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One of my grandmothers worked as a legal secretary in a Manhattan law firm, proud of her skill with shorthand and typing. Once, her boss, who was otherwise a good guy, yelled at her in front of the entire secretarial pool. Later that day he called her into his office to apologize. You shouted at me in public, she said, and you’ll apologize to me in public. Which he did.
My grandmother marched in the streets of New York as a suffragette. She had her first and only child at age forty and raised her with a love at once fierce and unconditional. This poem made me think of her, as I often do, and her hard, brave life. It hurts me to remember how much she always wanted to go to France. One of my first short stories, drafted while sitting on a bench on Sacré-Coeur, was about a young woman wandering the streets of Paris in honor of the grandmother who never had the means to travel.
My time in better dresses, by Marge Piercy
I remember job hunting in my shoddy
and nervous working class youth,
how I had to wear nylons and white
gloves that were dirty in half an hour
for jobs that barely paid for shoes.
Don’t put down Jew, my mother
warned, just say Protestant, it
doesn’t commit you to anything.
Ads could still say “white” and
in my childhood, we weren’t.
I worked in better dresses in Sam’s
cut-rate department store, $3.98
and up. I wasn’t trusted to sell.
I put boxes together, wrapped,
cleaned out dressing rooms.
My girlfriend and I bought a navy
taffeta dress with cutout top, wore it
one or the other to parties, till it failed
my sophistication test. The older
“girls” in sales, divorced, sleek,
impressed me, but the man in charge
I hated, the way his eyes stroked,
stripped, discarded. How he docked
our pay for lateness. How he sucked
on his power like a piece of candy.
Click here for more information about Marge Piercy.
My podcast: Words by Winter