Meridel LeSueur 1939
Published: The New Masses, January 10, 1939;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org in 2001.
The girls looked in at me and sometimes they came in and asked me what was in for. How did it look outside? When was I going to pop? When they came in they had to watch for the matron, and run when she was coming up the stairs. Alice, the deaf girl, and I wrote notes and looked out the black bars at the snow.
In the cold mornings I could see the girls about to deliver walk slowly down the hall. Every night you could hear screams from someone in labor and day and night the kids squalled in the nursery and the girls would go down the halls trying to see their babies but they couldn’t.
At night the policewoman sat up all night at the bottom of the stairs. Every half-hour she went through the halls with a flashlight. She was a great, strong woman and the girls said she pinched and bent your arms when she got hold of you.
I couldn’t sleep in there for thinking they would sterilize me. When I went to the bathroom and back I could see in the open doors and the beds would be drawn close together and I could hear the girls laughing and whispering. Alice said there were electric alarms at the windows. There was certainly no way to escape. I couldn’t sleep so I began dreaming about trying to get something to eat again, and it would make me very sick and I would vomit. I asked the matron for a doctor, because I didn’t want to lose the baby but she said, You are all right, there is nothing the matter with you, you just want to get out of working in the laundry.
Alice told me that somebody was leaving the next day and wrote a letter to Amelia and this girl I didn’t know took it out for me and in about two days I got an answer from Amelia. I read it over and over and I showed it to Alice and she knew Amelia. It seems just about everybody knew her. The letter said:
Don’t be afraid, baby. U are a maker now. U are going to have a good child, very good child, young dater or son. The day is near. Take hope, comrade. Dr. will see u soon. We see to that. Take sum hope. Workers Alliance meet nex day frum this. Have child happy demand ther be no so bad misry for our peepl like we hev so we can hev our childs in gret city with sum joy. See u very soon, deerhart. Amelia
On Easter we had chicken for dinner and we could stay downstairs one hour longer and talk. There were hundreds of funny papers for us to read sent by some woman’s club, and also jigsaw puzzles. Alice showed me all the people, writing funny things on her pad. There was a pretty girl with blonde hair named Julia who made all the jokes. Nobody could get her down. She said last Easter she spent in a beer joint getting stiff with a guy she had never seen before. Couldn’t we have a swell time, she said, if we could push all the tables together and have a beer and something to spike it, with a couple of cartons of cigs, we wouldn’t even need any tails.
The radio played “I Love You Truly,” and everyone laughed, and a girl who had one glass eye she lost in a munitions factory said, You son of a bitch if you loved me truly, I wouldn’t be here – and we all laughed.
I’ll he glad to get out of here, Julia said, I’ll be glad to say goodby to this. She said to me very polite, I hope you have your kid here, I think we’re gonna pop about the same time.
We’ll all go, nuts together in this joint, the girl with the glass eye said bitterly.
When are you going to deliver, I asked her.
Hell, she said, if you work nine hours a day and no fresh air you’re too damned tired to deliver.
A girl with yellow hair like straw came in and everyone was quiet.
Alice wrote on the pad, A stool.
We all began to read the funny papers. The bed bell rang and the major came in to lead us in prayer. She read from the Bible. Some of the girls could talk together on their fingers, clasped behind their backs. The major talked about the great divine joy of Easter and of motherhood and prayed asking the deity to forgive us for the great sin we had committed and be lenient with us and help us lead better lives in the future. Somebody must have made a mistake about the song because it was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” which is a Christmas song, but everyone sang as loud as they could because it’s a pleasure to sing and everybody sang it,
Hark, the herald angels sing
Wally Simpson stole our king.
and Julia began to giggle so that the major said, You may go Julia – and Julia turned at the door and thumbed her nose at the major and I felt an awful tickle of laughter like I was going to hoot and howl. Alice pinched me and smiled and pretended she was singing.
We marched upstairs. You could see all our gingham dresses exactly alike. I undressed and got in the gunny sack and big shoes and I could hear somebody crying in their pillow from the next room and the cries of the hungry babies in the nursery. Alice touched my cheek and showed me a tiny flashlight she had under her pillow. I didn’t led sleepy so we began to “talk."
She wrote, Don’t cry. We, the common people, suffer together.
I didn’t know what she meant. How did she know I felt sad? She nodded and wrote again. Nothing can hold us apart... See. .. even deafness; then she wrote, Or loneliness. And then – Or fear.
I looked at her. I nodded. She held the flashlight cupped by her hand so it couldn’t he seen from the hall.
I wrote, How?
We are organizing, she wrote.
I read it.
Then she wrote, Nothing can stop us.
The matron came down the hall and her face went dark and you couldn’t hear a sound. When she had passed, the light went on again and Alice was leaning over the pad.
I read, I am with the Workers Alliance.
I looked at it a long time. I wrote, Amelia too?
She nodded and smiled.
I chewed the pencil and then I wrote, I worked all my life.
She read it and nodded and pointed to herself, shaking her head in a quick joyful way, and pointed to her own breast. She grabbed the pad. She looked at me like she loved me, then she wrote swiftly.
I took the pad. I was excited. I read, We are both workers!
She rolled over, the light went out, and I could hear her laughing. I began to laugh too. When she turned on the light again we could not write fast enough.
I wrote, What does it do, the Workers Alliance?
They demand food, jobs, she wrote quickly.
I looked at the word demand. It was a strong word. I didn’t know what to write. I looked at it a long time. She looked at me and when I looked at her she smiled and nodded like she was going through a woods and I was following her. She leaned over and the light shone through her thin hand. She put her hand under her cheek, closed her eyes, which I saw meant sleep, and then she wrote in a bold hand and turned the tiny light on it.
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