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Mind Your Business!: One Woman’s Encounter with Reformers

Settlement houses first began appearing in the immigrant and working-class districts of American cities in the 1890s. Over the next four decades, immigrant men and women had a wide range of experiences with settlement house reformers. Some immigrants encountered the settlement houses as places of refuge and caring; at other times, they found reformers to be arrogant and patronizing. Born in Russian Poland around 1885, Anzia Yesierska came to America as a young girl in the 1890s. She rejected the traditional notions of womanhood and marriage dictated by her Jewish immigrant family. She toiled in sweatshops and laundries while she taught herself English and began writing. She married twice but both unions were brief. In her first story, “The Free Vacation House,” published in 1915, Yesierska painted the middle-class reformers who tried to help the immigrant heroine as meddling busybodies who disregarded her right to dignity and privacy.

How came it that I went to the free vacation house was like this:

One day the visiting teacher from the school comes to find out for why don’t I get the children ready for school in time; for why are they so often late.

I let out on her my whole bitter heart. I told her my head was on wheels from worrying. When I get up in the morning, I don’t know on what to turn first: should I nurse the baby, or make Sam’s breakfast, or attend on the older children. I only got two hands.

“ My dear woman,” she says, “you are about to have a nervous breakdown. You need to get away to the country for a rest and vacation.”

“ Gott im Himmel!” says I. “Don’t I know I need a rest? But how? On what money can I go to the country?”

“ I know of a nice country place for mothers and children that will not cost you anything. It is free.”

“ Free! I never heard from it.”

“ Some kind people have made arrangements so no one need pay,” she explains.

Later, in a few days, I just finished up with Masha and Mendel and Frieda and Sonya to send them to school, and I was getting Aby ready for kindergarten, when I hear a knock on the door, and a lady comes in. She had a white starched dress like a nurse and carried a black satchel in her hand.

“ I am from the Social Betterment Society,” she tells me. “You want to go to the country?”

Before I could say something, she goes over to the baby and pulls out the rubber nipple from her mouth, and to me, she says, “You must not get the child used to sucking this; it is very unsanitary.”

“ Gott im Himmel!” I beg the lady. “Please don’t begin with that child, or she’ll holler my head off. She must have the nipple. I’m too nervous to hear her scream like that.”

When I put the nipple back again in the baby’s mouth, the lady takes herself a seat, and then takes out a big black book from her satchel. Then she begins to question me. What is my first name? How old I am? From where come I? How long I’m already in this country? Do I keep any boarders? What is my husband’s first name? How old is he? How long he is in this country? By what trade he works? How much wages he gets for a week? How much money do I spend out for rent? How old are the children, and everything about them.

“ My goodness!” I cry out. “For why is it necessary all this to know? For why must I tell you all my business? What difference does it make already if I keep boarders, or I don’t keep boarders? If Masha had the whooping-cough or Sonya had the measles? Or whether I spend out for my rent ten dollars or twenty? Or whether I come from Schnipishock or Kovner Gubernie?”

“ We must make a record of all the applicants, and investigate each case,” she tells me. “There are so many who apply to the charities, we can help only those who are most worthy.”

“ Charities!” I scream out. “Ain’t the charities those who help the beggars out? I ain’t no beggar. I’m not asking for no charity. My husband, he works.”

“ Miss Holcomb, the visiting teacher, said that you wanted to go to the country, and I had to make out this report before investigating your case.”

“ Oh! Oh!” I choke and bit my lips. “Is the free country from which Miss Holcomb told me, is it from the charities? She was telling me some kind people made arrangements for any mother what needs to go there.”

“ If your application is approved, you will be notified,” she says to me, and out she goes.

When she is gone I think to myself, I’d better knock out from my head this idea about the country. For so long I lived, I didn’t know nothing about the charities. For why should I come down among the beggars now?

Then I looked around me in the kitchen. On one side was the big wash-tub with clothes, waiting for me to wash. On the table was a pile of breakfast dishes yet. In the sink was the potatoes, waiting to be peeled. The baby was beginning to cry for the bottle. Aby was hollering and pulling me to take him to kindergarten. I felt if I didn’t get away from here for a little while, I would land in a crazy house, or from the window jump down. Which was worser, to land in a crazy house, jump from the window down, or go to the country from the charities?

In about two weeks later around comes the same lady with the satchel again in my house.

“ You can go to the country to-morrow,” she tells me. “And you must come to the charity building to-morrow at nine o’clock sharp. Here is a card with the address. Don’t lose it, because you must hand it to the lady in the office.”

I look on the card, and there I see my name wrote; and by it, in big printed letters, that word “CHARITY.”

“ Must I go to the charity office?” I ask, feeling my heart to sink, “For why must I come there?”

“ It is the rule that everybody comes to the office first, and from there they are taken to the country.”

I shivered to think how I would feel, suppose somebody from my friends should see me walking into the charity office with my children. They wouldn’t know that it is only for the country I go there. They might think I go to beg. Have I come down so low as to be seen by the charities? But what’s the use? Should I knock my head on the walls? I had to go.

