Reality of the 1920s
6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning; it was time to wake mother up and help her get ready for another long week of work.
I shake her shoulders shouting, “Good Morning, time to get up!!”
She proceeds to throw a series of dramatic fits, anxious about the so-called “dangers” that awaited her at the factory. I don’t get it, I work the same job as her, attempting to help pay the bills, but I never complain. She is forty three, whereas I am only sixteen. Even so, I have had to grow up fast; motivating mother to get to work on time, and eventually joining the labor force at age fifteen. Don’t get me wrong, the conditions suck- thirteen hours of repetitive muscular exertion in a hot, disease infested environment for a meager salary of six dollars per week is not fun. The only thing that gets me through the week is the realization that my earnings are essential to the payments of our small house. Mother should know that too, especially since we cannot find other work. We have tried, but white nativists seem to resent us. They think Italian immigrants are inferior to other members of the American population, leaving our working opportunities incredibly limited.
6:30 a.m.; time to walk out the doors of our small, one room house. It is only a five minute walk to the factory, and work doesn’t start until seven, but we have to leave early to stop at the public bathrooms and wash up. Thank heavens they are so close because our house, like many others, doesn’t have running water. As we left I could hear my father, Marco, snoring from the other room, as he doesn’t have to be to work until nine. I am jealous, but I understand that women tend to get the short end of the stick in this industrializing society.
“Tie your hair up, Allegra,” said mother, handing me a hair tie.
I graciously accept the pony tail, a necessity for factory work. Last year, a lady got her hair caught in the spinning machine, and before someone had the chance to find the off switch her scalp had been cut beyond repair. She was hospitalized for months, and hasn’t been able to do much since. We then walk up the dirty street where the factory was, and start to climb the steep stairs leading to the ninth floor.
“When is the company going to understand that I don’t feel comfortable on the ninth floor? I am sick of their shenanigans, and demand that my voice be heard immediately!” said mother angrily.
“Calm down. It’s gonna be fine. What is so different about the 7th floor than the 9th anyways? The conditions aren’t any better. Remember, the grass is always greener on the other side,” I replied.
“You just don’t understand,” scoffed mother, turning her head in the other direction.
Technically work ended at eight o’clock sharp, but most days we had to stay longer to finish up our last task. Today we left early enough to have a nice family meal before we had to go to bed. When we arrived at home father was sitting on his stool, reading the paper, while he waited up for us. Based on the smile on his face, I could tell our early dismissal was an exciting surprise for him as well. Tonight, we’d be having beef stir fry, mother’s staple meal. She loved to cook, but didn’t seem to get around to it much anymore with our late work days and all. Father and I joined her in the kitchen because the smell of a home cooked meal was a rarity, and much too lovely to pass up.
Suddenly, a storm started. Thunder crackled outside the window, and heavy rain tap danced on the rooftops. I had forgotten about my mom’s irrational phobia of thunderstorms until I noticed her beginning to breathe rapidly as rivers of tears streamed down her face. Instantaneously, the biggest roar of thunder I have ever heard echoed through our house, causing mother to drop the dishes she had been carrying to the dinner table. Quick on my feet, I shut the stove off, grabbed her arm, and took her to her bedroom to try to calm her nerves. It probably wasn’t a good idea to have her cooking during a storm. Father and I ended up eating dinner, just the two of us, after putting mother to bed and cleaning up the shattered glass.
6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, but it feels like it should be Friday by now. This week has been going by pretty slow, but I don’t mind because weekdays aren’t much different from weekends for us anyways. This is my life. I go through the same mind numbing routine everyday, but for some reason, today feels different. I decide to disregard the indescribable feeling of wariness and do things like normal. Mother and I wash up at the public rest area, climb the factory stairs, produce blouses, and return home at around nine. These are all things that have practically become muscle memory by now, so I don’t know why I am feeling this way.
“Allegra, honey, will you take the laundry to the laundromat today?” my mother asks me. “I know this was supposed to be my week for laundry, but I really need to get to the grocery store.”
“Why can’t you just run errands tomorrow? We have enough food for dinner tonight,” I replied, slightly annoyed because she was always trying to find ways to get out of doing the laundry.
“Ms. Romano is letting me borrow her car today, so I can go to the cheaper grocery store instead of the walking distance one,” mother said, rationalizing her request.
