Read an Excerpt of Beyond the Silk Mills

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January 1911:

Emma trudged toward the neglected gray wooden apartment house where the usual five wastrels crowded her Fair Street stoop in Paterson, New Jersey. She wore her still presentable green woolen coat and a flowered kerchief securely tied against the wind. The heavy black leather satchels, one in each hand, slowed her usual quick pace. It had been a long day, and Emma kicked an empty cigarette box out of her way. The street was quiet except for the clip-clop of the ragman’s horse on the cobblestones. His wagon was loaded, and he was heading home.

Her sample cases were stuffed with an assortment of Wanamaker rust-proof corsets, intended to cram slack-bodied housewives into the shapely cinch-waist form of Harper’s Weekly models. Emma had shown a dainty De Bevoise figure-forming brassiere and a silk petticoat to her most discriminating customer. ‘‘Rosila dear, I brought something especially for you, because with your fine figure, you should have such luxury,’‘ she said. Rosalie didn’t buy today, and Emma thought she might choke on her own words.

She mulled over her day’s sales as she walked. Mrs. Golden, two dollars. Mrs. Hellman and her daughter, three dollars. Mrs. Beck, two dollars. Not bad. After paying Bessie her seventy percent for the garments, Emma’s commission would be a little over two dollars for the day and about ten for the week. Soon I’ll bring home more than Meyer, God willing. She frowned while thinking of the money that her husband earned, even though many wives would be happy to have the thirteen dollars each week. Skilled weavers like Meyer were well paid in the silk industry.

The boys on the stoop squeezed over to make room as they saw her approach the apartment house. She knew they didn’t want to catch hell from her wicked tongue today, as they did the last time she scolded them. ‘‘It’s a real shame you should sit here all day and smoke cigarettes when your parents need some money. You should go to work.’‘

‘‘Hello Mrs. Epstein.’‘ Morris jumped to his feet as she approached. ‘‘Can I carry your satchels upstairs?’‘

‘‘Thank you, Morris,’‘ she said handing them over.

‘‘Hello, Mrs. Epstein,’‘ the others muttered as they moved aside to make room for her. ‘‘Ass kisser,’‘ they whispered to Morris when he edged by them.

The boy led the way into the tiled hallway, black and white tessellation in need of repair. It was bright enough to see, although it was almost time to light the gas wall lamps that illuminated the dark hall and stairwell. Emma looked with disgust at the peeling wallpaper while she followed the boy upstairs. Falling apart, and it stinks from Sara Bromberg’s cabbage every Friday. Anyway, thanks God I get a little respect here.

She unclenched her cramping fingers, curved and stiff from carrying the sample cases and scrutinized her long slender hands with neatly trimmed fingernails. How long can my hands stay attractive with this life? Emma had conjured an elegant lifestyle before coming to Paterson, New Jersey from Poland twelve years ago, but schlepping corsets door to door did not prove to be the path to wealth.

‘‘Thanks to you, Morris. Your mother, God rest her soul, would be proud of your manners. She wanted that you should be a mensch,’‘ Emma said when he deposited her satchels. She smiled as she watched Morris nod and race down all three flights of stairs, no doubt to reassert his standing with his buddies.

Emma stood between two pitted wood doors on the third-floor landing. She sighed as she turned the knob and walked through the one on the right. Meyer had returned home from the mill and had lit the gas wall lamps in all of the rooms to welcome her home. They shone with a warm yellow glow beneath the frosted glass covers. ‘‘Here, Dolly,’‘ he said as he met her in their front room. ‘‘Let me help you with your coat. I’ll put your satchels inside, and you can sit down here on the settee. I’ll get you some tea. Here. Rest.’‘

At that moment Emma had a fleeting vision of the Meyer she had fallen in love with years ago in her father’s home in Lodz. She could see his kindly brown eyes crinkled at the outer edges when he smiled and his black hair brushed back in wavy ridges. His neat thick black moustache. He’s still taller than me by a few inches, maybe five foot eight. It was a disconcerting moment, a transposition of time, until the long-ago image lost its hold. In reality he still had his thick curly black hair, kind eyes, and well-trimmed mustache, but at thirty-seven years, more than half of them spent working over a loom, he had lost the vigor of his youth.

