How is labor history understood differently when we “read the landscape” of the domestic and the everyday? How does this change whose stories get told?
When first introduced to the field of historical geography, we typically read the narratives of places that are big and spectacular: the Mississippi River, the American West, the city of Chicago, Interstate 80. The documents of these landscapes include magnificent feats of human engineering as well as the guarded papers of officialdom establishing land rights, air rights, profit rights. Such documents tell the histories of particular people in a particular place—stories of men, mainly, laboring freely in a public sphere created by them . . . and on their own behalf.
But what about places that are small, and insignificant, and private, and unofficial, and inconspicuous? What documents do we find there of a different story of work, of another set of people?
It was with these questions, posed between layers of memoir and memory, that I embarked on a minor expedition: a pop-archaeology of my mother’s house. This landscape is tiny, mid-century, ranch, and brick—located on Spring Lane in the rural town of Delavan, Wisconsin. There I read the documents of her kitchen and her closets, her bookshelves and her basement. And I took photographs.
These artifacts reveal a woman and her work, circumscribed by the sphere of the private, of the domestic, of the rural, of the white, and of the working. Here, with their help, I try to tell her story.
“If work were meant to be fun, Siggy, it would be spelled f-u-n, not w-o-r-k.”
This was one of my mom’s choice and abiding proclamations, strategically deployed whenever her children showed signs of resisting a tedious task ahead: finishing calculus homework, cleaning our rooms, changing clothes for a weekend waitressing shift to save money for college.
Hers was stern but well-meaning advice, part of a mental fitness regime conditioning us to the small and large obligations we must meet in order to survive.
In my adulthood, her mantra recurs with some frequency as inner monologue, sometimes for its practical utility—when it’s time to scrub the shower grout, or shovel the driveway for the third time after a winter storm—but more often when I reflect on Mom’s own relationship to fun and to work, and how providing the former for our family demanded an insurmountable amount of the latter on her part, much more than most people sign up for.
Her catchphrase also served the function of a formative byword that would permanently fix my impression of motherhood. By the time I was eight years old, I understood motherhood as a project of endurance.
Married in 1956, Mom and my dad had eight children over the span of twenty-one years—six girls and two boys—encompassing more than four decades of raising kids from newborn babies to educated, self-sufficient, working adults, not to mention (or minimize) eight pregnancies and eight labor and deliveries for my mother.
She summarized the extent of her material, emotional, and ethical responsibilities every night as she tucked us into bed. She'd stand at the bunk I shared with my older brother, my younger brother in his crib in the corner, and pray the “Our Father,” invariably finishing with a kiss on the forehead and the same blessing each time:
“God bless Mom and Dad,” followed by the kids in birth order, “Lisa, Christie, Joanna, Katie, Emily, Erik, Sigrid, and Anders; Grandma Sikhart and Grandma Anderson; all our friends, neighbors, and relatives; all the poor, unhappy, sick, homeless, hungry, and otherwise suffering people in the world; may we serve to help them find peace, health, safety, and abundance. Amen.”
While my Dad's work was largely out of view, Mom’s work was intimate and familiar. The signs and sounds of it filled the house from sun-up to sundown:
The clinking of pots and dishes as she made oatmeal and toast for us at 6:30am before school; the piles of laundry twice my height on the couch and chairs and ottoman downstairs;
the humming of the vacuum; the sound of the door to the garage opening and closing as she brought in bag after bag after bag of groceries;
the loud negotiations and fierce arguments with my teenage sisters about why they couldn’t use the station wagon to go to the lake with their friends, couldn’t try out for cheerleading, couldn’t have a boyfriend;
the phone-calls with my two college-age sisters about classes and financial aid forms and summer jobs and going to the student health service if their fever rose above 101°.
In the late-afternoons, before she started dinner, she would sit at the desk in her bedroom with a cup of hot, instant tea and pay bills. Mom took charge of the household economy while my Dad worked two jobs.
