Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Poem: All His Life My Father Worked in Factories

left to right, Maria, brother Alessandro and sister Lauretta
inscription on rear of photo made by Maria's father



All His Life My Father Worked in Factories

or mills as we called them, back when Paterson
was the silk capital of the USA and was known as Silk City.
When my father was thirty he had a large tumor on his spine,
and after the doctors at St. Joseph’s removed it
he spent three months in the hospital and then a year
at home. He couldn’t work and wouldn’t let my mother apply

for welfare so we lived for a year on $300, and while $300
in 1943 was a lot more than it is now, it still wasn’t enough
for a family of five to live on. We ate spaghetti and farina
and my mother’s homemade bread every day. When my mother
was dying, she worried that the year without money–
when she couldn’t give my sister five cents to buy milk in school–
was why my sister got rheumatoid arthritis at thirty, a disease
that progressed, eventually invading her lungs and eyes.

After the surgery my father had a limp that became gradually
worse as he grew older. He was no longer strong enough
to lift heavy rolls of silk, so he got a job as a janitor
in Central High School and when that became too much
for him, he took a job watching the pressure
gauges on steam boilers to make sure they didn’t explode.
All his life, my father walked, dragging that dead leg behind him.

All his life, he worked menial jobs, though he did income taxes
each year for half the Italians in Riverside by reading
the two hundred page income tax book, and he could add,
multiply and divide in his head faster than an adding machine.
He was fascinated by politics and read news magazines
and newspapers, and knew the details of world crises and war.

When I was a girl, I worked in factories during the summers
and I moaned and complained about how boring it was,
how dusty and tiring, how I’d shoot myself if I had to do this job
for one more day, and I think of my father with his sharp intelligence,
forced each day for fifty years to work eight hours a day at jobs
so repetitive they would have bored a mouse, and the way
he never complained, never said I can’t do this anymore,
instead he just kept working, knowing he had to do it
so his children would have the soft lives he never had.





Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the author of twenty books. Her latest publication is the poetry and art collection, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets. Maria's official website is at MariaGillan.com.