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Losing the Atmosphere

From Brooklyn to Nebraska: A life in the Mind--Ellen Willow

By Laura Emily Mason

This chapter is part of Laura's memoir Losing the Atmosphere. It occurs about 1/3 of the way into the book, when Laura is 15 years old (in 1957).

Aunt Sadie walked over to where I sat waiting at the buttonhole machine near the grimy plate-glass window that looked out onto 20th Avenue. She had a huge batch of pink flannel pajama tops in her arms, which she dumped onto the floor to the left of my chair. Then she walked back to the long table that ran through the center of the factory, scooped a batch of greens from the trough in front of one of the machines, and returned to dump them on top of the pinks. Next came yellows, and finally, blues. Now the pile was as high as my chair.

“OK,” Aunt Sadie said in a booming voice that rang out over the din of the machines. “The pinks and greens on the bottom are all size ten. The yellows and blues on top are twelves. Get to work!”

She waited until she saw me reach for a blue pajama top before walking back to her own machine, one of fourteen that lined the long table, seven on each side. Those were for regular sewing, one job at each machine, things like putting rickrack on the edges of collars, stitching in sleeves, hemming the bottoms of pant legs, sewing elastic into waists. The trough ran like a communal ditch through the middle line of the table and caught the work coming out of the machines on both sides. Though the women on one side of it faced those on the other, it was impossible for them to talk over the drone and vibrations of the machines. I was glad the button and buttonhole machines were separate, in the front part of the shop near the street. It was only slightly less noisy, but at least there was a window. Every once in a while, I looked up from my work and saw kids bouncing their Spalding balls and women pulling shopping carts filled with groceries.

My job—every day after school—was to make four buttonholes in each pajama top. Speed counted. So did accuracy. For the first hole, I positioned the front edge of the pajama top so the machine’s needle was just below the collar, then pressed the foot pedal. The rest was automatic: in less than a second, the needle made a zigzag stitch to outline the shape of the buttonhole and a razor-sharp knife came down to slice the fabric open inside the outline. DZZZZZ-CHOP. I spaced out the other three buttonholes as evenly as I could, holding the front edge of the pajama top taut between both hands and moving it to the right after each buttonhole was completed, to position it for the next. When I finished the fourth hole, I tossed the pajama top to the floor on my right with one hand, simultaneously reaching for a new one from the pile on my left with the other. DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-TOSS-REACH. The whole thing took five seconds.

It didn’t matter if my spacing was a tiny bit off, because Mary, the lady who would come over in a little while to operate the button machine on my right, would match the button positions to where I had put the holes. But if I made a buttonhole in a totally wrong place, there would be a chop where it didn’t belong and the pajama top would be ruined. There was a remedy for that, though. If I saw I was stitching the outline where it didn’t belong and was really quick, I could press a special button on the machine to stop the knife from coming down. Then I just had to take out the stitching and re-do the buttonhole in the proper place. Last year, when I first started, Aunt Sadie made me practice on flannel scraps. Now I was more experienced and hardly ruined any tops, but whenever I did, she would still scream like crazy. It made no difference that I was her niece, or that I was only fifteen. She screamed at me the same way she screamed at all the other workers, most of whom were middle-aged Italian Catholic women who lived in the neighborhood. Aunt Sadie sent presents to their homes for all the christenings, confirmations, and weddings in their families; she attended the funerals in person.

I reached my left hand out for another blue pajama top. DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-TOSS-REACH. And another…. And another….

Tiring of blue, I slipped my hand way down and retrieved a green.

“Don’t mix the colors!” Aunt Sadie screamed from across the floor. “Don’t mix the sizes!” She saw everything that went on in the entire shop, even when she was sewing at her own machine.

I was bored making buttonholes, but soon I wasn’t making them any more. They were making themselves. I was really a famous author who wrote best-selling novels. And I didn’t live in Brooklyn. I was an orphan who lived far away, in a small town in Nebraska, where I was a housemaid for a kind, rich, middle-aged couple. My name was Ellen Willow.