When I come to the office, I already found a crowd of women and children sitting on long benches waiting. I took myself a seat with them, and we were sitting and sitting and looking on one another, sideways and crosswise, and with lowered eyes, like guilty criminals. Each one felt like hiding herself from all the rest. Each one felt black with shame in the face.

We may have been sitting and waiting for an hour or more. But every second was seeming years to me. The children began to get restless. Mendel wanted water. The baby on my arms was falling asleep. Aby was crying for something to eat.

“ For why are we sittin' here like fat cats?” says the woman next to me. “Ain’t we going to the country to-day yet?”

At last a lady comes to the desk and begins calling us our names, one by one. I nearly dropped to the floor when over she begins to ask: Do you keep boarders? How much do you spend out for rent? How much wages does your man get for a week?

Didn’t the nurse tell them all about us already? It was bitter enough to have to tell the nurse everything, but in my own house nobody was hearing my troubles, only the nurse. But in the office there was so many strangers all around me. For why should everybody have to know my business? At every question I wanted to holler out: “Stop! Stop! I don’t want no vacations! I’ll better run home with my children.” At every question I felt like she was stabbing a knife into my heart. And she kept on stabbing me more and more, but I could not help it, and they were all looking at me. I couldn’t move from her. I had to answer everything.

When she got through with me, my face was red like fire. I was burning with hurts and wounds. I felt like everything was bleeding in me.

When all the names was already called, a man doctor with a nurse comes in, and tells us to form a line, to be examined. I wish I could ease out my heart a little, and tell in words how that doctor looked on us, just because we were poor and had no money to pay. He only used the ends from his finger-tips to examine us with. From the way he was afraid to touch us or come near us, he made us feel like we had some catching sickness that he was trying not to get on him.

The doctor got finished with us in about five minutes, so quick he worked. Then we was told to walk after the nurse, who was leading the way for us through the street to the car. Everybody what passed us in the street turned around to look on us. I kept down my eyes and held down my head and I felt like sinking into the sidewalk. All the time I was trembling for fear somebody what knows me might yet pass and see me. For why did they make us walk through the street, after the nurse, like stupid cows? Weren’t all of us smart enough to find our way without the nurse? Why should the whole world have to see that we are from the charities?

When we got into the train, I opened my eyes, and lifted up my head, and straightened out my chest, and again began to breathe. It was a beautiful, sunshiny day. I knocked open the window from the train, and the fresh-smelling country air rushed upon my face and made me feel so fine! I looked out from the window and instead of seeing the iron fire-escapes with garbage-cans and bedclothes, that I always seen when from my flat I looked—instead of seeing only walls and washlines between walls, I saw the blue sky, and green grass and trees and flowers.

Ah, how grand I felt, just on the sky to look! Ah, how grand I felt just to see the green grass—and the free space—and no houses!

“ Get away from me, my troubles!” I said. “Leave me rest a minute. Leave me breathe and straighten out my bones. Forget the unpaid butcher’s bill. Forget the rent. Forget the wash-tub and the cook-stove and the pots and pans. Forget the charities!”

“ Tickets, please,” calls the train conductor.

I felt knocked out from heaven all at once. I had to point to the nurse what held our tickets, and I was feeling the conductor looking on me as if to say, “Oh, you are only from the charities.”

By the time we came to the vacation house I already forgot all about my knock-down. I was again filled with the beauty of the country. I never in all my life yet seen such a swell house like that vacation house. Like the grandest palace it looked. All round the front, flowers from all colors was smelling out the sweetest perfume. Here and there was shady trees with comfortable chairs under them to sit down on.

When I only came inside, my mouth opened wide and my breathing stopped still from wonder. I never yet seen such an order and such a cleanliness. From all the corners from the room, the cleanliness was shining like a looking-glass. The floor was so white scrubbed you could eat on it. You couldn’t find a speck of dust on nothing, if you was looking for it with eyeglasses on.

I was beginning to feel happy and glad that I come, when, Gott im Himmel! again a lady begins to ask us out the same questions what the nurse already asked me in my home and what was asked over again in the charity office. How much wages my husband makes out for a week? How much money I spend out for rent? Do I keep boarders?

We were hungry enough to faint. So worn out was I from excitement, and from the long ride, that my knees were bending under me ready to break from tiredness. The children were pulling me to pieces, nagging me for a drink, for something to eat and such like. But still we had to stand out the whole list of questionings. When she already got through asking us out everything, she gave to each of us a tag with our name written on it. She told us to tie the tag on our hand. Then like tagged horses at a horse sale in the street, they marched us into the dining-room.

There was rows of long tables, covered with pure-white oil-cloth. A vase with bought flowers was standing on the middle from each table. Each person got a clean napkin for himself. Laid out by the side from each person’s plate was a silver knife and fork and spoon and teaspoon. When we only sat ourselves down, girls with white starched aprons was passing around the eatings.

