by Jurczok 1001
The article below was published in German on Mother’s Day in Republik, in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of Swiss women’s right to vote. The text appears here in English translation by Rafaël Newman.
I had heard many of the stories before, but today, on Mother’s Day, they took on an added dimension. Suddenly it wasn’t just my mother I saw before me, standing there in the kitchen, her apron knotted behind her back, her torso framed by the kitchen window, in her right hand her paring knife, the one whose grip is held together with tape, the one she wouldn’t replace for anything in the world, because it sits in her hand like no other knife, which is to say: just right – suddenly what I beheld in her stories was Switzerland in the sixties and seventies.
Perhaps because Mama has just uttered a sentence I have never heard from her before. She pronounced it casually, somewhat absent-mindedly, while meticulously sliding the plastic spatula under the filet of flounder, to prevent its delicate skin sticking to the pan when she turned it – cooking was Mama’s top priority.
That’s right, Mama is cooking on Mother’s Day. Filet of flounder with wild rice, a medley of green and white asparagus on the side. And no, I’m not helping her, Mama has never let anyone help her when she cooks, not even on Mother’s Day. That isn’t going to change now. Her movements are so choreographed that the slightest deviation would only create unnecessary bother. And that is to be avoided, above all on Mother’s Day. So the best way for me to help her is to stay in my corner and read.
I prefer to do it myself, Mama would say, otherwise I would only have to do it twice. Kitchen economy. In a kitchen where there’s barely room for one person, let alone two. In a kitchen with badly designed countertops and scarcely any storage space.
So here I am at my place at the kitchen table, where I’m not in the way. I’m reading the newspaper articles she’s put aside for me, like she always does when I come to visit. Art and politics. Literature and history. These are our roles. Mama cooks, adds the odd remark about the articles, while her handiwork makes the pots hiss and steam. I read, keeping my answers simple for the moment, since talk, too, can spoil the broth – or rather, burn the fish. We’ll talk while we eat. That’s the way we do it.
And that’s why I don’t comment on her remark, the one she makes more to her pots and pans than to me: Papa treated me the way the Swiss treated their women – I didn’t have a vote.
Mama shakes her head, what she’s thinking about now is the Migros: the Swiss supermarket chain is no longer what it used to be. And before I start up about organic markets and healthfood cooperatives, says Mama, the radishes from the German box store are not only cheaper, they’re also better. Back in the day I had to get by on 600 Sfr. a month. So you learn to compare prices. Especially for radishes, you know, Papa loved radishes.
How’s the flounder?
I praise the dill and the butter sauce. Mama’s happy the rice is hot. The rice needs to be hot. It never works out that way in a restaurant. By the time the plates are on the table, the rice is cold.
And I know, without her telling me again, that in those days she never once drank a coffee out. That’s also the good thing about the cold rice at restaurants: you don’t start wanting something you can’t afford anyway.
In the year I was born, 1974, a café crème cost 1.80 Sfr. For the price of a coffee out you could cook lunch at home. A restaurant coffee was the unit Mama used to calculate things. And she knew that the longer she spent in the kitchen, the better the value of the meal. Kitchen economy, chapter two, the time/performance ratio: the more time a housewife invests in cooking and baking, the better the family budget fares.
Open brackets: a package of whole almonds is cheaper than a package of ground almonds. So: buy whole almonds, boil the almonds, peel each almond individually, grind the almonds. Besides, it feels nice in your housewife’s fingers when the naked almonds shoot out of their skins. There’s no comparing the aroma of freshly ground, moist almonds with the dry, grated almonds from the package. Without a doubt! No restaurant coffee can possibly be as good as home-baked almond cookies! Close brackets.
Processed foods are the worst. That’s where the time/performance spread really yawns. The time for four Maggi Quick Lunches is so expensive, not even Mama can perform at that level. Because Mama doesn’t have the time to compensate for the cost of four Quick Lunches with even more home cooking. Because that time is needed elsewhere: making beds, vacuuming, doing laundry, ironing, polishing furniture, altering clothes…
Mama saved the 0.50 Sfr. for a bus ride into the village. She walked to the Migros. It didn’t save her time. Down to the village: a quarter of an hour. Back up with full shopping bags: twenty minutes. A car? Yes, good idea!
A car drove with Papa to work and then remained there, all day long, on the company parking lot.
The man (Papa) takes the car to work. The woman (Mama) does the shopping on foot. When the man (Papa) comes home from work, what she has bought – the rice is hot! – is on the table. Even if Papa gets home for dinner much too late (sometimes he doesn’t make it at all).
Let’s stay with time: that is, with potential money. The money the man earns and gives the woman has a special name: housekeeping money. That’s the money that the woman, in this case Mama, receives for the housekeeping. Not for the time it takes to do the housekeeping, no, no, for the household as such: for food, cleaning supplies, and clothes.
Household. Keeping the house. It sounds so tidy. So impersonal. Almost as if it could take care of itself. Entirely automatic. No wonder Papa gets upset if he gets wind of it, something that hardly ever occurs: Do you really need to vacuum right now? There’s no need for that! On a Saturday! Vacuuming!
At the beginning of each month Papa would leave an envelope containing 600 Sfr. on the kitchen table. At the time that was all there was for the housekeeping. There were the mortgage payments. There were the car payments. And there it is again, Mama’s voting analogy: The deed for the apartment was in Papa’s name only. Mama only found out about it later. She wasn’t present at the signing. Not so out of the ordinary in those days.
