Union Maid: The Spirit of Hindi Brooks

 

When I was a child my mother, Hindi Brooks Kleinmuntz, used to get up and sing “Union Maid” at parties. Her lifelong friend Esther (“Essie”) Broner sometimes accompanied her, and the two would belt out this pro-labor folk song luminous-faced and full of spunk. . . . I was only a little embarrassed.

Years later, my mom wrote a musical about a woman union organizer set in the early 1900s. The finale of the show was, of course, “Union Maid.”

In early December 2011, as my mother lay in a hospital bed, robbed of speech by a massive stroke, I realized I should be singing to her. (The doctors had told us she probably understood only 30 – 40% of what we said to her. Yet the part of the brain responsible for music was on the opposite, unaffected side.) But what to sing? I’d spent much of my life phobic about singing in public, and although I’ve now largely shed this phobia, it had hindered my learning of lyrics. (If you don’t sing songs, you don’t learn the words!)

It didn’t take long for the answer to come. Union Maid, of course! I would sing Union Maid. But I only knew the first line: “There once was a union maid, she never was afraid.” It was a good start. I knew my mom was terrified; I could see it in her face. This song was perfect; it was about a fearless woman. I sang this line to her a couple of times, and with her good hand she kept time to the music. Halleluiah! The song touched just the spot in her spirit that needed touching.

About an hour later, my mother pointed to my mouth. “What?” I said. Not a good question to ask someone who’s just been robbed of speech. But she found my hand and tapped rhythmically into my palm. “The song?” I said. “You want me to sing again?” She nodded.

This was the time for action and the internet. But I had no access at the hospital. One call to my resourceful friend Craig, and we were on our way. (Craig found and faxed the full lyrics to the nurses’ station, identified the writer as Woody Guthrie, and played an internet recording into my voice mail so I’d have the melody right.) Now each time my mom indicated that she wanted to hear the song, I was able to sing the full song to her . . . twice. She always wanted to hear it twice.

Nine days later, my beautiful Union Maid mom passed away (to join the great Union). But I wasn’t done singing. I knew I needed to sing the song one more time . . . at her funeral. “Union Maid” had helped my mom because it embodies the essence of who she is (I’m claiming my right to present tense for a while longer). She recognized the fearless union maid as a reflection of who she, Hindi, is in her core. That was the place it touched in her spirit.

Perhaps some of you will see yourself (your core self) reflected in this song. (Oh, and by the way, everyone at the memorial service sang along with me!)

Union Maid
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come ’round
She always stood her ground.

Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.

(To read full song lyrics click here.)

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5 comments on “Union Maid: The Spirit of Hindi Brooks

  1. Carlene Brown says:

    Beautiful, beautiful post! Hindi did stick to the union ’till the day she died– stuck with the 99%. I’m so glad you sang the song at her memorial and were supported by the entire audience who joined you in sticking with the 99%.

  2. Brady Rubin says:

    Oh, Nomi, what a beautiful tribute…. and of course I thought I didn’t know the song, but I know the chorus well… I’m a Union Maid myself and I think I sang this with Hindi on Women In Film retreats, where she contributed so much to the fun and comraderie!

    …and, a little known fact: my son, Carson Sipes, played the little Coolidge boy who died from a heel infection, on your Mom’s _____of the White House!! (or was it Wilson??!) Anyway, we both enjoyed that fact when we learned it later…

    Thank you!!

  3. Carolyn Breedlove says:

    Touching post, long-lost writing friend. You’ve reminded me of an ice cream truck that used to drive around Silverlake in the 70s playing this–& probably inspired me to add that detail to the novel I’m eking out.

    • writingcoachnomi says:

      Hi Carolyn! Nice to hear from you!
      That’s amazing that an ice-cream truck played a Woody Guthrie song. I love it.
      Good to hear you’re still writing.

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