I soon forgot again all my troubles. For the first time in ten years I sat down to a meal what I did not have to cook or worry about. For the first time in ten years I sat down to the table like a somebody. Ah, how grand it feels, to have handed you over the eatings and everything you need. Just as I was beginning to like it and let myself feel good, in comes a fat lady all in white, with a teacher’s look on her face. I could tell already, right away by the way she looked on us, that she was the boss from this place.

“ I want to read you the rules from this house, before you leave this room,” says she to us.

Then she began like this: We dassen’t stand on the front grass where the flowers are. We dassen’t stay on the front porch. We dassen’t sit on the chairs under the shady trees. We must stay always in the back and sit on those long wooden benches there. We dassen’t come in the front sitting-room or walk on the front steps what have carpet on it—we must walk on the back iron steps. Everything on the front from the house must be kept perfect for the show for visitors. We dassen’t lay down on the beds in the daytime, the beds must always be made up perfect for the show for visitors.

“ Gott im Himmel!” thinks I to myself; “ain’t there going to be no end to the things we dassen’t do in this place?”

But still she went on. The children over two years dassen’t stay around by the mothers. They must stay by the nurse in the play-room. By the meal-times, they can see their mothers. The children dassen’t run around the house or tear up flowers or do anything. They dassen’t holler or play rough in the play-room. They must always behave and obey the nurse.

We must always listen to the bells. Bell one was for getting up. Bell two, for getting babies' bottles. Bell three, for coming to breakfast. Bell four, for bathing the babies. If we come later, after the ring from the bell, then we’ll not get what we need. If the bottle bell rings and we don’t come right away for the bottle, then the baby don’t get no bottle. If the breakfast bell rings, and we don’t come right away down to the breakfast, then there won’t be no breakfast for us.

When she got through with reading the rules,I was wondering which side of the house I was to walk on. At every step was some rule what said don’t move here, and don’t go there, don’t stand there, and don’t sit there. If I tried to remember the endless rules, it would only make me dizzy in the head. I was thinking for why, with so many rules, didn’t they also have already another rule, about how much air in our lungs to breathe.

On every few days there came to the house swell ladies in automobiles. It was for them that the front from the house had to be always perfect. For them was all the beautiful smelling flowers. For them the front porch, the front sitting-room, and the easy stairs with the carpet on it.

Always when the rich ladies came the fat lady, what was the boss from the vacation house, showed off to them the front. Then she took them over to the back to look on us, where we was sitting together, on long wooden benches, like prisoners. I was always feeling cheap like dirt, and mad that I had to be there, when they smiled down on us.

“ How nice for these poor creatures to have a restful place like this,” I heard one lady say.

The next day I already felt like going back. The children what had to stay by the nurse in the play-room didn’t like it neither.

“ Mamma,” says Mendel to me, “I wisht I was home and out in the street. They don’t let us do nothing here. It’s worser than school.”

“ Ain’t it a play-room?” asks I. “Don’t they let you play?”

“ Gee wiss! play-room, they call it! The nurse hollers on us all the time. She don’t let us do nothing.”

The reason why I stayed out the whole two weeks is this: I think to myself, so much shame in the face I suffered to come here, let me at least make the best from it already. Let me at least save up for two weeks what I got to spend out for grocery and butcher for my back bills to pay out. And then also think I to myself, if I go back on Monday, I got to do the big washing; on Tuesday waits for me the ironing; on Wednesday, the scrubbing and cleaning, and so goes it on. How bad it is already in this place, it’s a change from the very same sameness of what I’m having day in and day out at home. And so I stayed out this vacation to the bitter end.

But at last the day for going out from this prison came. On the way riding back, I kept thinking to myself: "This is such a beautiful vacation house. For why do they make it so hard for us? When a mother needs a vacation, why must they tear the insides out from her first, by making her come down to the charity office? Why drag us from the charity office through the streets? And when we live through the shame of the charities and when we come already to the vacation house, for why do they boss the life out of us with so many rules and bells? For why don’t they let us lay down our heads on the bed when we are tired? For why must we always stick in the back, like dogs what have got to be chained in one spot? If they would let us walk around free, would we bite off something from the front part of the house?

“If the best part of the house what is comfortable is made up for a show for visitors, why ain’t they keeping the whole business for a show for visitors? For why do they have to fool in worn-out mothers, to make them think they’ll give them a rest? Do they need the worn-out mothers as part of the show? I guess that is it, already.”

When I got back in my home, so happy and thankful I was I could cry from thankfulness. How good it was feeling for me to be able to move around my own house, like I pleased. I was always kicking that my rooms was small and narrow, but now my small rooms seemed to grow so big like the park. I looked out from my window on the fire-escapes, full with bedding and garbage-cans, and on the wash-lines full with the clothes. All these ugly things was grand in my eyes. Even the high brick walls all around made me feel like a bird what just jumped out from a cage. And I cried out, "Gott sei dank! Gott sei dank!"

Source: Anzia Yezierska, “The Free Vacation House,” Hungry Hearts (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920), 97–113.