EdnaShinnandCafeWorkers copy
Cafeteria Couture
by Sue Mayfield Geiger

It was white, short-sleeved and belted,
with a collar and button-down front below the knees.
The handkerchief of the day—petite cross-stitched pansies—
shared a dresser drawer with dainty cousins and clung to the
left pocket held tightly by a costume-jeweled pin.
White work shoes caressed crooked toes attached to feet
that stood achingly in front of steam tables where hungry
young minds were fed the likes of white rice and fish sticks,
banana pudding and small cartons of milk.
Afterwards, crusty pots and pans were scrubbed, water boiled
and floors mopped; big buckets, rag mops, and disinfectant put away.
Smells linger now, triggering memories of backbreaking chores
and a tired body that walked three miles home
where the uniform was washed, starched, ironed, and hung
awaiting the next day’s accoutrements.
Fingered softly; pinned with care.

Previously published in The Binnacle, University of Maine, Ultra Short Edition, 2012.

PHOTO: The author’s mother, Edna Shinn (bottom photo), and Edna (top row, left) with fellow cafeteria workers above.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I grew up in a blue color burb on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, where my dad worked as a machinist and my mom was a lunch lady at the elementary school cafeteria. Most moms were stay-at-homers, and mine was too, until I was in the fifth grade, when she announced she wanted to get a job. Cooking was what she did best, so she applied, got the job, and she fed hungry mouths every day, Monday through Friday, for 25 years. She knew all their names, but mainly called them “honey” and “darlin” as they came through the lunch line. I don’t think my dad ever made more than $600 a month in his life, but I never lacked for anything. I have no idea what mom made, but the timeframe was the mid-1950s when she began working, so it was probably about a dollar an hour. If you look up Annual Federal Minimum Hourly Wage for 1955, it was 75 cents! Although my mom is no longer with us, the “lunch ladies” are still around today, and working just as hard as ever. With Covid in our midst, I am sure there are new rules in place and many of them may be out of a job until things get back to normal. My mom loved her job and loved the “kidlets” and always had stories to relay to us. Lunch ladies do so much more than spoon out meals, because when the lines have cleared, their hardest work begins, with scrubbing pots and pans, mopping floors, taking out heaps of trash, and in my mom’s case, walking home on tired feet. She never learned how to drive a car. She lived to be 99, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

Sue Mayfield-GeigerABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sue Mayfield Geiger is a freelance magazine writer living on the Texas Gulf Coast. When not writing about home décor, fashion, or a new restaurant opening, she reads and writes poetry. Her literary publications include Grayson Books, RiverLit, Dos Gatos Press, The Binnacle (U of Maine), Of Burgers and Barrooms (Main Street Rag), Red Wolf Journal, Waco WordFest Anthology, Perfume River Poetry, THEMA, Silver Birch Press, and forthcoming in Odes and Elegies: Eco poetry from the Gulf Coast, and others.