Women’s work

The unknown histories on which the world turns

Mary Cook

Mary Cook

Photo courtesy of Mary Cook

I have just begun refinishing a cedar chest I have had for many years. First, though, I emptied its contents, including a quilt my mother-in-law made as a wedding present. Before I had babies, I would wrap up in the quilt on days I had bad cramps or on ruthless winter evenings when I lived in a little house in Montana with only a wood stove for heat. Anna Karenina is a novel I regard fondly solely because of the memory I have of sitting, warm and sleepy, in front of the stove, the quilt folded around me. I read the book two paragraphs at a time.

Once I had children, I tucked the quilt away in the cedar chest, safe from the everyday calamities of bodily fluids and snacks and felt-tip markers gone astray. When I divorced, I asked my mother-in-law’s permission to keep the quilt. She was surprised that I wanted it. To me, the quilt was art; to her, it was another homemaking task, the sort of work she knew best as a farm girl who had become a teen-aged bride and, quickly, the mother of four.

I remember the nights I saw my mother-in-law hand stitch quilts after she had spent the day doing housework, running errands for family members, tending an estranged father floundering in guilt and sickness, and typing material for her husband, a college instructor who would also have her grade homework and tests for him. He ran a small real estate office on the side for which she was the secretary.

One night she interrupted her sewing to show me the tattered, anemic quilts her mother and grandmother had made, at one time sturdy, hardworking blankets that had made the rounds of many children’s beds. I listened as she told me stories about her mother’s life, and I and was taken aback when she remarked that, to work in the fields, her mother would tether the youngest child to a tree, the older children being needed for fieldwork as well. Since she no longer used these quilts, my mother-in-law carefully refolded them after our talk and patted them back into place deep in the linen closet.

Now that my children are older, I have put my mother-in-law’s quilt back on my bed. It’s the first thing I see when I walk into my room; I feel its welcome as I cross the threshold. I lie in bed at night, book in hand, reassured by the blanket’s weight and by its thousands of tiny stitches that patiently marshal the small rectangles and triangles of old family clothing into larger squares, and the squares into a tapestry that often summons me away from my reading. As I study the stitching, I think of the gentle woman who made the blanket. It had taken her the better part of a year to complete, in the evenings, if there was time.

I think of the women in my own family, my grandmother, widowed soon after coming to America on the cusp of the Great Depression, a young woman in a strange land whose language she didn’t speak, supporting herself and her two small boys by taking in laundry and mending and by babysitting. The last few years of her life she spent in a nursing home. I traveled back to Montana to see her during what turned out to be the last summer of her life, spending several afternoons with her before I had to return home.

As I searched for her room that first day, I noticed mock front-page newspaper stories the staff had posted on the doors by way of introducing the patients. I found myself taking a different route from my grandmother’s room every day just to pause over these eerie pre-obituaries.

The men had led explicit lives: They had worked for the railroad or at the smelter, for instance, their promotions duly noted. The women’s lives could only be inferred, the women defined not just by their husbands’ but by their children’s and, as in my grandmother’s case, even by their grandchildren’s accomplishments.

The biographies of the women didn’t acknowledge the work they had done as wives and mothers: cleaning and cooking and baking and canning and gardening and jollying babies and refereeing older children and caring for failing family members and scrubbing and hanging out and ironing and mending and folding laundry—all the while gauging their husbands’ moods, the women anticipating, heading off, smoothing over. In the evenings, if there was time, they would sew, knit, crochet. No, none of this was mentioned. It was only women’s work.

While today nearly all women work outside the home, not much has changed inside. If we have diplomas and awards on the walls, we’re still the only ones dusting them—and everything else. We’re still the ones listening as carefully to what goes unsaid. We’re still the ones walking cautiously, the children on our hips there for life. All the children’s tears we gather, all their dreams we pray over through all the nights and years of our lives and, in the end, it’s just women’s work.

The world turns on it.

Mary Cook is a free-lance writer who lives in Yuba City and is a frequent contributor to the News & Review.