The Union Maid

by Jessica Handler

We came to Atlanta in 1965 because my father believed he had a chance to change the world. His father, whom he admired and resented in almost equal parts, was an attorney who had become known among champions of social justice. He had argued and won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953; “Garner vs. Teamsters Union,” in which the court upheld the rights of union members to picket, allowing them to demand fair wages. I grew up knowing that my father’s father had done this. It was family lore. A framed photograph of my victorious, smiling grandfather posing with his legal team on the mammoth steps of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s court was displayed in my grandparent’s house in Pennsylvania. A reverent hush signaled my grandfather’s arrival into almost any room. A message resonated despite the hush; an individual can fight what’s wrong in the world and win.

Dad joined his father’s law practice before he moved Mom and two babies – my little sister Susie and me – to Detroit, where he went to work as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. Mom had given up her job as an editorial assistant at the Ladies’ Home Journal when she became pregnant with me, while Dad was finishing law school. She went into wifehood and motherhood with resourcefulness and determination. Susie and I were reading before we began kindergarten. We were miniature classical-music buffs before we began nursery school. Mom parked us in front of the TV with red boxes of animal crackers in our laps for an afternoon listening to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s concerts. Afterward, while our recording of “Peter and The Wolf” wobbled on the turntable, Susie and I stalked around the house pretending to be the bassoon grandfather and the clarinet cat.

After two years in Michigan, my father went to work for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, the labor union that became prominent in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Manhattan in 1911. The union was my grandfather’s client, my father’s employer, my great-aunt Mary worked as a secretary in the New York office. Before I could read, I learned to do as the song said and look for the union label, in every coat, dress or blouse.

In the early 1960s, fields of cotton grew outside towns in Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama and Mississippi. The mills and factories where workers wove, cut and sewed the towels and sheets and shirts and pants made from that cotton drove the economy of much of the rural south. The garment worker’s union was eager to organize these textile workers, who were often blacks and women getting their first opportunity for real employment in the year the Civil Rights Act became law. With regular wages often came grueling hours and dangerous working conditions. The union came to fight inequity in the workplaces of the Jim Crow south. My father saw the southern labor movement as his opportunity to do what his father had done – to fight what was wrong in the world and win.

Mom told me later that as soon as the mover’s truck pulled away, she took a walk around our Atlanta neighborhood. She wanted to see for herself the names she had been told were on curbside mailboxes; Goldstein, Siegel, Berger.

The presence of other Jews promised that the intellectual tradition my parents knew existed in the foreign land below the Mason-Dixon line. My parents had not grown up attending synagogue beyond weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, and they had no intention of starting now. Being Jewish was simply who we were, like being a family or being Americans or having ten fingers and ten toes. Be smart and attractive, solve your problems with logic and do the right thing was the creed my parents taught. Fair minded, I listened, and rescued caterpillars stranded on sidewalks.

Less than a year after voting rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi, Mom was flabbergasted at finding herself – now with three children – in the South. Like adventurers of old, navigating with maps where serpents and ill winds cavorted in the farthest reaches of civilization, we had come to make our home, she said in amazement, “deeper south than South Carolina.”

My father was enthralled with life at the edge of the map. He looked like a young Gregory Peck; a loosely knotted tie around his neck, an unfiltered cigarette stuck to the right corner of his lower lip. He and Mom went out at night with the friends he made, all clever, all agitated, every one of them dressed in Marimekko prints or floppy dashikis, every one of them smelling of patchouli. Dad’s friends and acquaintances included future mayors and ambassadors and other trim-Afroed, serious men. They, in turn, were orbited by professors of social sciences and history and literature. Around them circled reporters decamped to the south to cover freedom marches and the effects of the brand-new Voting Rights Act.

One morning, Mom clipped a short news item about a Ku Klux Klan rally out of the Atlanta Constitution and taped it to a cabinet door. Datelined Stone Mountain, a country town east of Atlanta where a three-acre relief carving of Confederate generals riding the side of an enormous granite mound was underway, the story reported that “Speakers at the meeting berated Negroes, Jews and President Lyndon B. Johnson.” Beside it was a photograph of three hooded Klansmen saluting three burning crosses in the night. The item ran above an ad for Labor Day sales at Davison’s department store. The whole thing was proof to Mom that we had moved to an uncharted country.

Susie and I and our baby sister Sarah absorbed Southern accents easily and kept what became a duality of language our entire lives. Mom, miffed by a bank teller’s inquiring after her “chicken account,” was not ready to speak a foreign language. Dad took to the dialect easily after a hard start; for years he recounted the day he paled and backed away when a hostess at a reception waved ice tongs at him and sweetly asked if he cared for what he said sounded like “a piece of ass.” Sarah learned to speak in Georgia, and after a few summers, asked for “cohens” to put into a Coke machine, hearing no difference between a neighbor’s surname and loose change.