As she sat down on the settee with teacup and saucer perched on her lap, she recalled when Meyer had come to her Balut ghetto in Lodz looking for work. Emma’s father had hired him to help with the looms, because her older brothers Harry and George had gone to America, leaving only the younger twins Dave and Joe to tend the looms.

Emma was immediately taken by his good looks and his quiet manner, but most of all by his energy, his tension waiting to explode. She flirted; he fell in love. When she was eighteen, Meyer went to America. She was full of hope when he sent for her the next year. She had long dreamed of leaving the crowded alleys of that Jewish ghetto. Now instead of hope she had nightmares about returning to Balut, to the draymen’s shouting, horses snorting, the never-ending rattle of the weavers’ shuttles, the tailors’ raspy curses, and the whirring of their treadle machines.

Ach! Enough. If only Meyer had used his vigor and charm to make a worthy life for his family instead of wasting his gifts as a mere weaver, not even a foreman.

She raised and dropped her shoulders, sighed, and got up from the settee. With her teacup in hand, she walked through the open double doors into the kitchen. Their four-room apartment was luxurious compared to the one-room wooden shack that had housed nine people back in Lodz, but Emma had expected more than this rundown apartment house in the Paterson immigrant neighborhood.

She noticed that Meyer had added coal, stoked the black cast-iron stove, and set out the large pot of chicken soup that she had prepared last evening for tonight’s Sabbath dinner. “Thanks God Harry made a gift of this oak icebox to keep the chicken soup from spoiling,” she thought as she opened the back hallway door to retrieve cooked carrots from it. She bit her lower lip hard to avoid yet another comparison of Meyer’s disinterest in wealth to her brothers’ prosperous business, shaking off her own fleeting remorse for discounting his thoughtfulness.

She peeked into one of the two bedrooms off the kitchen to greet her young daughter. Sophie was seated at her worktable, her head upon her schoolbook, having untied her hair ribbons. Her thick brown curls spilled over the table’s surface.

Emma’s long curls had been the same when Meyer fell in love with her. Her thick hair was her glory, shiny and flowing, especially in summer when she could wash it more frequently.

‘‘Sophie, wake, my sweet one. Dinner is almost ready.’‘

‘‘Mama, I’m tired.’‘

Emma clicked her tongue and raised her eyebrows. ‘‘You wouldn’t be tired if you didn’t stay awake so late reading your books. Homework is one thing. Cheap novels are another.’‘

‘‘But Mama, these stories are real,’‘ she said as her round deep-blue eyes widened. Her dark lashes fluttered with rapid blinks. ‘‘They tell how horrible the factories are for the workers. Young girls have to stand all day in bad light and dusty air making shoes or cotton cloth, and even weaving silk right here in Paterson, and Papa says that it is all true. Papa says that something really bad is going to happen…’‘

‘‘Papa! Papa looks for trouble. Come, eat.’‘

Emma returned to the kitchen to ladle the chicken soup into bowls. Meyer stood over her and picked up the noodles that had slipped from the bowl to have a little appetizer, even before the Sabbath prayers. ‘‘Sleeping again,’‘ she told her husband as she nodded in the direction of Sophie’s room. ‘‘Why do you talk about those horrible books with her?’‘

‘‘Emma, let’s not argue about the mills again. Sophie is kindhearted, and she feels for the workers. Let her be.’‘

As the family sat down to dinner, the daylight had completely faded, and the gaslights flickered on the yellow-papered wall, creating soft shadows. It was a homey kitchen with its Sears and Roebuck oak sideboard and bright cotton rugs on the wooden floor. Emma closed the kitchen curtains to block her view of the peeling paint on the building across the alley. She felt better for having erased the intrusive scene even though she couldn’t see it in the darkness.

Meyer exhaled the stress of his day. Every evening he sat back in his kitchen chair to enjoy the warmth of the coal stove and the yellow of the gas lights, the acrid fumes to which the family had become inured. The steam radiator erupted with a clanging noise and then a hiss, as comforting heat from the coal furnace in the cellar made its way up through the pipes and filled the room.

Emma laid her good white linen cloth on the worn oak table and brought out the few pieces of yellowed porcelain plates with delicate pink roses that still called to mind her mother in the old country. These had been her dishes many years ago. There, too, were the knives, forks, and spoons whose silver plating had long ago lost their luster. Her few possessions were merely a shadow of the originals. And me? Have I lost my luster too?  

