Guided by her sure right hand, the hot iron made crisp, flat landscapes out of crinkly cotton shorts, linen blouses and even a few T-shirts, though I'd asked Mom not to waste her time pressing them.

"I'm just 'smashing' them," she explained, pulling another item from the pile. "Makes them look nicer."

Labor Day and Hurricane Dennis loomed, but summer still seemed invincible at our rented, North Carolina beach house last week. My family was halfway through a week of leisurely, home-cooked meals and coma-like naps. It was my mother's long-awaited vacation with her family and her fiance.

And though no one had asked her to, Mom was ironing.

She was talking, too, saying young people are clueless as to what their ancestors endured.

"C'mon, you can't say we have no idea," my husband protested. "With all we've read and heard?"

Mom looked at him.

"Do you know what my grandmother's day was like?" she said. Setting down the iron, she adopted a stance befitting any discussion about the woman who toiled as a domestic in suburban Philadelphia while helping to raise her.

"Nana had to be at work by 7 in the morning and got home at 7:30 at night, seven days a week," Mom began, "except for half a day every Thursday--when she cleaned another woman's apartment--and two Sundays a month.

"She ironed 36 starched shirts a week for her employer and his three sons, 14 dresses for his daughters. She cooked three meals a day, from scratch . . . had to dust, polish silver--there was no stainless steel, so the flatware and serving dishes were all sterling silver."

Dramatic pause.

"For $10 a week."

Both Mom and my husband were right, of course. What we know of our ancestors' lives deeply informs who we are, whether we're African American, Jewish, Latino, whatever. That knowledge shapes our perspectives as surely as genes determine our eye color.

But knowing about a person's--or a people's--life isn't the same as feeling, smelling, tasting it. The year before my great-grandmother died at 89, Nana, by then nearly blind from glaucoma, peered at the toddler that I was and exclaimed, "I see her! Isn't she wearing polka dots?"

My mother's words at the beach house helped me to see Nana. And they made me wonder how this woman for whom every day was "Labor Day" might see my world. Would she find black folks' progress astonishing, though it was forged in great measure by the unceasing labors of millions just like her?

Nana, whose husband died in about 1918, never let her employer see the 10-room brick home she managed to have built from those $10 paydays. A friend had been fired after her boss saw her lovely home. "The help" wasn't supposed to do that well.

Today, millions are doing much better, in a world in which they can identify, and often correct, inequalities. Was Nana bitter from working so hard with so little recourse?

"I used to hear her scream in her sleep, she had horrific nightmares," Mom said. "I could tell she always felt insecure. But I don't think she was bitter toward her employers. She resented the long hours, but she was with them over 20 years; they were her second family. . . .

"I think she was unhappy but saw no better life at the time."

Most people just made the best of it.

"There was a man next door--I'll never forget it--he was a servant by day and an actor by night," Mom continued. "He played Othello at a white-owned theater. . . . If he had the brains to do Othello, why was he a servant?"

She shook her head and smashed another shirt. "It was a whole 'nother world," she said with a sigh. "Just another world."

Since returning home from the beach, I've thought about that a lot. I've wondered: What would Nana, and all our Grandmas and Pop-Pops and relatives long gone, think of the descendants for whom they struggled? I asked Mom her thoughts. Mom paused.

"My grandmother maintained her dignity, had perfect speech, was a God-fearing and God-loving person who was in church whenever she could be there," Mom told me. Though some people are taking advantage of the opportunities purchased by hard work like hers, "others are squandering them. For people not even to vote. . . . Nana wouldn't like that."

I certainly don't. Whatever Labor Day's intended meaning, the holiday for me honors the toil of ancestors, known and unknown, who got us to today. Ancestors like Nana.

And like Mom, who irons even on vacation to make things a bit smoother for her loved ones.