My employers, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, had told me they were having company for dinner that night. They hadn’t given me any other instructions because they trusted me to know exactly what to buy, and how to cook and serve it. I had planned a menu of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and fresh string beans. Salad would be first, coffee with pastries from the bakery last.


I would stop at the florist on my way home from the bakery; Mr. and Mrs. Robinson would be so pleased when they saw fresh flowers on the dinner table between the lighted tapers.

“Mary!” Aunt Sadie’s megaphone voice brought me swiftly back to Brooklyn. “Laura made enough work for you to start now. I’ll finish those hems, and you move to the button machine.”

Mary, a tall, pretty woman, much younger than the others, with shoulder-length brown hair held back by a narrow red ribbon, left her machine at the long table and walked toward the front of the shop.

“Sam!” Aunt Sadie called. “Laura needs more work. Bring her the size-fourteen yellows from Jenny’s machine.”

The only man in the shop, Uncle Sam took orders from Aunt Sadie like all the rest of us, even though he was her husband. He got up from his machine at the long table, scooped the yellows from the trough in front of Jenny’s machine, and carried them over to mine.

“Hi, Laura,” Mary said as she sat down at the button machine on my right. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” I said.

Within seconds she started her own work, taking a pajama top from the pile between us and sewing four buttons onto it, each dropping into place under her needle from an overhead tube. Now her DZZZZZs were added to my DZZZZZ-CHOPs, but we didn’t start or end a pajama top at the same time, so the rhythm was erratic. The combined noise from both machines created a wall of privacy between us, and I was free to return to my real life in Nebraska.

“That’s Ellen Willow, the new maid who works for the Robinsons,” I heard the florist whisper to another customer as I walked into his shop. I pretended to study the roses through the glass refrigerator door so they wouldn’t know I was listening. “She’s only fifteen, but she’s more capable than any of the grownup maids they had before. They’re very happy with her.”

I felt a delicious warmth inside. Maybe, if I did everything perfectly and made myself indispensable, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson would get to love me and ask me to call them by their first names. Then I would tell them about my books. They only knew me by my real name, Ellen Willow. I wrote my books under a pseudonym, so they had no idea that the little maid who had poured their coffee in their elegant dining room just this morning was really the best-selling author they had been reading about that very minute in their newspapers. Would they be surprised. They might even want to adopt me.
I reached for another pajama top, dimly aware that it was the last in my pile. DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-MOVE, DZZZZZ-CHOP-TOSS. No REACH this time.

“That’s it for today, Laura,” Aunt Sadie called out. “Come tomorrow as soon as you get home from school.”

“OK,” I shouted.

Still sitting, I pushed the chair back with my feet and stretched my arms and legs. It felt good to move. Then I took my glasses off to clean them on my skirt. But it wasn’t flannel dust I wiped from them. It was dust that had blown out when I swept under the divan in Mr. and Mrs. Robinson’s parlor.

I put my glasses back on and stood up, glancing at the huge round wall clock as I took my jacket from the back of the chair and slipped it on. Five-thirty. I had been here two hours—another two dollars in the envelope Aunt Sadie would give me on Friday. I would spend most of it Sunday, when Carrie, Ronnie, and I went ice skating at the Wollman Memorial rink in Central Park: for the skate rental, for the steaming cups of hot chocolate we sipped at the side of the rink on our skating breaks, and for the restaurant afterward, where we always stopped for hamburgers, French fries, and lemon-Cokes before taking the subway back to Brooklyn.

“Bye,” I said to Mary as I bent to get my bag from under my chair.

“Bye, Laura,” she said, looking up from her machine for just a second. “See you tomorrow.”

The cool, twilight air outside was refreshing after the factory, which always smelled faintly of machine oil. I crossed to the bakery on the other side of 20th Avenue. My mother’s study-group was coming over that night, several teachers also preparing for the assistant principal’s test, and she had asked me to pick up some rye bread and cookies on my way home.

