Labor Daydreams

Today is Labor Day, a day dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. But who are these so called “American workers” anyway?

The current US unemployment rate is the worst this country has seen in over 25 years, with 9.1 percent of our workforce out of work. This dismal state of affairs takes a bit of the celebratory feel out of the holiday, and lessens the compensatory nature of a day off work.

But perhaps the meaning of this traditional American holiday should be expanded during these difficult economic times to pay tribute to those Americans who are simply hard workers. Today should honor those people who get up each day and work to the best of their ability at whatever they do. The quality that should be celebrated and admired is hard work, not paid employment.

Today should be for anyone who works hard, from cocktail waitresses to computer consultants, from plumbers to paper boys, from homemakers to heart surgeons, and even those people who are currently unemployed but are working very hard to find a job.

I didn’t walk five miles uphill to school and back or anything like that, but no matter what my endeavor, I have always been a hard worker. Like most people already in the throes of middle age, I was raised to understand the meaning of hard work, and was expected to apply it in a variety of situations.

Back in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, kids had real chores and I was no exception. I’m not talking about clearing the table after dinner, mind you. To my parents, chores were only worthwhile if they involved hours of tedious detail or backbreaking labor. My friends were used to me being tied up on the weekends with “yard work,” “gardening” or “house cleaning.”  But these typical childhood chores were different in our home.

For example, cutting my parents’ three and a half acres of grass involved a Yanmar tractor with a mower deck attached, supplemented by a push mower to get around trees and tight angles, and at least two days.  And “gardening” really should have been called “crop tending” because of the hours of weeding, watering and fertilizing needed to cultivate my parents’ gargantuan 40 by 15 foot vegetable garden.

Growing up in a small brick ranch house meant that housework was lighter duty, but in keeping with my parents’ work ethic, these chores were also quite time consuming. I recall my mother teaching me the proper way to dust a room, starting from the angle where the wall meets the ceiling and working one’s way down to the baseboards, wiping all flat surfaces and moving all objects along the way, so that one can start cleaning the floors. Needless to say, I hate dusting to this very day.

And then there was the dreaded silver polishing. Despite the fact that we lived in a 1950s brick ranch on a dead end road off Route 286 in a small Western PA town, my mother had enough silver serving dishes to host the Duke and Duchess of York and their royal entourage for brunch. I toiled for hours rubbing silver polishing creams and pastes into the intricate nooks and crannies of my mothers pieces, which included three large trays; a full tea set with pot, sugar, creamer and biscuit dish; water pitcher; ladle, covered butter dish; candlesticks; fruit bowl; wine cooler; rectangular chaffing dish; and round chaffing dish.

I’m not really sure what a chaffing dish is or why my mother needed two of them, but suffice it to say that the only thing getting chaffed in my mother’s dining room was my hands. Once silver was properly cleaned, rinsed and polished to a bright shine, it would sit on my mother’s buffet, slowly collecting dust and turning yellow until the next time I polished.

After I went off to college, my mother got rid of much of her silver, and the remaining pieces still sit on her buffet today, looking more like brass than silver, because I am not around anymore to take on the unenviable job of polishing it.

My three kids, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a hard day’s work if it hit them in the head with a toilet bowl brush. I tried to start them off right, by making intricate laminated chore charts with velcroed stars and X’es to indicate job completion. When that didn’t work, I resorted to store bought Spongebob chore charts with little yellow stampers. When that didn’t work I tried ranting and raving. Then we tried withholding allowance. And on it went until I was threatening to send them all to military school if they did not make their beds.

Why is it so hard these days to teach the meaning of hard work? Did we work harder when we were kids because we got spanked? Or was it just that there wasn’t anything better to do because the only thing on TV was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?

Whatever it was, I, for one, am ready to once again recognize the value of an honest day’s work. In fact, even though I am still wearing my pajama pants and haven’t brushed my hair at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, I actually used my Labor Day off to get a hell of a lot done.

I got up at 7:30 am, emptied the dishwasher, loaded the dishwasher, mopped the floors, vacuumed the carpets, dusted the family room (still hate it), cleaned the toilets, stripped the sheets, tried to install a printer disk on my son’s laptop, folded laundry while I was on hold for 45 minutes with Dell Tech Support, put in another load of laundry while I told the Dell Tech Support representative from New Delhi to take a hike for trying to charge me $129 for asking a question, made lunch for the kids, watered my tomato plants, prepared the hamburger patties for tonight’s barbecue, called my mother so we could reminisce about her silver, and wrote this column.

So here’s to hard work whatever form it takes. In the home, at the office, or on the construction site, an honest day’s work is to be appreciated, whether one receives a paycheck for it or not.

As American actress Bette Davis once said, “To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given a chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy.”

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Comments: 2

  1. Maz September 14, 2011 at 9:45 pm Reply

    Loved it! Lived it! Laughed at it!

  2. energywriter September 6, 2011 at 8:46 am Reply

    Great piece, Lisa. I’m not sure why kids shirk responsibility these days. Perhaps because we’ve tried to spare them our work experiences.

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