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washing clothes
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The Help Got Eight Dollars A Day And Carfare
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Hindsight is often described as 20/20 while foresight is at best a dim image of the future. Prior to viewing the movie “The Help” but after reading the reviews for this movie, I was struck by the parallels of the movies characters and my own mother’s experiences.

My mother’s experiences are viewed through the eyes of a boy aged five years through the early twenties and reflect my observations now as a seasoned adult.

Quiet Dignity My mother was “The Help”, a domestic that did day’s work so I can speak with authority and credibility. Although she did not have to wear the trappings, a starched uniform, of a domestic; her occupation and those of countless other women was evident on the faces and expressions of the women leaving for work at very early hours in the morning and returning home tired late in the evening.

Some of you aren’t old enough or only have the images of movies to put this into context but as the oldest child I remember domestics were paid eight dollars a day plus carfare. This days wage symbolically represented and demonstrated the courage, sacrifice, love, and quiet dignity that was required to hold a family together.

Eight dollars a day plus carfare, amounted to the total wages paid to domestics for house cleaning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is the amount of money that I remember my mother made. Surprisingly, this was not the starting wage, the starting wage was in fact $5.00 a day plus carfare during the 1950’s through the early 1960’s. This daily wage was payment to clean the suburban homes of Mt. Lebanon, Sewickley, North Hills and other similar communities. This daily wage also included the responsibility of assisting and I use this word lightly with the “raising” or nurturing of the young children in those homes as well as washing clothes and any other assigned tasks.

Love Although, my mother may have been outside our home for eight to ten hours a day I never once felt neglected or alone. She had to spend more of her waking hours with the children of the homes she cleaned simply because she could not be in two places at one time. Maybe I was too young to feel anger or resentment but I always felt loved and whole as an important part of our family. Those children do not know how blessed they were to have my mother as a part of their lives. Knowing mom, she helped mold and establish values they were not aware of but have contributed to their life.

Unlike today, this day’s wage did not come with a defined benefits package; no health-care, disability, life insurance, or pension plan. However; this day’s wage did come with carfare because few of us had cars and public transportation was the primary means of getting around. If you got sick, you did not get paid (unless you had a kind employer), if you were injured or wanted to attend a school activity for your child you did not get paid which is probably why parents were absent from significant events in those days. Yet despite her absence, Mom, would heap praise on your contributions or achievements because her love knew no boundaries. Mom’s love and spiritual presence continues to strengthen still today.

Courage Pittsburgh was a heavy industrial town known as the Steel City in its heyday and my mother was strong as the steel that came out of the hot J&L ovens on the South Side of Pittsburgh. The mills, when steel was a major industry in the United States, worked three shifts around the clock, employing thousands of men, and the red glow from the furnaces could be seen lighting the sky at night. My mother’s sense of purpose and resolve was her strength because she knew she had to make it happen that day. We lived our life day to day! She could not be sick nor could she be hurt, you had to work through the pain. You cannot plan much further out than the next day because you get paid day to day and the next day was not guaranteed.

Pittsburgh was a diverse community that on the surface did not appear to display animosity or racial discrimination but if you peeled back the layers of society, racial discrimination was there. It was disguised and evidenced by the neighborhoods where you could live. Discrimination was disguised by the types of employment that was available for folk during this era. Typical jobs were preaching, teaching, working at the post office or collecting garbage. A precious few were able to join the police force but ironically I never knew or saw anyone that worked for the public transportation system particularly as a streetcar conductor.

Carfare to ride the streetcar cost about twenty-five cents ($0.25) for a one-way fare which may or may not have taken you anywhere near the home that had to be cleaned that day. So can you imagine that in addition to the $8.00 per day you also got $0.50 more for your trouble of walking many blocks or several miles for the privilege of cleaning another home other than your own. More importantly, you walked during the heat of the summer, during rainstorms, and the cold snows of winter with head bowed praying for the strength to make it through another day.

Before she went to work early in the morning she made sure that we were up and had left breakfast on the stove for us to eat. As I remember breakfast, it was always hot oatmeal left in a double boiler. Lunch, because we came home at noon, consisted of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich supplemented by a can of tomato soup that I heated up. I ate this lunch so often that it was several decades before I again ate peanut butter and jelly and tomato soup. Today, it has become comfort food, a resting place for my warm memories.

When Mom came home in the evening, she always had time to smile and chat as she cooked a hot meal for our supper and only scolded us when we got on her nerves. She continued working around the house during the evening with other household chores until it was time to rest. In hindsight her day never seemed to end and rivaled that of the manufacturing schedule for J&L Steel.

I have moments of reflection as I drive to work and I see the black and brown faces getting off the bus in the suburbs or walking down a sidewalk to work. In my mind’s eye I can see my mother making it to work or at the end of a long work day late in the evening standing proudly and waiting for the streetcar to take her home. Not too many years ago my mother was doing the same thing trying to provide for her family and these thoughts stir deep emotions inside that well up and could rock a battleship at sea.

Sacrifice Eight dollars a day plus carfare is a real life story about a family that despite the economic circumstances rose above the ebb tide as a result of sacrifice, love and quiet dignity. I can’t begin to describe sacrifice and love without getting emotional. After I graduated from High School and was in college, Mom, without fail would send a letter with $5.00 once a week to me with words of encouragement. This was not only for the first year but she sent that $5.00 a week for four years while I was in college. That $5.00 was a whole day of work for her she voluntarily sent even though my younger brother and sister were at home. Mom never complained but she shared her love and encouragement through her strong sense of purpose to get a degree and become somebody.

This is but one of the many sacrifices both tangible and intangible that she made during my lifetime which has served to keep me humble and mindful of my responsibility to help someone.

Quiet Dignity It could not have been easy enduring indignities over 30 years of house cleaning but she endured it with a quiet dignity and grace that I find remarkable and have tried to emulate. We never had all we wanted but we had all we needed from a parental and spiritual perspective. She was unable to shop for new clothes for herself but we always had what we needed to return to school in the fall; new jeans, shoes and a winter coat.

Mom was always a fast walker and as a kid when we went shopping in downtown Pittsburgh she would walk so fast that I almost had to run to keep up with her. Even walking fast she held her head high and spoke to everyone in passing as if she were an important celebrity. I guess in her way she was a celebrity but only those close to her knew of her celebrity.

The Help’s wages of Eight dollars a day plus carfare is more than a story for me it is a life’s lesson that I have embraced and cherished. It has sustained me during some of my most challenging moments and has helped to chart a course through life based on sacrifice, love and quiet dignity. I hope that you will embrace these same concepts and “The Help” in you will share your symbolic eight dollars a day and carfare with someone you know with love, quiet dignity, and grace.


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