“I am already having a rough day,” I stated, “but I guess if it means saving a few dollars I will.”
“Allegra, I love you so much, and you too Marco,” she exclaimed, hugging my father and I. “Goodbye, and Allegra, don’t forget to make sure all of our pockets are empty before putting the laundry in.” Father and I waved as she walked out the door.
Things to add to my list of odds for today: Mother saying I love you, and hugging me before heading to the grocery store. That was out of character for her, but maybe she could tell I was having a rough day. My father and I knew that she wouldn’t be back for a while since the store was over thirty minutes away, so we decided not to wait up for her. Before heading to bed, I went to put on my pajamas, but they were dirty. I forgot to do the laundry as mother asked, but was to tired to do it now.
3:00 a.m.; I awoke to pounding at the door. Terrified, I ran to wake my parents, but father lay there alone. I tugged his arm really hard, and yelled “dad!” in a panicked tone. His head turned to the side to look for mother, and a confused look appeared on his face when he noticed the empty sheets.
“Get up! There’s someone pounding at the door! And what did you do with mother?” I shouted at him, getting aggravated.
“I.. I don’t know, I fell asleep before she came home,” he replied, looking quite petrified.
After waiting around three minutes for the noise to go away, someone was still pounding at the door. Father and I walked over to the door and opened it cautiously, not sure what would be waiting for us on the other side. It was a local police officer with a distraught look on his face.
“Wha… what’s the problem officer?” My father managed to utter.
“Is it alright if I come in? What I am about to share will not be easy for you to hear,” voiced the strange man standing at our door.
“My mother? Is she.. is she alright?” I said anxiously, at a loss for words.
The man stepped in, and sat down on Father’s stool.
“There has been a fatal car crash, and the coroner has pronounced the driver dead. After further investigation, we believe that unfortunately, she belongs to you. A woman, around forty years old was driving alone in a black Model T, and swerved off Harrington street into a tree. She must have been avoiding an animal or something because it appears that no other cars were involved. My deepest condolences, I know this is not how you wanted your night to go, but after you have taken sometime to think this over we need you to come down to the hospital and identify the body.”
“No! It can’t be my mother!” I screamed in agony, falling to the floor, and bawling my eyes out at the news.
My father sat staring blankly into the distance, speechless, looking pale and grief stricken.
At this point, I was not in the state of mind to think these things through. I was in denial. The only evidence that didn’t make sense was the fact that she hit a tree. My mom was a fantastic driver, with a perfect record, but accidents happen to the best of us, I guess.
My father and I sat in silence for a few minutes. The world seemed like it was going in slow motion. As each minute went on, the facts became more and more real, and more and more painful as a result. We eventually got the motivation to go identify the body. I wasn’t surprised that it actually was my mother, but seeing her lying there, motionless in the body bag made everything undeniable. I felt something break inside of me. I had had a strange feeling that something bad would occur since yesterday morning, but not like this. This was tragic and absolutely unbearable.
The funeral was held the following Friday. It was a small service; just me, my father, and Ms. Romano. I didn’t feel that this was the correct way to honor my beloved mother. When Ms. Romano started speaking about my mother’s bravery and hard work, the last words my mother said to me began replaying in my head:
“Allegra don’t forget to make sure all of our pockets are empty before putting the laundry in.”
