Sunday, April 09, 2006

THE FACTORY GIRL. She was born in 1922 in Hartford, Connecticut. Her family moved to Canada when she was young. We never quite got why, nor do we know why at age 15 she left her family to live with her Aunt Jo in Bridgeport. Evelyn didn’t like to talk about her past. We figured she had her reasons.

But she did come to Bridgeport, which was then a factory town full of jobs. Though Evelyn had only an eighth-grade education, she actually found work as a payroll clerk at Harvey Hubbel and then IGA Rubber, I think. It is easy to imagine her among the thousands clocking out at 5 pm of a weekday, walking with the crowd from the industrial district near the Housatonic River up to Main Street. Some days I suppose she grabbed a bus; on nice days maybe she walked home to Aunt Jo’s. I’m sure sometimes she stopped at Sol’s for a drink with friends. People liked her. She had the sweetness that often comes out of hurt.

She was 34 before she trusted a man enough to marry him. He was a handsome fellow with brown eyes and tightly-waved hair – I bet some of her girlfriends called him a greaser. He was about Evelyn’s age, and had been to the war, and then had knocked around Bridgeport at different jobs without ever really lighting on a career. His own father had a little success, but the son didn’t seem to have the same drive, or luck. Still, he was a good man, he worked hard, he dressed nicely, and he had a beautiful smile. They married, and quickly had a son.

They moved to a little house on the North End. They had a daughter, and I believe that was just what they wanted: a little boy and a little girl. Maybe that was when she was happy.

Evelyn stayed home while her husband worked, or looked for work. She got pregnant again. Her husband got a job driving trucks for General Electric. On his days off he re-sided their little house, worked in the little yard. He’d always worked hard, but now he seemed to work harder than ever, sweating more than a man should. One night he got up to go to the bathroom and it was only a few steps from their bed to the toilet but he couldn’t make it. He fell like a tree, and she couldn’t get him up.

Evelyn took her children to the funeral. She sat with them as her husband’s relatives came to the house and took food from the kitchen table and tools from her husband’s basement workbench. Her baby was stillborn. They dug up the cemetary plot, a little coffin was placed on the coffin of her husband, and the dirt was poured back into the hole.

Evelyn made sure that her living children were alright. She enrolled them in St. Patrick’s, a working-class Catholic grammar school with separate entrances for boys and girls, an asphalt recess yard, and nuns. She car-pooled with other parents to bring them to and from school. Every day she fed her children three meals appropriate to what she had been taught about nutrition. Each dinner contained one portion of meat, one portion of starch, and one vegetable. Sometimes she included a little bowl of salad. "Eat your salad," she told her children. "It digests your food."

Her children were different from other children: less secure, easier to tease. The best Evelyn knew to do for them was to make sure they had nothing to be ashamed of. She dressed them meticulously, and made God-damned sure that they did their homework and minded their manners. Adults appreciated this more than children did, but at least her kids knew they were right about something, and that helped them, to a greater or lesser degree, through their days.

While her children were at school Evelyn cleaned her house methodically, vacuuming the curtains, standing on chairs to dust the cabinets, pushing her mop deep into every corner and twisting it fiercely. She was still cleaning when her children got home. They heard her iron hiss and fizz as she worked it into the ironing table she had set up in the living room, as sunlight streamed through the little rectangular windows of the side door. They watched her mend clothes on a Singer sewing machine in the kitchen, and heard the dark hum of the motor when she pushed the plastic lever with her knee. And they saw her rubbing her skull at the kitchen table every month as she studied the bills.

She always managed. When her husband’s Social Security and Veterans’ Administration benefits weren’t going to make it, Evelyn worked part-time at some of the places that had employed her when she was a single girl. She didn’t take the bus or walk now, though; she drove; downtown Bridgeport had become lawless and scary. She didn’t stop at Sol’s for a drink either. She would have her drink on weekends, when old friends would come to her house and sit at her kitchen table and drink and play pinochle and sing old songs. Or she would have it at night, when the kids were in bed, and listen to sad country music on the record player. I don’t know where she picked up country music, but it seemed to suit her.

Her children got restless and talked back sometimes, but they never became bad kids, nor bad adults. The daughter lived with own family down the road; the son went to New York, and didn’t visit as often as Evelyn liked. The house was always clean. Friends came over sometimes with bottles and chips, and Evelyn took pleasure from that until the friends either died off or couldn’t get around much any more.

By then she couldn’t get around too well either. Her daughter visited often, cooking for her when she couldn’t handle it herself, and finally taking her into her own home. Evelyn’s son started coming to see her more frequently, but there was not much time left. And then time was gone.

Not all the gaps in this story are due to interests of space. There is a lot I don’t know about her. As I said, she didn’t like to talk about the past. I have just a few facts to work with, and some of them are shaky. The only thing that I am quite sure of is that she loved my sister and me. It may be the only thing in the world that I am sure of.

Here is a strange thing about that: I thought that when she died I would feel, besides the obvious sorrow, a very specific loss, the loss of her love. But I don’t feel that. I guess her love for us is something that has a life outside of hers. She had made it with her own hands, and she built it, as they used to build things in those old factory days, to last.

Good job, Evelyn.

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