“How do you know you are going to die?”
I begged my mother ... With strange confidence she answered,
"When you can no longer make a fist." — Naomi Shihab Nye
My mother, born into the flapper era, never bobbed
her hair, never sported drop waist dresses with a cloche,
nor did she cover her face with pancake and rouge,
lifting her skirt above her knees in speakeasies
or on Gatsby verandas. She came of age in World War II.
Draped in white coveralls, hair wrapped in a red scarf
under a hardhat, clear goggles shielding her amber eyes
she welded Pressed Steel’s boxcars near Pittsburgh
like women in Toledo hauling Jeep parts to Ford lines,
like those assembling fuselages on bombers in Long Beach
or for Boeing’s Flying Fortresses in Seattle,
like women filing bullets for the Army,
or building ships at California’s Richmond docks,
like those feeding blast furnaces in steel mills,
sparks flying at the giant cauldrons of molten steel.
Liberty Girls~the women on railroads, in shipyards,
as pipe fitters and riggers, bus drivers and mechanics,
like those shooting riveting guns or ferrying planes,
ratcheting with wrenches or lighting torches,
arms linked across America with the plains women,
with the farm women, the desert and mountain women,
with the city women, even with Marilyn Monroe,
who as Norma Jean, attached propellors to planes.
My mother never jumped drunken in her clothes
into a fountain like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s new women,
but she did drop, donning her mail order rayon sheath,
from a rowboat into the lake belting out the high notes
of Indian Love Call at a USO picnic. She learned
to love the night shift as a blackout air warden
and became the woman who I would later blast
for not pulling free from my father’s fierce grip.
I have become the woman who no longer wonders
how I dared knuckle into my own fist, raise it high
for rights in rallies and marches for reason and right
because I had a mother who dared give up a job
as nursemaid for the rail yard and factory,
relinquish the girdle to the rubber drive, who never
threw off the helmet for the apron, and went on
living as if she could do anything~making a fist.
Andrena Zawinski was born and raised in working poor communities skirting Pittsburgh. Her poetry of social concern has appeared in The Progressive Magazine, Blue Collar Review Journal of Progressive Working Class Literature, Viet Nam Generation: A Journal of Recent History and Contemporary Issues, HEArt, and many more fine publications online and in print. Zawinski is a teacher of writing and is Features Editor at PoetryMagazine.com. Her latest book of poetry, Something About from Blue Light Press in San Francisco, received a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award. Her Traveling in Reflected Light, from Pig Iron Press in Youngstown, won a Kenneth Patchen competition in poetry. She is editor of Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry from Scarlet Tanager Books in Oakland, CA that emerged from the Bay Area Women's Poetry Salon she founded and runs. More at Andrena Zawinski.