Work Is the Sweetening of Life

Katherine Bottigheimer - Louisville, Kentucky
Broadcast during the 1950s
Themes: work
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The summer I was ten, I was allowed to visit in a nearby city where a number of my elderly relatives lived. Among these was Cousin Theresa, an oldish widow who lived with her middle-aged spinster daughters. In the course of my duties as a member of the younger generation, I was required to visit Cousin Theresa for an hour or more at frequent intervals. I found her always knitting, crocheting, or sewing, and always she urged me to let her teach me her skills so that I too could pass idle hours profitably.

I based my refusal of these offers on the fact that the articles on which Cousin Theresa expended her time were neither attractive in color nor interesting in design. I had wanted to make gaily colored scarves, mittens, or ruffled petticoats.

At that point, Cousin Theresa revealed to me a philosophy, which—while it did little to change my attitude at the time—apparently made a lasting impression on my later behavior. “Work is the sweetening of life,” she said. “You are a plain child and, as far as one can now determine, not endowed with any outstanding talents. You must learn quite early how much your happiness will depend on the useful services you will perform. These articles you call ugly and uninteresting are used by children in orphanages, old people in pauper homes, and patients in charity hospitals. My satisfaction lies in having performed a needed service, one that was at hand and also one which many others would disdain. I have found that to turn one’s back on a job to be done—no matter how drab—is a fatal error. Work in and of itself is not only healing, it is infinitely sweet.”

I am sure that these words did not create in me a firm and instantaneous resolve to go and do likewise. I was convinced that Cousin Theresa was more than a little queer, and that sooner or later the family would have to do something about her.

When I was asked to set forth what I believe, I found it necessary to take a good, long look at what I do. For what one does, somehow, expresses most sincerely what one believes. Imagine my own amazement when I discovered that nearly all my adult years had been devoted to much the same kind of activity in which Cousin Theresa found her satisfaction. Of course, I have not fashioned utilitarian garments; mechanized production has long since removed the need for the handmade items of the far-removed day. Like the responsibilities I carry in my family and in my household, my assignments during my long years in the League of Women Voters have not been glamorous. I have always been in the labor battalions where the heartbreaking and the backbreaking jobs are done. I have, albeit unwittingly, turned my heart, my mind, and my physical energy to jobs at hand.

Through the frightening years before and during World War II, through the hazards of childrearing, of watching loved ones sicken and die, of personal illness whose very presence carried emotional threats, and now again in the frustration and near despair produced by the state of the world today, I have found that the application of elbow grease and a relative peace of mind have much to do with each other. The quotation from Ecclesiastes, “Whatsoever thy hand findest to do, do it with thy might,” has come alive for me.

Born in 1906 in Kentucky, Katherine Hoenig Bottigheimer spent the time and energy of her adult life as a community activist involved in a wide array of causes and organizations, including the Girl Scouts, the Temple Sisterhood, and the Louisville chapter of the League of Women Voters, of which Bottigheimer served as president from 1955 to 1957. Regarded both as a diligent activist and devoted housewife and mother, Bottigheimer died in Louisville in 2001 at age ninety-four.