The laundry! She had asked me to do the laundry and I didn’t. This might sound stupid, but I had this urgent feeling that her last dying wish was for me to do the laundry. Immediately, I got up and raced towards the doors of the church. It was the most I had ever cried. I felt like such a disappointment. I ran home and went straight to the pile of laundry. I began unzipping the pockets of our clothing and removing things as mother had asked. I got to the jacket Mother had worn the day before the accident, and inside was a carefully folded note. The fringe had been left on the paper as if it had been ripped out of a notebook in a hurry. I opened it slowly, hesitant to intrude upon the things of my dead mother. It was a letter, and it read:
March 25th, 1928
to my loving daughter and husband,
There is something about my past that I have neglected to share with you. As you read this letter, remember I am incredibly sorry, and please try your best not to hate me. Before I met you, Marco, I used to work for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, and as you may have heard on the news, exactly seventeen years ago, a fire erupted in my workplace. I had just finished sewing my eighth blouse of the day, when I smelled a strong whiff of gasoline. I casually strolled over to the window, extremely unprepared for what I was about to witness. Thick layers of smoke poured out of the windows on the 8th floor, just one floor below us. I shrieked with terror, yelling fire and running to pull the fire alarm. Sirens blared in my ears, but that was the least of my worries, as smoke began to seep under the cracks of the doors of the room where me and over seventy others stood in fear. My heart began beating faster than a racecar. My trachea felt as if it had been clogged by cotton balls from breathing in the smoky air. Crowds stampeded towards the door, jiggling the door handle one after another just in case the person in front of them didn’t do a proper job. It was no use, as Isaac Harris, the owner of the company, had ordered our wicked boss to lock the doors to our sweatshop so we would stay on task. I already hated him for this because it prevented us from going to the bathroom, but had never been this furious and scared now that my entire life was dangling before my eyes. Boom! The fire had broken down the door and was creeping closer and closer to the ninth floor. The women surrounding me screamed and cried for their lives, and so did I. Standing by the open window, gasping for fresh air, I had given up hope. The worthless corporation of rich schemers that ran the place had failed to provide the factory with fire escapes, so the only way out was the window. Suddenly, the fire alarms were joined by the noise of fire department’s sirens. Unlike many others, I decided to refrain from jumping to my death and wait for the fire trucks to come with ladders. I could feel my lungs filling with smoke at every breath. “God damn it!” I shouted in a frustrated tone, when I realized the ladders could only reach to the seventh floor. That was the last straw, I pulled myself up on the window sill and was preparing to jump to my death when I noticed several fire men pulling out nets to catch us as we fell. “One, two, three,” I whispered to myself and then jumped for my life rather than death. I was in pretty bad shape, but I made it. The workers behind me that decided to jump in groups weren’t so lucky. The net couldn’t handle all of their weight, and ripped from underneath them. I had been scarred, and could never look at life the same way after the fire.
Besides from minor respiratory issues, and a few broken bones, I was physically okay. Mentally not at all. The horrific memories of the fire haunt my thoughts and visions every waking hour. Sometimes I experience flashbacks that remind me of the others that didn’t make it out alive. And when I am not awake, horrific nightmares replace the dreams I used to have. Going to bed used to be my sweet escape, my safe haven from the strenuous work, how could such a simple thing be ripped away from me? I don’t understand why I got to live when so many others didn’t. Every day since I ask myself, why me? What about poor Betty? She didn’t deserve to die. Never would she have thought that March 25th, 1911 would be her last day. She had a family, and kids that were given no warning at all. But me? Nope, I had arrived as an immigrant a few years before, so nobody would care if anything happened to me. I am constantly fearing for my life and have struggled doing simple, everyday things such as going to work for a while now. I am not appreciative enough to deserve the life I have been given. I don’t remember the last time I was genuinely happy, or laughed, or even smiled. Yes, I have smiled, but I mean a real smile-not a forced one. I feel that I don’t belong in this world anymore, and that it would make it easier for both me and you guys if you didn’t have to worry about me anymore. I hope and pray that I am doing the right thing. I have come to peace with this decision, because I owe it to all of those that passed on that day. I still feel that it is unfair that I get to know that today will be my last, when everyone who suffered in the fire weren’t able to. The guilt that I carry inside me has been restricting my life so much that I feel it is not worth living anymore. I should have done this a long time ago. All that I have become is a bull dozer, crushing everyone in my path that has cared for me at all. Marco and Allegra: just know that I am doing this for us. I love you more than you know and hope that the action I am about to commit will relieve you from the burden that I am. It is better this way, trust me, and I know both of your futures are bright, so please move on, and find happiness on the roads ahead of you.
With love forever and always,
Loretta J. Albani
I was devastated beyond belief. While carefully folding the now tear stained note back up and setting it on the floor beside me, I started questioning the ways of the industrial world. The fact that lower class working conditions were poor enough to make a young woman, with her whole life ahead of her, commit suicide is unacceptable. I now understand why mother was so adamant about her anger towards the company we work for. Working conditions have come so far since the Triangle Shirtwaist company fire, but there are still so many reasons to complain. From that day forward, I decided to devote my life to labor reform, with hopes that no woman would ever have to go through the hardship that caused my dear mother to end her life.