“A large rye, no seeds, sliced,” I said to the white-aproned man behind the counter when it was my turn.

He took a loaf from the shelf behind him, laid it in the slicing machine, and waited, slightly impatiently, the half-minute it took for the rows of metal blades on one side to rise out of their grooves, pass through the bread, and come to a shuddering halt in the grooves on the other side.

“Anything else?” he asked as he lifted the bread out, balanced the stack of slices on its end in the palm of one hand, and slipped a waxed-paper bag over it with the other.

“Yes. One pound of these.” I pointed to the heap of small cookies under the glass counter, a jumble of round pink ones with dark jelly fillings, tan squares with little pieces of nuts poking through the dough, and mint-green leaf-shapes with chocolate icing. They would look quite attractive when I arranged them on the Robinsons’ oval platter, I thought as I watched him line a box with a thin sheet of waxed paper, put several handfuls in, and weigh it.

I paid for everything with the Robinsons’ money, which I kept in a separate envelope in my bag, not mixed with my own.

Holding my bakery box by the string, I walked the two blocks home to 74th Street, not past small houses with narrow alleys between them, but past white churches with spires, and two- and three-story gabled houses, each with a wrap-around porch and a small front garden enclosed by a low wrought-iron or picket fence. I had lived in Nebraska almost a year now, and knew my way around the winding tree-lined streets quite well. I even exchanged nods with some of the Robinsons’ neighbors as I passed.

I found my mother standing at the kitchen table, an apron over her suit skirt, studying notes on an index card propped against a teacup while she made tuna salad for her friends; index cards were her own variation of my father’s little-pieces-of-paper method of study.

“Here are your bread and cookies,” I said, laying them on the table next to her bowl. “And here’s your change.” I put the money from the envelope down, too.

“Thank you,” she said without looking up. “But put it all on the cupboard. I’m working here.”

“Mommy,” I said as I began moving everything, “I’m going skating with Carrie and Ronnie on Sunday, and I want to go shopping at A&S Saturday for…”

‘I’m busy now,” she said impatiently. “Can’t you tell me later?”

“IWantToGetASkatingSkirtLikeRonnie’s,” I said as fast as I could, before she chased me away, “TheKindThat’sShort,AboveTheKnee.”

“If you’re asking for money,” she said as she added a spoonful of mayonnaise to the bowl, “just take ten dollars from my purse and bring me the change on Saturday. Don’t involve me in the details.”

Victory, but bittersweet. “OK,” I said. “Can I have some tuna?” It smelled good, and I was hungry.

“Yes, but take it to your room. My study-group will be here in twenty minutes.”

I made a sandwich on the fresh rye bread, poured a glass of milk, then carried them both to my room: through the foyer and past Arnold’s closed partition, light shining around the edges the only indication he was there. I didn’t mind eating alone. I preferred it. My stomach didn’t tighten the way it did when we all ate together; and without my father’s yelling, I could enjoy the taste of the food. I knew my father would eat alone tonight, too. As soon as he came home, any minute now, my mother would bring a sandwich into the living room for him so the kitchen would be free for her friends. My mother’s study-group was the only company my father didn’t object to; they were studying to get ahead in their careers, and he approved of that.

I closed my door, turned on the floor lamp—it gave a cozier glow than the fluorescent light overhead—and lay my food on the tray-table next to my tan armchair, alongside Pride and Prejudice, its paper bookmark poking out invitingly. Tucking my feet under me, I settled in against the cushions to my idea of perfect contentment: reading while I ate.

The novels I wrote under my pseudonym were exactly like Jane Austen’s, stories where society people were “presented” and said things like “the former” and “the latter” when they spoke to one another. They never raised their voices. If they were annoyed, they either expressed their displeasure with “cold civility”—so elegant—or witty sarcasm. I had laughed out loud while I was reading yesterday, when Mrs. Bennet complained to her husband that he had no compassion for her nerves, and he said: “You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.” But most of the time in Jane Austen’s books, and mine, too, people had ordinary conversations as they sat around in drawing rooms or walked through country lanes, the ladies wearing long dresses and carrying parasols.