To me and Susie and Sarah, Atlanta was our home. We had warm weather and long days most of the year – more time to play outdoors. Kids poured out of our brick and tile school at recess; boys played kick-ball in the red dirt playground and girls clustered under the shade of pines to barter candy for Barbie outfits. A teacher balancing in a low-slung camp chair in the shade scattered us with a whistle blast, forcing the girls to get out onto the field and the boys to play nice. Morningside school’s teachers were lumpy ladies with cat-eye glasses who looked like LBJ in drag. We called each of them “ma’am,” which drove my parents nuts.

Civil rights and the war drifted just over our heads like an occasional whiff of smoke. The sole black man at our school was Joe, who changed our light bulbs and waxed the auditorium floor. The one black woman was the maid – we called her that – a woman named Lizzy, who mopped up cafeteria vomit and under-desk puddles produced by kids not quite housebroken, assuring the weeping source of the mess that “it’s all right, everything’s all right.” There were no black students and no black teachers until 1969, and then change came seamlessly, as far as I knew, marked in my scrapbook in one word -“integration!” followed by a bubble- shaped exclamation point. As for Vietnam, a third-grader named Diane was called out of class one afternoon and hustled away by the principal. Rumor passed that her mother was in the office to take her home, clutching a telegram saying that Diane’s father had been killed in action. We gaped at her retreating image in the hall, and were quiet and solicitous when she returned to school, afraid to bump into her in the cafeteria line or say the wrong thing, whatever that might be.

When snow fell our first winter in Atlanta, the dozen first-graders in my class popped from their seats like wound springs and aimed for the window. I had seen snow before, heaps of it, but the silver sky and floating white flakes were a phenomenon for most of the other six-year-olds.

“Whap!” the teacher smacked a ruler against the top of her wooden desk. “Y’all git away from there,” she howled, truly fearful. “That stuff is radioactive, and it’ll kill you.” Even though I knew better – in Michigan I had played in snow as tall as my mother’s waist and hadn’t yet gone radioactive- I skulked back to my seat along with everyone else. Maybe the snow in Georgia, the inch or so we would get every January that stuck to the grass for no more than a day, was tainted.

Sarah was at home, too young for school. She was tormented by diaper rash and skin eruptions, and had been since she was born. Susie and I gagged at the sight of a scab on the pink curve of her belly, black and fissured like an olive pit. The crust capped the spot of a wick placed there to draw fluid from an incision, relieving a new infection or an old one stirring deep under her skin. Nine months old, Sarah was clever and active, but sitting upright on her raw bottom made her cry.

Sarah’s doctor in Detroit had detected something, Mom knew, from his hurry to suggest a blood test once we settled in Atlanta. Now, Sarah’s blood test showed very few white blood cells. Our new pediatrician tested her again and again, and every test showed her white cell count to be too low. Sarah had neutropenia, a general term for an abnormally low number of neutrophils – a type of white cells. No cause was known, and there was no cure. Children with severe neutropenia like Sarah’s, he told Mom, did not survive past the age of two – they are too susceptible to infection. Willing themselves and us into a normal life, Mom and Dad did not tell us. We were, after all, six years old, five years old, and a baby.

Looking back today over my mother’s archive of medical bills and correspondence is like fanning out decks of oversized, faded cards. No bills begin and end on the same page. Few correspondence is between only two doctors – most letters, in the gap-toothed Courier font of the typewriters of the day – are copied to specialists in other practices. The first nine months of 1967 are recorded in a single thirty-page invoice. From this constant presence a third language evolved in our house – medical-speak. Sarah didn’t just take medicine, she took Kantrex, Panalba, Teramycin. Polymixin. On weekends, when I went with Dad to the dry cleaner, the bank, the delicatessen, and always the drug store, he instructed me to remind him to “pick up the chloro refill.” Chloramphenicol, a strong antibiotic for extreme infections, was as routine as sugar and common as milk, so customary to us that we referred to it in shorthand.

Medicine-speak was our fascination with a perilous landscape. When Susie and I had comparative blood work done, a measure of three sisters that would be performed like clockwork for years, we knew our hemoglobin was being stripped and examined, spun down in a centrifuge. Dad got a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference, a hefty annual that weighed as much as the worn dictionary in the study. The slick pages showed color photographs between column after column of tiny type. There were dizzying lists of benefits and side effects, dosages and manufacturers. The PDR was a kind of pornography, a siren song of delirium-inducing words and washed-out pictures of what could happen inside a body/ if provoked. Afraid of what I might read and unable to resist, I held my breath every time I stole a look at that book.

In the summer and sometimes during the school year, Dad took me with him on day trips, time that I knew without being told was honorary. We went to country towns around Atlanta like Newnan or Covington or Cartersville. As we left Atlanta, the roads devolved from possum-gray asphalt to blood-red clay. We spent the drive talking about school, about the relative merits of the Beatles versus the Monkees, about not being frightened about Sarah’s being sick. I didn’t want to talk about Sarah. I wanted to talk about whether the “Sergeant Pepper” album would have classical music, something I had heard might happen and decided to oppose in the interest of progress. Outside the car’s open window, rolled down against the heat, green kudzu vines splayed over lonely houses like witch claws.

