Tribute to Josephine Ferrara Schifferle (1916-1989)
December 14th is the 100th anniversary of my mothers
birth. This blog is dedicated to her memory. While I could write
pages about her and the many wonderful qualities she possessed,
I tell one story about her.
She came of age during the Great Depression, and her father
and younger brother could not find work. She found a job, but
had to leave high school one semester shy of earning her diploma.
Her work in a factory kept food on the table and paid the rent.
She quietly related those sketchy details to me, but a real
sadness lay in the fact that she did not have a high school
diploma. She and my immigrant grandfather would lecture my brothers,
my sister and me: Youve got to get your education.
When she passed away, I found a 1939 newspaper clipping among
her things. After reproducing it, I made the collage, My
Mother Sewing. My reciprocally-inspired poem purchased
at the Provincetown Public Library yard sale was written
after returning home from a visit there (A Brush with Words,
Autumn Light Press, 2013).
Mother Sewing, 2003, collage, 24 by 18
the Provincetown Public Library yard sale
(Women at Work: 153 Photographs by Lewis W. Hine,
edited by Jonathan L. Doherty, New York 1981)
its cover gradually giving up, shrugging off
the photograph of a dark-haired woman
sitting at a machine, head tipped toward its jaws
of black enamel, made me want to spend the fifty cents,
to save this paperback so I could find someone
who looked the way my mother did
posing for the photographer at her Singer
made me go home and find the 1939 clipping,
my mothers picture in The Courier Express
third in a line of four showing Busy Hands in Buffalo
at the Bernard Dress Manufacturing Company
made me remember our sewing machine
and one pink organza dress
lurking among the others she made for me,
the ones I never asked for because I wanted
store-bought, except that time when I knew
there wasnt money for my graduation dress, and so
to do her a favor, I bought three patterns to show her
the neckline from one, sleeves from the second,
and skirt and bodice from the third
made me remember the way the light went out
in her eyes when I asked, Can you do this?
I knew that she would wail and cry as the needle
bound up on a seam, while undigested cloth
came back into her hands
made me read the clipping again, perky report
cheering on some 400 workers who
turn out 24,000 dresses each week
made me see my mother, at her 12-needle machine
feeding it cloth to gather, trim and shear,
made me finally understand
the cost of organza, wretched and pink
My mother, a woman who never learned to drive, would no doubt
find the blogosphere an amazing development in literacy. And
I hope she would be delighted that I told you about this part
of her life.
Happy 100th Birthday, Ma.