Lessons from New Jersey: Mary Brune’s mom

Crossposted from Safer States blog

I grew up at the Jersey shore, on a tiny barrier island called Ocean City. My father was a fireman; my mom a waitress, then later a factory worker for Lenox China, and later still for Wheaton Plastics.

I was six years old when my parents divorced. During those years my father struggled with alcoholism. As a result, the responsibility for raising us three landed heavily on my mom.

Looking back now, what strikes me most about my mother during this time is how hard she had worked. It couldn’t have been easy to work nights and take care of three kids mostly on your own. Except for more unrestricted “fun” time with our mom, I don’t think we ever wanted for anything.

One vivid memory of those days has stayed with me. I remember accompanying my mother to the food store and watching her hand over food stamps to pay for our groceries. I was eight years old at the time and I remember feeling my face flush with shame, looking around to make sure none of my classmates were within earshot. As an adult and mother myself, I feel ashamed now of my reaction to my mother needing—and being brave enough to seek out—help to get our family what it needed.

It wasn’t until I’d reached adulthood and gone through some difficult periods myself that I finally realized how remarkable it was that we made it through that time. And my mother never complained about it. She just did what she had to do.

It’s true, our mothers teach us lessons throughout our lives, through their actions, shining a light upon the path we should follow. The tender kisses placed upon our scraped knees; the warm embraces offered after a bad dream; the firm guidance to “keep at it” when we feel like giving up. But they also teach us vital lessons by their inactions—the opportunities they, in hindsight, wished they had taken to ask questions, challenge authority, protect themselves from any harm that might have come as a result of this inertia of unknowing.

When I was in high school my mother began working in a factory that made Lenox China. All those beautiful patterns on plates, bowls, cups you see on store shelves—and maybe even in your own cupboards—my mom might have placed them there. Painstakingly by hand, day in and day out, washing down the bisque plates, placing the decals in a solution of unknown chemical makeup and then gently affixing them to the dishware. The pace was brisk. Pay was determined by the piece, so workers were encouraged to work quickly. There wasn’t time to ask questions.

She experienced a similar pace and work environment at her next factory job, making bottles at Wheaton plastic. She would point to a squeeze bottle on a store shelf or hold up a pharmacy bottle and say, “I made that,” the pride clear on her face.

It wasn’t until after I had become a mother myself and co-founded MOMS (Making Our Milk Safe), and learned more about how toxic chemicals can cause health problems that I began to ask my mother more about her job. She had been suffering from recurring sinus problems. She often had headaches brought on by pressure and put up with near-constant nose-blowing for years. My mother had always been healthy, active; I had never known her to be so chronically sick. I asked once about the chemicals she used at the plastics factory and whether she knew anything about them. “No” was her reply. I then asked if the management at the factory had ever given them guidelines about working with the chemicals, or had implemented any safety precautions. Again, “No”.

Although I was new to the field of environmental health, it seemed possible to me that my mother’s health problems could be linked to her work environment. She told me stories of co-workers, several in fact, who had been diagnosed with cancer. A few years ago, my mother had surgery to remove benign polyps from her sinus cavity. While we were all understandably relieved that the polyps were not cancerous, their discovery makes me anxious about what other health problems might be lying in wait.

I’m already passing along to my own children the lessons my mother taught me: When you hit a rough patch, keep going. Do whatever you need to do to get yourself through to the other side. What you don’t know can hurt you, so ask questions. Don’t settle for silence. When you put your heart into it, you can create anything. And it feels really good when you can hold something up and say, “I did that.”

We need to pass The Safe Chemicals Act now. And we’re going to need help to do it. We’re going to need everyone reading, everyone in Congress, everyone working in factories without protections, everyone living in communities burdened by pollution—all of us working together to make it happen. Oh, but won’t it feel really good when we can join hands together and say, “WE did that.”

Please join us.