This I Believe

Lynn - Blue Hill, Maine
Entered on February 21, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: work

I believe in work. The good old fashioned, roll up your sleeves, get the job done, daily grind.

This family trait goes back generations. My grandparents moved to Maine from Canada around 1910. My grandfather worked until the year before he died at 84 – roofing, doing construction, carpentry. He and my father built the house we grew up in. There was nothing he could not do.

My grandmother worked in the shoe mills of Lewiston until the children started coming. Then her work was baking loaves of bread, making the family’s soap, growing and canning their vegetables, making their clothes, stitching dozens of quilts from clothing too worn to be saved. On my bed, I have a quilt made of dresses my mother remembers wearing.

No one had to tell us that hard work was expected, valued, and rewarded. My four sisters and I worked summers and put ourselves through private high school, then college. We waited tables and tended bar – many of us worked at the same restaurant my mother did when she was a teenager. Every place we ever worked, welcomed us back with glad cries. Our work ethic was legend.

We took nothing for granted; there was no safety net. My father was a roofer. He worked with boiling tar in 90 degree heat and plowed parking lots in sub-zero temps in the middle of night. Hard work – but work that didn’t pay all that well. We didn’t starve, my mother always made sure we had shine on our shoes, but if we wanted the extras – and we did – we would have to do it ourselves. We thought nothing of this.

What we learned was invaluable. We learned how to talk to any one of any age and any social class (our tips depended on it). We learned how to be members of a team, to juggle multiple demands, to remember details, where the fish fork goes, and how to mix a kick ass Side Car. We learned the value of a buck, as my father would say.

It wasn’t until college that I realized how unusual this was. While I rode my bike the eight miles to campus from the house where I was exchanging babysitting for room and board, other students were driving BMWs. While I took six courses a semester to shave off a half a year of tuition, other kids were on the six year plan. I remember inviting a couple of students over for dinner. One sniffed as he looked at the table: I always thought serving bread at meals was bourgeois. Hey, bourgeois for my family was a step up.

I’m 44 now, a single mother, and I’ve always loved work – learning new skills, accomplishing a project, the workplace collegiality, making the community I live a better place. My parents did not have to help me with connections to get this job, nor with a down payment for the house I own. I will not inherit anything – nor will I need to – to retire comfortably.

My family has lived the American Dream – we came here broke, unable to speak the language, but hell-bent to prove we wouldn’t make anyone rue the day they let us in. My sisters and I are white collar, educated, raising upper middle class children. We worry that our children won’t know the value of a buck because they want for nothing.

But the expectations are there: my nieces are waiting tables at the same restaurant we all did. My daughter starts in 2 years. She wants to buy a car when she’s 16. You’ll have to pay for it yourself, I tell her. I will, she answers. I know it’s true.