I finished my sandwich just as Elizabeth was consoling her sister, Jane, on Mr. Bingley’s sudden return to London. Laying the book face down on the tray-table, I got up to bring the empty plate and glass to my desk. I would take them back to the kitchen when my mother’s friends were gone, but for now, I set them down in front of the 5x7 index-card sign I had tacked to my bulletin board two years before, when I first started taking French. JE SUIS MOI!!!!! it proclaimed in green ink and my neatest handwriting. I am me!!!!!

As I turned back toward my chair, my eye fell on the gray clothbound notebook on the shelf above my desk, the notebook into which I copied my finished poems. It was my most treasured possession. Whenever a poem pushed up from inside me, I wrote it first on a lined pad, discarding sheet after sheet until I was satisfied. Only then did I copy it into my special notebook, distinguished by its cloth cover from the marbleized black-and-white composition books every child used in elementary school. I was going to be a writer one day, and this volume held the precious beginnings of my literary career.

I took it back to my chair, opened to the first page, and read the title I had printed in block letters the day I bought it last year:

Bad Poems,
with bad rhymes and meters,
but with
Good Thoughts
(also other stuff besides poems)
by one

The Ellen Willow who lived in Nebraska was already a published author, but I knew she was only a fantasy. The real Ellen Willow, me, lived in Brooklyn with my parents and still went to high school. It wouldn’t be long before a publisher discovered me, though, and when he did, this handsome, clothbound notebook would be ready to present to him.

With a surge of pride, I fingered the next pages, poems, seven of them, that I had written. After those came blank pages—most of the book—which I hoped to fill soon. I stopped at a poem about my father.

I live with a stranger; I know but his name.
We live together by the rules of a game:
You don’t annoy me; I won’t annoy you.
Both of us are a little bit fou.

Strangers we are—in a house, not a home.
Sometimes I have a great urge to roam
Far, far away and be all by myself—
Perhaps live in the woods like a little old elf.

I purposefully hadn’t mentioned my father specifically, but merely alluded to him. All my poems had riddles like that, because they were going to be published. When they were, the outside world would finally know how difficult life was for me. They would know about the hand that could come down any second, the hand that tried to drag me away from being human, and how I had to hide inside myself until it let go and I could come out again for a while. They would know how hard it was for me to go on doing regular, everyday things when I knew that everything could be shattered at any moment. But if I didn’t tell it all in delicate words, people would flinch and stop reading. So I had to write about my pain in code, to make art and beauty out of it, the way Emily Dickinson did.

Even my name, Ellen Willow, was in code. “Ellen” was from Scarlett O’Hara’s mother, Ellen O’Hara, in Gone With the Wind. She had been only fifteen when, after an unhappy love affair with her teenage cousin, she married the forty-three-year-old Gerald O’Hara and moved from Savannah to north Georgia, “a world that was as strange and different as if she had crossed a continent.” She never let anyone see her heartache, but assumed her duties as mistress of Gerald’s plantation with dignity, gentleness, and “quiet grace.” Ellen was a calming influence on everyone, able to soothe her volatile husband even when he was drunk, and the only person revered by the fiery Scarlett, who thought her mother was “the embodiment of justice, truth, loving tenderness and profound wisdom.” My last name, “Willow,” was from weeping willow trees, so sad all the time, yet so beautiful in their sadness, with majestic branches drooping gracefully to the ground. The only sound of their weeping was the gentle rustle of their leaves.

The two Ellen Willows had been a major part of my life since they first came into being about a year before. The Nebraska Ellen Willow appeared first, on a day I felt especially miserable about something my father had done and was sobbing uncontrollably in my room, face down on my sofa.

