in Yakima, Washington, and that research resulted in my last essay, Make America White Again, about the roots of racism in my hometown. I just read a fascinating book of creative nonfiction, We Were the Lucky Ones, by a young author, Georgia Hunter. It started as a blog about her Polish Jewish family and how they escaped the Holocaust during the war. That book inspired me to look deeper into my own family history.
So before I jump into WWII, I want to explore what my mother and her family’s lives were like as Europe was gearing up for war and the US was still stuck in the Great Depression. I chose to tell their story in one day, July 27, 1938, in five short chapters. Chapter One follows.
July 27, 1938 started out hot and it just got hotter. Flo and her younger sister Betty had left the window in their upstairs room open all night but when the alarm woke them the room was still hot.
Flo had come in late the night before after Betty was asleep. When they were both awake she confronted her sister.
“Where were you yesterday? I came by the butcher’s to see if you wanted a ride home after work. Were you with Cecil?”
Betty’s face reddened. “Well….”
“He’s a married older man, Betty. He will destroy your reputation.”
“There is nothing going on between us. He just likes my company and he gives me things. Look what he gave me.” Betty opened a small box to reveal a gold necklace.
“This is terrible,” rasped Flo. “You must never accept these things from him. Return it to him and hope Mama never sees it.”
“But I don’t want to give it back,” complained Betty. “Look, here’s proof I’m a good girl.” She pulled from a large envelope a certificate signed with three names. It was titled The Senior High Society of Christian Endeavor DIPLOMA and it certified that “Betty Wick has for three years been a member of the above mentioned society of the First Presbyterian Church of Yakima, Washington, and that now she is affectionately graduated and earnestly commended to the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor.” It had the gold corporate seal of the church with a red and a white ribbon pasted on.
“I’m sorry,” said Flo, gently putting a hand on Betty’s shoulder. “You must return the necklace. Tell Cecil your family says these gifts are not proper.”
Flo did not know what to do with her younger sister who, at only 16, seemed so very different from herself. But she loved her dearly and put some effort into protecting her from their mother’s wrath. Their Swedish mother, Gerda, had early on been influenced by her own sister Ellen who had joined the Pentecostal church and who believed that movies, dancing, playing cards and makeup were deadly sins. Flo and Ruth, the oldest sisters, had been most affected by their mother’s religious piety, which forced them as teenagers to lie about attending movies and to wipe off makeup before going home. By the time the youngest sister, Betty, came along, Gerda’s strict rules had relaxed but she still expected rigorous moral standards to be met.
The sisters each had their own bed ever since their two other sisters, Ruth and Eve, had taken live-in housekeeper jobs. Ruth had recently returned to the family home when she got a job as a stenographer. She now slept in one of the downstairs bedrooms. Betty, who was still in high school, had shared a bed with Eve as a child and Flo and Ruth had slept together. As kids, the four sisters had all shared the one big attic room accessed by a narrow unlit stairway from the kitchen. Gerda, a master of many skills, had hung cheery yellow flowered wallpaper, painted the fir floor a dark red and made a braided oval rug from scraps of wool left over from old clothes people had given her. One light bulb hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It cast light through the window into the yard at night indicating that Flo was reading instead of sleeping. Their father, Ben, would see it and call up the stairs, “Turn off the light.” Sometimes she did, recalled Ruth.
Neither sister wanted to get up. Betty liked to sleep in whenever possible, but that was rarely allowed in this household where early-to-rise was the rule. Each had her chores, although Flo, now the main breadwinner in the family, was exempt from most household chores. Gerda took care of the cooking and canning, shopping, washing, ironing, sewing and knitting of clothes, gardening and cleaning, with some help from the girls. Ben was still recuperating from a serious heart attack, which had landed him in the hospital a couple of months before.
The sisters took turns using the indoor toilet and sink in the downstairs bathroom where they also dumped their chamber pots. Bath day was Saturday and all family members used the same water from the little tank in the kitchen heated by the wood stove. The youngest went first with poor Dad last. Sponge baths at the sink supplemented bath day during the week. Flo was feeling sticky and grimy on this Wednesday. To make matters worse, she saw blood in the toilet. Her period had started, which meant she’d be in pain with cramps for the next couple of days. She found the bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet above the sink and swallowed two pills, taking the bottle with her. At least she didn’t have to wear rags as she had when her periods had first begun, but Kotex pads were just one more expense to deduct from a tight budget. She found the box of Kotex hidden behind folded towels in the linen cabinet and took several to hide in her bag to take to work, making sure she was not seen. Menstruation was something to be hidden and not talked about, except with her sisters.
Flo was glad for the family’s indoor bathroom and running water. In their last home on the chicken farm in Meadowview, Oregon, they’d had only an outdoor privy with a Sears catalog for toilet paper and a water pump near the back porch. She returned to the bedroom to dress.
“How was your gathering last night?” asked Betty.
“It was great fun. We took the potluck out to Mrs. May’s lawn. We’re planning for the summer party next weekend up in Naches.”
Flo had been out the night before with her sorority sisters at their bi-monthly meeting. She had pledged the working girls sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, in 1933 and become the chapter president in 1936, organizing the social outings as well as discussion groups and business meetings. She was now a central person in the sorority and in the Business and Professional Women’s group, representing them at conferences around the state and at national events. She was a busy woman, working 44 hours a week as a stenographer as well as spending many hours doing organizational work and singing in the Presbyterian church choir.
Flo pulled newly bought cotton underwear from their shared dresser. Since she had been working she’d been able to afford her own underwear and some clothing, although Gerda sewed most of her wardrobe. Betty still wore the underwear Gerda had made from bleached flour sacks—crude brassieres, underpants and garter belts.
Flo picked out a white cotton blouse and darker-colored mid-calf cotton skirt to wear to work. It would be hot in the State Highway Department office too. As she rolled on rayon stockings to her knees, she thought about their father, whose health had been poor for the past several years. He had gone back to working as a bookkeeper and part-time teacher after his heart attack because the family needed his income. During her school summer vacation Betty had been helping him with the bookkeeping job at a butcher shop. Flo wished he didn’t have to work at all.
Their wardrobes may have been skimpy but the one thing the sisters had plenty of was shoes. Flo loved shoes that showed off her shapely ankles and legs. The year before, she had won a year’s supply of shoes for a slogan she had composed for Fashion Week. Her winning slogan, out of 40,000 entries, read: “I like Paris Fashion shoes because…their smartness and quality make feet fashionably well-shod and comfortable….Their reasonable price keeps them within my budget…yet does not cramp their style.” She had allowed Betty to pick out one pair of the eight she had won and the shoes still graced their shared closet. Flo was always submitting essays, ditties and slogans to contests, and she seemed to win most of them. The year’s supply of shoes was the prize she was most proud of.
As they each combed and shaped their short dark hair into place before their shared mirror, Betty tapped Flo’s arm. “What’s eating you, sis?”
“Oh, I’m just worrying about Dad. I know he says he feels better but he seems so fragile since his heart attack.”
“Well worrying won’t get you anywhere. Let’s put on a happy face for him.”