Alfred Kazin on How the Kitchen Shapes His Life and the Loneliness of His Mother



Kazin as a young man, City College picture. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


Not too long ago, I befriended a vivacious young woman with a strong jaw and eccentric glasses from Zimbabwe. We met because we were coworkers, working as banquet servers at a local hotel. We had a million laughs together and we often found ourselves complaining about the same things everyday–our long demanding shifts and unforgiving costumers. She was one of the hardest workers that I knew. Even when she had already had too many shifts on her schedule, she would gladly pick up shifts from other coworkers.

Just a whim, I asked her one Friday evening as she washed an air pot of coffee, “Why did you take so many shifts lately?”

She said casually, “If I’m not working, I’m lonely.”

Her truthful response shocked me. On the other hand, it was strangely a warm and sublime thing to hear from her because at least she could articulate what she felt. That short sentence, “If I’m not working, I’m lonely” kept echoing in my ears even after she quit the job in the summer of 2017. Her story is reminding me of one of the stories told in Alfred Kazin’s autobiography titled A Walker in the City (Public Library) (Amazon). Through this emotionally arrested book, Kazin unpacks his juicy childhood memories of absorbing the sounds, the smells, the sights, and the sensations of Brownsville, east of NYC–a neighborhood then inhabited by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. His early life was shaped by poverty, tenement houses of Brownsville, and the daily lives of his hardworking parents who tried to maintain the vitality of the family. His father was a house painter who would come home at six in the afternoon with a copy of newspaper the New York World. Meanwhile, his mother was a dress maker–a woman whose immense talent of making dresses according to the latest fashions was loved by the local women. Kazin’s Brownsville in the 1920s was a place brimming with hopes, despairs, loneliness, ambitions, and humans’ stories.

In one of the chapters of the book titled, “The Kitchen”, Kazin illustrated the significant value of the kitchen in his tenement house. This was the place when he did his homework and first writing at the kitchen table, and even he used the three chairs near the stove to place his bed to sleep. Most importantly, the kitchen was also his mother’s little world.

He writes:

“In Brownsville tenements the kitchen is always the largest room and the center of the household. As a child I felt that we lived in a kitchen to which four other rooms were annexed. My mother, a “home” dressmaker, had her workshop in the kitchen. She told me once that she had begun dressmaking in Poland at thirteen; as far back as I can remember, she was always making dresses for the local women. She had an innate sense of design, a quick eye for all the subtleties in the latest fashions, even when she despised them, and great boldness. For three or four dollars she would study the fashion magazines with a customer, go with the customer to the remnants store on Belmont Avenue to pick out the material, argue the owner down–all remnants store, for some reason, were supposed to be shady, as if the owners dealt in stolen goods–and then for days would patiently fit and baste and sew and fit again. Our apartment was always full of women in their housedresses sitting around the kitchen table waiting for a fitting. My little bedroom next to the kitchen was the fitting room. The sewing machine, an old nut-brown Singer with golden scrolls painted along the black arm and engraved along the two tiers of little drawers massed with needles and thread on each side of the treadle, stood next to the window and the great coal black stove which up to my last year in college was our source of heat. By December the two outer bedrooms were closed off, and used to chill bottles of milk and cream, cold borscht and jellied calves’ feet.”


Mrs. Palontona and 13 year old daughter, working on pillow-lace in dirty kitchen of their tenement home. They were both very illiterate. Mother is making fancy lace and girl sold me the lace she worked on. New York City. © NARA. Via: (Wikimedia)


Kazin’s mother spent her majority of waking hours working at the kitchen. Then on another page, Kazin goes on describing his mother’s relationship with the kitchen:

“The kitchen gave a special character to our lives; my mother’s character. All my memories of that kitchen are dominated by the nearness of my mother sitting all day long at her sewing machine, by the clacking of the treadle against the linoleum floor, by the patient twist of her right shoulder as she automatically pushed at the wheel with one hand or lifted the foot to free the needle where it had got stuck in a thick piece of material. The kitchen was her life. Year by year, as I began to take in her fantastic capacity for labor and her anxious zeal, I realized it was ourselves she kept stitched together. I can never remember a time when she was not working. She worked because the law of her life was work, work and anxiety; she worked because she would have found life meaningless without work. She read almost no English; she could read the Yiddhish paper, but never felt she had time to. We were always talking of a time when I would teach her how to read, but somehow there was never time. When I awoke in the morning she was already at her machine, or in the great morning crowd of housewives at the grocery getting fresh rolls for breakfast. When I returned from school she was at her machine, or conferring over McCall’s with some neighborhood woman who had come in pointing hopefully to an illustration–“Mrs. Kazin! Mrs. Kazin! Make me a dress like it shows here in the picture!” When my father came home from work she had somehow mysteriously interrupted herself to make supper for us, and the dishes cleared and washed, was back at her machine. When I went to bed at night, often she was still there, pounding away at the treadle, hunched over the wheel, her hands steering a piece of gauze under the needle with a finesse that always contrasted sharply with her swollen hands and broken nails.”


Kazin’s mother. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


This is perhaps one of the most incisive descriptions of loneliness I have ever encountered. Kazin was acutely aware of the poor condition of his family, yet deeper than the poverty, Kazin understood one peculiar thing about his family, especially the way his mother concealed herself through her work. His mother tirelessly worked not because she was driven by the poverty of the family, but because she was lonely if she disengaged herself from her work. Her loneliness was her motivation.

He writes thoughtfully:

“Poor as we were, it was not poverty that drove my mother so hard; it was loneliness–some endless bitter brooding over all those left behind, dead or dying or soon to die; a loneliness locked up in her kitchen that dwelt every day on the hazardousness of life and the nearness of death, but still kept struggling in the lock, trying to get us through by endless labor.”

I do believe that a great writer is a writer who bravely unpacks his “truth”, no matter the pains that he might feel at the end. His truth is his intimate voice. The author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, once said, “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.” The way Kazin describes the loneliness of his mother registers easily into my consciousness and makes me think of loneliness as a universal emotion that is experienced by a lot of us.

“It was always at dusk that my mother’s loneliness came home most to me. Painfully alert to every shift in the light at her window, she would suddenly confess her fatigue by removing her pince-nez, and then wearily pushing aside the great mound of fabrics on her machine, would stare at the streets as if to warm herself in the last of the sun. “How sad it is!” I once heard her say. “It grips me! It grips me!” Twilight was the bottommost part of the day, the chillest and loneliest time for her. Always so near to her moods, I knew she was fighting some deep inner dread, struggling against the returning tide of darkness along the streets that invariably assailed her heart with the same foreboding–Where? Where now? Where is the day taking us now?

Behind his mother’s inner loneliness, Kazin also knew the most shimmering part of her life. He writes:

“Yet one good look at the street would revive her. I see her now, perched against the windowsill, with her face against the glass, her eyes almost asleep in enjoyment, just as she starts up with the guilty cry–“What foolishness is this in me!”–and goes to the stove to prepare supper for us: a moment, only a moment, watching, the evening crowd of women gathering at the grocery for fresh bread and milk. But between my mother’s pent-up face at the window and the winter sun dying in the fabrics–“Alfred, see how beautiful!”–she has drawn for me one single line of sentience. “


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