I hated my life so much I didn’t see how I could go on living one more minute. It would have been bearable if anyone—my mother or my aunts—had given just a small indication that they realized how hard everything was for me. But everyone always acted as if life were going on normally. Surely my aunts could hear all the screaming and hitting through the walls and windows, even if they didn’t know about every single rule, or about the constant criticism. If everything was so normal, why did they still whisper “Is your father home?” whenever they knocked on my apartment door? And if I said “Yes,” why did they still say “Oh, then I’ll come back later” and go away and leave me there?

The only hope I used to have was my mother. I knew she knew, because she lived right in the apartment, and also because her face was so grim most of the time. But whenever I asked her why she tolerated everything my father did, she would say “I’m surviving,” or “I’m coping,” as if that were all she strived for and she had met her goal. She never realized I was asking why she tolerated it for the whole family, not just for herself.

On that end-of-the-world day, I got up from my sofa to seek solace from the Atmosphere people in the mirror. But when I saw my twisted face in the glass, snot dripping from my nose while horrendous, gulping sounds rose from deep within me, I knew I was too ugly and disgusting even for the Atmosphere people. They didn’t come.

I took a tissue from the box on the end table near the mirror and wiped my nose. Then, still crying, I picked up my brush and began brushing my hair. I tilted my head slightly with each stroke and watched the hair swing gently. As I brushed, the gulps became weaker, then stopped altogether. And there in the glass was a pretty girl with a serene face. The lashes under her large brown eyes were wet, but no sound escaped her lips. Slowly, she began to smile, a brave, tentative smile. I put the brush down, locked eyes with her, and took control of the smile, making it stick. Now I was presentable enough for the Atmosphere people. They came and looked kindly down on me, admiring me for bearing my pain with such quiet dignity.

That wasn’t hard to do, because I didn’t really feel the pain any more. All I had was a memory of it, as if it belonged to a me of the past. The present me, the smiling girl in the mirror, had just become an orphan. She would never feel the pain again.

With no relatives left in the entire world, I was alone in the 74th Street house. Conscious that the Atmosphere people were waiting to see what I would do, I walked to my closet and took my red and white woolen scarf off its hanger. Back in front of the mirror, I arranged it stylishly around my neck. Then I pantomimed getting money out of my bag.

“One way, no return,” I said aloud to the bus driver. I handed him the money and took my ticket. The Atmosphere people admired my pluck.

I rode for days until I saw a town that looked perfect: small shops, picturesque houses, winding streets with lots of trees, people who were dressed as if they had just come from church even though it wasn’t Sunday. Still watching myself in the mirror, I re-arranged the woolen scarf, then turned sideways. The Atmosphere people saw me turn and knew I was getting my suitcase down from the overhead rack.

I got off the bus and watched it pull away. Then I asked some people in the street what place this was.

“Nebraska,” they said.

And somehow, just as I knew that Nebraska was where I would start my wonderful new orphan life, I knew that my name was Ellen Willow.

From that day on, I kept adding more details to the story: I rented a small house all for myself and found a job as a maid on the other, rich side of town; I bought a typewriter, wrote books in the evening after work, and mailed them to a publisher far away in Boston who didn’t know my real name or that I was just a teenager. At first I added the details only when I was looking in the mirror, but soon I began adding them whenever I was alone and doing something that didn’t require concentration: walking by myself in the street, working in the factory, standing at the kitchen sink while I washed the supper dishes using my father’s mandatory, interminably long method. It was like a novel I had read over and over and never tired of. I could open the book at any point and go forward from there, refining and adding details as I went along, details which would be part of the story the next time I entered it.

And just as the reader of a novel doesn’t know every detail of the heroine’s life, but only those the author chose to write, I didn’t know everything about Ellen Willow. I knew she was a writer who used a pseudonym, but not what the pseudonym was. I knew she wrote novels, but not their titles. I knew she quickly came to know the names of all the streets in the Nebraska town, but never knew the names themselves. And I knew that “bad things happened to her” before she became an orphan, but not what the bad things were.