Emma shook off her gloom and called to her daughter. ‘‘Sophie, come to the table.’‘

Sophie ambled in and took her seat. The family sat at the kitchen table with eyes closed, welcoming the Sabbath peace. Emma struck a match, covered her eyes with her hands as tradition dictated, and recited the rote blessings as she lit the candles. ‘‘Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam ….’‘ But even as she praised and thanked God with her mouth, she tainted her prayer with earthly reflections on her meager worn out possessions.

She recited the prayer over the bread, broke off a piece of the challah, and passed it to Meyer and Sophie.

‘‘Meyer, my brother Harry told me that again he offered you a better job,’‘ she said. ‘‘He wants you to watch over the weavers in the mill.’‘

‘‘Emma, bless the wine, and then I want to talk to you about—’‘

‘‘Why are you so stubborn, when we could leave this neighborhood? We might move to a bigger apartment, maybe a little further uptown…’‘

‘‘Emma, stop. I don’t want to ruin your Sabbath,’‘ he said as he poured the wine, held his silver goblet aloft, and blessed the fruit of the vine. As a socialist, he was an unobservant Jew, but he conceded to his wife’s upbringing in this way.

‘‘What? What ruin?’‘ Emma said as soon as Meyer said, ‘‘Amen.’‘

Meyer drew in his breath. He spit out his words with deliberate precision. ‘‘I quit my job with Harry this morning. I never want to be a boss.’‘

Emma’s face reddened, and she felt a sudden nausea. She put her palms on the table to brace herself, her heart pounding. This couldn’t be.

‘‘But to quit your job all of a sudden? Where will you go? What is to become of us and our dreams?’‘

Sophie, spoon in hand, lowered her head over her soup bowl. She squeezed her eyes shut. Splash! Her spoon dropped into the bowl. Then she pushed her chair from the table and fled to her bedroom.

‘‘Look, Emma, what you are doing. How can a child be happy in this angry house? I’ll go to her.’‘

‘‘Never mind, Meyer. She can eat later. Tell me how you expect to put bread on the table, never mind pay rent and put clothes on our backs. How can Sophie make her way in the world if she dresses like a poor immigrant? Tell me that.’‘

‘‘Emma, Emma. I’m a good weaver, a good worker, and I’ll find work elsewhere. These dreams of riches you speak of— they are your dreams. You have always known that I don’t care about money.’‘

‘‘But they are for Sophie now, these dreams,’‘ Emma said as she shook her fists.

‘‘Be calm. Sophie is a fine girl. She doesn’t need money to make her a better person. You must understand, my love, how wrong it is for me to take your family’s money. I have to stand in solidarity with the workers when we rise against the mill owners. What do they give us to show for our labor at the end of the week? Next to nothing.’‘

‘‘Well, that’s the truth! Not much to show.’‘

‘‘Emma, I can’t stand above my comrades and be a supervisor in your brothers’ mill. I will look for work in Doherty’s mill on Monday. There I can be a help to my comrades.’‘

‘‘Now I think you are crazy. Why can you never give up on these strikes? What does it get you? We suffer without your pay, and their wives have beautiful new dresses from the seamstress, while I sew my own clothes.’‘ It’s the same like in Poland. Always about the workers and strikes. Emma buried her face in her arms.

‘‘Emma, Emma,” he said patting her shoulders. ‘‘You knew when we married who I was. I wish that I could make you happy like we were in Poland and even here in America when Sophie was a baby, but I can’t become a capitalist parasite living on the work of others to give you riches.’‘

Emma sat up straight, lips curled, and she glowered. ‘‘What am I going to tell my brothers? They didn’t come to America and slave to build a family business for you to throw their kindness back in their faces.’‘

Meyer didn’t respond. Emma stared at her plate as they finished their Sabbath dinner in silence. Then she glanced sideways at Meyer. He’s a stubborn man, this husband of mine. With her thoughts roiling, she struggled to control herself to the end of their meal, and then she left the room without another word.

That night in bed she lay stiff and unyielding next to Meyer, only inches away but elsewhere in her thoughts. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but her anger was too close to the surface. What a fool he is. He’ll never change after all these years.

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