Those lazy days of yore, before most women 'worked'

I was in the waiting room of my doctor's office the other day when I overheard a conversation between three women behind the desk.

"I've been too busy to take my break," complained a receptionist sitting at a computer.

"Thank God it's Friday!" said another young woman carrying a stack of folders.

A third, who had been scheduling appointments, put down the receiver and said, "I dread week-ends — cleaning, laundry, shopping, soccer games ..."

And that's when I heard something so funny, I had to raise my magazine so as not to be seen laughing.

"I really envy my grandmother and my great-grandmother. They didn't have to work! They got to stay at home all day while their husbands supported the family."

"Yeah," said the one who dreaded weekends. "The good old days. Those women knew what leisure time was!"

A fellow patient, also of advanced years, was seated nearby. She looked up, and we exchanged smiles.

This Labor Day, in a country where women currently make up approximately 50 percent of the labor force, it's hard to imagine a time when most women did not work outside the home. Yet, the National Bureau of Labor Statistics would have us believe that women did not begin "working" in large numbers until the mid-20th century. Apparently, the only labor my grandmother experienced in the early 1900s was in the front bedroom, where she gave birth to her six children. And where she slept her way to the top rung of the domestic ladder.

Yes, Daisy Williams was surely one of those lucky earlier women who didn't have to work. While her husband was away on a commercial fish boat supporting his family, my grandmother must have lollygagged around the homestead enjoying her brood and performing the occasional simple chore to save her from a life of hopeless tedium.

Nothing brought me greater pleasure as a child than our visits to my grandmother's home in Fleeton, in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The big white clapboard house with the tin roof had changed little since my mother's childhood. There were still kerosene lamps and heaters, a wood stove, a pump and a well beside the house, and of course, the outhouse at the end of a path in the backyard. I cherished those hours spent beside Grandma Daisy on the back porch swing, as she shelled butter beans or crocheted. Closing my eyes, I imagined her world as she reminisced about those early years.

Here's what I learned: Grandma's days began in the side yard before sunup, where she gathered hens' eggs for breakfast, lopped the heads off roosters, and raked chicken manure for her garden. Then the leisure began in earnest as she pulled on her high rubber boots and made her way to the backyard vegetable patch.

In between trips to the house to investigate screaming, extinguish fires, and wrestle sharp scissors from toddlers, Daisy hoed weeds, dispatched poisonous snakes and picked tomatoes. On wash day, she scrubbed clothes in a metal washtub beneath the apple tree, then pegged them out on rope stretched across the lawn. Hauling water from the well, wood from the shed, and slop buckets to the outhouse, wasn't really work. After all, it isn't as though she was being paid. She was merely filling the empty hours until women officially began "working."

Sunday, of course, was Grandma's day of rest, when she was privileged to walk the children to church, then come home and cook dinner for 12. Relatives looked forward to those Sunday afternoons. Whether the food was fresh or came from the pantry where shelves sagged beneath the weight of canning jars, the Williams table brimmed with the fruits of Daisy's labor — in the kitchen, in the garden, in the orchard, and in the yard that housed her prized flock of Rhode Island Reds. There was no glass ceiling in the world of Daisy's daily domestic drudgery. She had risen immediately to the pinnacle of her domain.

I couldn't help wondering how my grandmother might have responded to the young women behind the desk. I expect she would have agreed with them. I never heard her complain. She was, in fact, the picture of contentment; Daisy had been right where she wanted to be. Even if there were no pension checks, gold watches or golden parachutes at the end of her working years, there were six grateful, productive children who shared a common goal — to give their hard-working, widowed mother a well-deserved and peaceful retirement.

Job well done, Daisy Williams!

Peggy Rowe, a former schoolteacher, lives in Perry Hall. Her email is peggy.rowe@comcast.net.