The Ellen Willow story was every bit as satisfying as a good novel; whenever I was in it, I felt as if I were really living it. Yet I always knew it was just a story. In between the relief it provided, I still lived my life as Laura in Brooklyn. I was definitely not an orphan, though on one tantalizing afternoon when I was fourteen, I came close to something almost as good.

I had been shopping on Bay Parkway with my mother’s cousin Mildred, when she suddenly clutched my arm and said excitedly, “Did you see that man? Doesn’t he look exactly like your mother’s first husband?”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. “My mother was never married before!” I hadn’t seen which man Mildred meant—he had already blended into the passing crowd—but whoever he was, he certainly had nothing to do with me. Mildred had always been a little crazy, and maybe this was part of her craziness.

“Ask your mother when you get home, and you’ll see I’m telling the truth,” Mildred said as the shoppers parted to walk around us.

Back in the kitchen an hour later, I was astounded when my mother confirmed Mildred’s story. But my initial shock immediately turned to joy at the implication.

“Who’s my real father?” I asked. “Daddy or your first husband?”

“Daddy is,” my mother assured me, crushing my hopes. “I didn’t have any children in my first marriage.”

And so my only escape continued to be Ellen Willow’s Nebraska life.

But then one day, when I was walking in the street by myself and starting to enter the story, something different happened. I felt just like Ellen Willow: calm, confident, special. Yet I wasn’t in Nebraska. I was in Brooklyn. I wasn’t an orphan; I had the same parents and life I did as Laura. I knew every detail of my life, not just what the author chose to put down on the page: every street name, every bad thing that had ever happened to me. But unlike Laura, I didn’t feel miserable or angry, or that the reason for all the bad things was that something was inherently wrong with me. I felt proud of being able to rise above it all, proud of being able to live an ordinary life under such difficult conditions. Only an extraordinary person could do that.

As soon as I got home, I sat down at my desk and wrote my name on a sheet of paper. Ellen Willow. I drew a flower next to it, five petals at the end of a long stem graced with thin leaves.

From that day on, in my Brooklyn world, Ellen Willow often alternated with Laura. We went into and out of one another; I could be Ellen Willow one minute and Laura the next. I wasn’t even aware of the changeovers. I/we just functioned smoothly in one life. Whenever I wrote a poem, I signed it Ellen Willow; Laura would never have dreamed she was entitled to tell the world what our life was like, even in code. But when I wrote ordinary things—notes to my mother saying I would be home late from school, a birthday card to my cousin Hannah next door—the signature sometimes came out Laura, sometimes Ellen Willow, with the flower. No one ever questioned it. Hannah sometimes called me “Miss Willow,” but my mother and aunts thought Ellen Willow was just for writing—though they didn’t know about the poems—and they always called me Laura. Laura wasn’t always my real name, but I always answered to it anyway. It was simpler that way.

Whenever I was the real Ellen Willow, in Brooklyn, I knew with certainty that I would eventually live the life of the Nebraska Ellen Willow. One day I would actually escape to Nebraska, a place so far away that no one from Brooklyn would think of looking for me there. People like the Robinsons would hire me as a maid, knowing nothing about my past. After I had been working for them a while, they would somehow find out about my life before my escape, though they would never become contaminated by knowing the details. They would just admire that I had been strong enough to get through “it” without once complaining, and that I was managing not only to live a regular life and support myself, but also to write books. They would admire and love me so much that they would offer me a home—as their adopted daughter, not their maid. I would think it over for a few minutes while they waited anxiously for my decision. When I finally said yes, their faces would break into smiles.

For now I was still living in Brooklyn, but I was already on my way. Each poem I added to my clothbound notebook brought me a little closer to becoming a famous author, a little closer to Nebraska.

For more about Laura Emily Mason, check out her 3-part essay, “Myself Divided: Living with Multiple Personalities,” in the DUCTS archives (Memoir section).
Part 1: Issue #5, Autumn 2000
Part 2: Issue #6, Winter 2000
Part 3: Issue #7, Summer 2001