When we got where we were going we pulled off the road, bumped over ruts and rolled to a stop, often in a field of beaten-down grass. Dad would unfold himself from behind the steering wheel and slam his car door. Almost instantly, he was surrounded by ropy black men in overalls and fierce women in cotton print dresses. They talked with him under pecan trees or on the cinderblock front steps of their homes, cooling their faces with the paper fans that came as giveaways from funeral parlors and appliance stores.

Dad wore a suit and tie to meet the people he called “the rank and file,” a phrase uttered like the “amen” at the end of a prayer. He bent his head and conversed with them in a serious, deferential way – using a voice he didn’t use with doctors or at home with us.

Bored and willing myself to pay attention, I waited on someone’s wooden porch. Between sips of sweet tea in dented metal cups or rinsed-out Mason jars, I said “thank you, ma’am” and “pleased to meet you, sir” to elbows and knees that rushed off to get their time with my father. Sometimes they dragged their own staring children away from me, the only white child for miles, the only child in a mod culottes outfit patterned with sunflowers. My clothing looked perfect when I left Atlanta but was awkward here, where groovy was meaningless.

On our way home I sang the song about the Union Maid, who never was afraid, of the goons and the ginks and the company finks, and the deputy sheriff who made the raid I was frightened by the poverty receding behind us and proud to know something terrible and crucial about the adult world. In my imagination, I was the valiant Union Maid and nothing could keep me down. My father, steering a company car using only the nicotine-stained index finger of his right hand, loosened his tie with his left and imagined himself Atticus Finch.

In the very few years before the fight to save my sister’s lives overwhelmed him, my father glittered with energy. Sometime in the mid-1960s, a photographer took a picture of my father sitting inside a court room in Wake County, North Carolina. In it, he is no more than 35 years old. With his arm slung over the back of the bench where he waits during a break, he could be a teenager sitting behind the wheel of a car, hand sneaking toward his date. That is the courtroom where, Dad told me, a man wearing overalls, one strap down in the manner of those who really wear them to work, approached him and asked a question.

“Mr. Handler, I hear you’re a Jew,” the man said.

“That’s right,” Dad answered.

I can imagine his voice, measured and low.

Just a shade belligerent, the stranger inquired, “Can I feel your head?” He pronounced it “haid.” Dad told me that he leaned forward and let the man’s fingers probe carefully through his dark hair. He was, Dad explained to me then, feeling for horns.

I saw my first dead body when I was eight years old. On April, 4, 1968, I was sitting on the floor watching a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. When the newsbreak interrupted my show, my skin crawled with the feeling that if I didn’t tell what I had heard right away, I would be in big trouble. In stocking feet, I hopped up from the floor and slid into the kitchen in a run. Mom was sweeping the floor.

“Hey Mom, does Dad know somebody named Dr. Martin Luther King?” I spoke all seven syllables of his name jammed together, as if they were a single word.

He does, she answered. She put the broom aside. Some of Dad’s friends had gone to Memphis earlier that week, intending to put their weight or their good intentions behind the months-long sanitation workers strike there.

“I think Dr. King got shot,” I said. I felt as if I were waving my arms to capture my balance on the edge of the adult world. Mom reached for the phone.

Dad went to the funeral the following Tuesday and took me along. Mom agreed with him that my going was part of what they called my social legacy. Susie and Sarah were too young to attend a funeral, certainly one as public as this would be, and Mom happily stayed home with them, free of the crowds. Like my trips out to the country with Dad, I knew without being told that I was allowed to be a part of something significant.

Reading news clippings now gives me the count of the waves of people around me that day; more than one hundred thousand people crammed Auburn Avenue, a busy street that extended from the black business district west into downtown. All were on foot, and some held black umbrellas open against the sun. Mourners passed through the grey stone threshold of Ebenezer Baptist Church in twos and threes. Inside the sanctuary, the sunlight and the electric light mixed together, making a yolky glow. News cameras whirred in the heat- it was 80 degrees outside and more inside. When we reached the casket after an hour or more, someone – my father, surely – lifted me high above the lip of the casket so that I could pay my respects to Dr. King.

For a moment, I was mesmerized. Even though he was lying on his back, I could see that he was not tall. I had seen pictures of him on television, speaking to crowds, shining with sweat. His face was round, and here, close enough to touch, his skin was oddly dusted and dry. Although I knew that I was looking at a famous and important man, he was at that moment a “dead guy,” and I had seen enough. After just a minute suspended over the coffin, I wanted urgently to be set down. The elastic waistband of my dress pinched my skin and my father’s thumbs dug into my armpits, pushed there by his awkward support of my weight. My father set me down, and we walked forward with the slow crowd, moving to our left out of the church door, past the green wooden farm wagon and the harnessed mules waiting to take the body away.