The one place in town where she was able to find a job was a textile factory, once JP Stevens, then Stevcoknit, now closed. My mom was bright and motivated, and a pretty 31-year-old then (holy Christ, much younger than I am now), and she landed a relatively cushy job pushing paper in the office of the mill, as it was called by all who worked there. In our tiny town, "I work at the mill" was readily understood. Mama threw herself into her job, and refused to let her coworkers' negativity and inability to adjust to change deter her from figuring out new and better ways to do her job.
But, when the cuts inevitably came, she was the one with the least seniority (this was not a union shop -- unions barely exist in the South -- though there were a number of union members at the mill), and she lost the cushy office job.
She went onto the floor. It was actually a pay increase. I think she may have made as much as $8 or $10 an hour. Her soft mother's body turned to steel. I'd never been able to beat her in arm wrestling, but after she'd been pushing bins full of bolts of knit cloth, it wasn't even a contest. I don't remember the details of her job, but she worked hard, physically, from the time she arrived at 8 in the morning, until she left at 4.
At some point after she'd been doing this job for a while, her supervisor suggested she join the Stevcoknit Safety Committee. There had long been a faded sign covered in chipped white paint and once-black letters announcing the number of days since the last lost-time accident. The Committee had a contest for the best new safety sign design, and she entered and, unsurprising, won, creating an acronym -- SPARKY, I think -- and a multi-colored robot-esque boy wearing a sideways baseball cap and holding a placard with the days-since-lost-time-accident number.
Members of the Safety Committee were also encouraged to bring up safety violations or to discuss things that may cause danger to the plant's workers. My mom enjoyed the committee, I think, because it got her off the floor, allowed her to do something with her mind, and made it seem as if she was actually listened to. So she told the other committee members about something that had been bothering her for a while in her area.
One of the things she did was to take bolts of fabric, usually in the 40-pound range, and stack them in bins that were just about head-height for her, a relatively tall woman at 5'8". She would fling the bolts of cloth into the bin, and then, when it was full, she would brace her upper arm flat against it and push it to the next area of the factory. Because people are inherently lazy, they didn't stop stacking once the bin was full, though. They would stack the bolts of cloth well above the top, Mama told the Safety Committee, and one day, one of those bolts was going to fall off and hurt someone.
Everyone nodded and said that yes, that seemed like it could be bad.
And she was ignored.
Within a few months, when I was about 13 or 14, she was the someone who was injured. The bin was brimming over with bolts of cloth, and she raised her right arm, bracing it against the metal bin and shoved hard with her left hand, elbow locked, and her body to get it moving. One of the precariously balanced rolls fell, landing almost squarely on her left shoulder, dislocating it and knocking her to the ground, where she fractured the top of her humerus, now no longer safely ensconced in the joint.
The pain was excruciating, and she writhed on the floor, trying not to scream. She was not one who gave in to pain. She accepted whatever illness and injury came her way without fear or tears or whining. That's just who she was. An ambulance came and took her to the hospital, where her arm was put back into joint. She told me later that it was far worse than childbirth had been, those minutes riding in the ambulance and then bracing herself as they popped the shoulder back into place.
I got home from school that afternoon, and Mama's arm was strapped to her body and her face was gray. "Are you okay?" I asked. "What happened?" I wasn't afraid. This was my mom, who treated the flu as if was a minor inconvenience, who hadn't once shown pain after her hysterectomy and who was always, always superhumanly strong, physically and emotionally.
"I got hurt pretty bad," she told me. There was pain in her face, and I resolutely tried to ignore it, to laugh it off as she would for one of my skinned knees or banged head. "Yep, you've got a goose-egg on your head," she'd tell me as my eyes watered after some stupidly brave maneuver on my bicycle, and she'd hand me an icepack and tell me to go back outside to play.
She told me what had happened, and the fury and disappointment in her voice as she told me about the Safety Committee's refusal to listen were even more painful to me than the fact of her injury.
Over the next few months as she recovered, went to physical therapy, and slowly regained some use of her arm, she went to work every day. She was not, she told me, allowed to take any time off. "That would make it a lost-time injury," she told me bitterly. Each time we'd drive past the mill, she'd glare at SPARKY, his little placard recording days since an injury continuing to count upward.
"Why do they care?" I asked.
It was, of course, all down to money.
If they had a lost-time injury, they'd be fined by their corporate overlords. It would give her additional leverage should she decide to sue them. They quietly paid her medical bills, and they allowed her to do practically nothing during her 8 hours there, but they would not let her recover at home. Not even immediately after the accident. If she took a day off, it would be coming out of her one week of paid vacation, or she wouldn't be paid at all. It's just the way things worked.
She did manage during this time to find out that she would be owed a rather substantial disability pay-out from the company. The orthopedic doctor she'd been seeing told her that she had a 39% disability in her left arm. It was years before she could reach behind her to fasten or unfasten her bra without excruciating pain. It was many months before she even had enough mobility to try. She passed the disability number along to the people in charge of such things and they balked. They needed a second opinion, from a doctor of their own choosing.
So she went off to their doctor, who said she had an 8% disability.
"Bullshi-it," she told me. She did further investigation, and found out that she could get a third opinion. She picked a doctor in Chapel Hill, one of the top orthopedic hospitals in the region (perhaps in the nation), and she asked me to go with her. We drove the 3 hours or so through the North Carolina countryside to Chapel Hill, which was tremendously exciting for me. Even then, I loved urban (meaning anything bigger than my own town) areas, and I especially loved college towns. We registered and sat in the waiting area until she was called back. I read women's magazines, marveling at what people revealed for anyone to read in such publications, until she came back, triumph written all over her face.
"He looked at my records, asked what the first doctor had said, and said, 'That sounds good to me,'" she told me as we left the hospital. "He didn't believe their doctor either, even though he didn't say that. Now I can work on gettin' it workin' right again." She smirked at me.
It took another year or more for her to finally get the disability check from the mill. By that point, my father had left, and my mom was raising the four of us entirely on her own. She took the check, only about $15,000, and we went to Wilmington. Our first stop was GMAC, where she paid off her car, which took nearly all of the check, after late fees and stupidly high interest rates and missed payments. Then we went to Hieronymous Seafood, where she'd heard they had an oyster roast on Friday nights. We stuffed ourselves silly on oysters and iced tea and hushpuppies, all gleeful at our sudden good fortune.
Bills were paid, and we were, for a moment, comfortable. Still, though, every time we drove past the mill, even after she had left to be a nurse, she glared at the now-fading SPARKY, with his ever-increasing days since lost-time accident.
|< IT SPEAKS! | My fingertips and toes are frozen to the bone. >|