Both of them, the car and the apartment purchase, could have been handled differently. If Mama had been included in the decisions. If she had had a say about them. If she had had a vote, in the narrowest sense: a vote in her own four walls.
Naturalization was out of the question. Much too expensive. And that wasn’t what she was after anyway.
Mama found an envelope containing two photos she had long believed lost: two nearly identical photos, two studio portraits. She is wearing a white top, with her hair up. A young woman in her early twenties, freshly arrived in Switzerland. Curious, alert, cocky. Her first job in a foreign country! It was 1963. From her home in Regensburg she had applied to Sulzer in Winterthur and had promptly received an offer. Mama holds the two pictures in her hands, looks at herself, critically, thoughtfully. I don’t know where her thoughts are taking her. Mama was not yet married at that point.
The company where Papa worked was right next to the train station in Au. It took the bus six minutes to go from our apartment complex on the hill to Wädenswil station. The Wädenswil–Au train journey took three minutes. Including the walk and the waiting time, it would have taken Papa around 20 minutes to get to work by public transport.
It took the same amount of time for Mama to walk home from the village. And as a result, she lost her nerve behind the wheel. Even considering the fact that Papa needed the car on certain days to visit clients: an arrangement could have been reached. But in those days, making arrangements wasn’t suitable for a man (Papa). Or should I say: arrangements wouldn’t have suited a man (Papa)?
Back to the housekeeping money. The 600 Sfr. Mama had at her disposal and that she had to allocate herself. Not once did she miscalculate. Not once did she have to beg Papa for money before the end of the month. She’s proud of that to this day. After all, there was talk of women in the neighborhood who couldn’t budget, who couldn’t manage.
But then something unexpected occurred: Mama had to go to the dentist.
You need a bridge, ma’am!
A what? And much more important: What does a bridge cost?
Mama warms the rice up again, pours a little white wine into the dill-butter sauce, stirs the stubby wooden spoon around in the Teflon pan. It’s among the characteristics of age to find amusement in what you’ve been through. Amusement isn’t quite the right word. Somehow she made it. And now we toast, Happy Mother’s Day, Mama!
So Mama had to ask Papa whether she, whether the two of them, in fact: whether Papa could afford this bridge. Papa’s answer was curt:
How about a job?
I hardly knew what to say to that, says Mama today, decades later.
Perhaps she had just tied her apron, with the kitchen fan droning away above her cooking pots. Perhaps she was standing on the balcony next to the birdhouse, watching the evening breeze rock the bird balls, those little yellow nets filled with fat and picked-over seed. Her thoughts surely had to be straying someplace, just as surely as everything had to continue on the way it was. Papa set great store by that. Everything had to function effortlessly.
How about a job?
A job. Sure. But what kind? She already had her hands full as it was. And at this point Mama always mentions the Lord God, who regularly opened a door for her when there was no way out. In her head, to begin with.
She recalled a neighbor who worked Saturdays at the Globus department store in Zurich. She could do that as well, she thought, and went through all the shops on Zugerstrasse, Wädenswil’s main street.
At the household goods store, where Mama would never buy anything herself, they didn’t need anyone. But the woman at the kiosk said a bit of help would be wonderful. Only one thing: no toilet. She’d have to go across the street to the restaurant. Mama imagined the fellows at their regular table there, their looks, their jokes.
She inquired at Brupbacher’s lamp store opposite the ABM, and when she told the manager she could work Saturdays, he beamed: She could start the very next week. The applicants he had seen so far were all unavailable on Saturdays – their husbands wanted them at home then.
Papa had nothing against Mama wanting to work. He had suggested it, after all. Other men in the neighborhood wanted none of that. People might think they didn’t earn enough.
So beginning in December 1980, Mama worked two days a week as a saleswoman.
Yes, Papa was actually okay with it – but in his way. And Mama told me about it for the first time that Mother’s Day.
It started with Papa saying he wanted to sleep in on Saturday morning, and that he didn’t want to hear any alarm clocks. He forbade Mama to set one. Mama had to get up as noiselessly as possible.
My brother, who was an early riser, would knock softly on the bedroom wall to wake her. Once, when she emerged from her morning shower, Papa asked her whether she was in fact required to shower for her shift at the lamp store, and then, when she was filing her nails one Friday evening, asked her more pointedly whether she was doing it for the boss’s benefit.
The dentist, by the way, had a big heart. Mama was permitted to pay in instalments. She earned 450 Sfr. a month. A pile of money, she says. But before she got her bridge, Mama made a list: what my brother and I needed. Which the housekeeping money would never cover.
We go into the living room to take our Mother’s Day coffee. Mama has baked a streusel cake, whipped some cream. And before she can hand me another stack of newspaper articles, I say: No thanks, Mama, that’s enough for today.
Jurczok 1001, AKA Roland Jurczok, is a poet and singer and is among Switzerland’s spoken word pioneers. He has been performing since 1996, at such venues as woerdz Lucerne, Kaufleuten Zurich, poesiefestival berlin, and the NYU’s Deutsches Haus. He has taken his act to India and Russia. In 2018 he published Spoken Beats, a collection of his spoken word texts, with Edition Patrick Frey Zurich. For a study of his groundbreaking work as a performance artist see Rafaël Newman & Caroline Wiedmer, “Melinda Nadj Abonji and Jurczok 1001: Performance, Politics, and Poetry,” in Lyn Marven, Andrew Plowman and Kate Roy, eds., The Short Story in German in the Twenty-First Century (London: Camden Press, 2020).