The mystery of exactly how our family made ends meet was held in an antique, brass can Mom kept on the top shelf of her closet, containing utility invoices, checking and credit account statements, impressively organized clipped coupons, and a neat and elaborate hand-written monthly budget. I remember once playing in my room across the hall from hers and seeing her out of the corner of my eye, hand on her forehead, sighing.
“Endure, Shirley, just endure,” I could hear her whisper, the Iran-Contra hearings on the news barely audible in the background. Then she eventually said something disparaging aloud to the TV about Ronald Reagan; she really hated him.
Mom is a gifted seamstress. The sound of her Singer running in the evening as we did homework is a keenly memorable aural fixture. Sometimes I’d sit downstairs with her as she sewed and do my math problems, and when she took a break from the foot pedal to rip out a seam or hand-finish a hem, she’d say to me without turning around, “I love you, Siggy . . . especially when you’re sleeping,” and giggle to herself.
Anything Mom could sew—if she thought it could be made of higher quality and for less money than "store-bought"—she did. My own treasures: a black-forest green, crushed velvet roll with chartreuse trim and ties to hold all my colored pencils (like one I had seen an artist on PBS use for his brushes); a navy blue sailor dress I wore to the Harvest Festival coloring contest awards ceremony (first place!) when I was nine; a gathered, black, layered chiffon Givenchy-inspired cocktail dress for prom; a 1950s poodle skirt Mom made for me and some of my fifth grade girlfriends for the school talent show.
Mom's work had a complex temporality. Some markers of it weren’t even immediate, but anticipatory. She saved all year, exercising an Arhchimedes-inspired financial alchemy to provide a Christmas for us, committed to helping her children believe in magic and the act of giving.
Our family loved old movies and, one year, my big sister, Christie, asked Santa for a high-waisted, tea-length, flared wool skirt, cut on the bias like one she had seen Audrey Hepburn wear in Roman Holiday.
Mom couldn’t get it done in time for Christmas morning. Instead, she wrapped several yards of folded, soft, steel-gray, wool gabardine in which she nestled a Vogue sewing pattern of a high-waisted skirt. She promised to make it for Christie in the coming months, Santa's i.o.u. to be delivered by his skilled ambassador.
As her children grew, one by one, into adulthood, prom and graduation dresses became wedding gowns,
then baptismal outfits, followed by stuffed teddy bears. Today, her bedtime blessing has an addendum of fourteen grandchildren and one great-grandchild: God bless Martha, Ben, Samuel, Susannah, Ethan, Walter, Madeleine, Annie, Niels, Gaige, Odin, Connor, Zooy, Ivy, and Bodhi.
The truth is that my Mom barely sewed anything for herself. For over a decade, I remember her wearing the same black, silk-polyester shirt-dress with black heels to almost every formal function.
She lightly poked fun at herself, “Tell me, Siggy, should I wear my black dress or my black dress to the Guyler’s Christmas party?” I was a child, and didn’t interpret the pain between her words, so a few years later, when I asked her the same question to make her laugh, “Mom, will you wear your black dress or your black dress to Joanna’s graduation,” I was heartbroken as she began to cry.
Mom wasn't able to go to college. A tyrant about schooling, she ensured all eight of did. We each finished undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Three of us now hold advanced degrees. Her love, along with a good public education offered us a much wider world than the one she experienced, which was her intention all along. A world in public life, in the professions. A world of big words and ideas, of big cities, of a bigger set of rules to navigate and to confound.
"A bird's gotta fly," she told me, as I cried saying goodbye to her to move to New York City.
Mom doesn't have a piece of linen embossed paper with raised lettering and an official watermark to certify her work.
She has no social security statement in her name.
No golden watch or parachute, no retirement party with speeches and Cristal will ever usher out her domestic tenure.
The paper knowledge of the public sphere bears no real record of her, outside of her birth certificate and, one day—I hope never—her death certificate.
So, for her. . . I look for traces.