Thursday, October 8, 2009

Making a Living, Making a Life

Mother was obsessed with work. I guess it was what we call the Puritan work ethic that drove her to work so hard herself and to find work for her children. As soon as I turned 16, she had a job for me at Western Union. I was a bicycle messenger and Mother was so proud of me, especially when I showed her my check.
Curtis, my brother just older than I, went to work at a grocery store when he was 16. She was equally proud of him, especially when he brought home produce that was on the verge of going bad, or bread that had gone beyond its date to be sold.
Later, when I got out of the service, I found a job immediately, but it didn’t last. The company went belly-up. The next one was short-lived as well; it was billed as a temporary job in the first place. Then I painted houses and built chicken houses for a non-union carpenter, much to displeasure of my union carpenter stepfather.
While I was working on chicken houses, putting four-by-fours in concrete and roofing the place, Pop called me aside one night and said, “What are you doing, boy?”
“I’m just sitting here in the living room.”
“No, I mean what are you doing with your life?”
“Well, I’m making a living.”
“No you ain’t. You are 22 years old and living at home.”
“You want me to move out?”
“Naw, but I don’t want you working for that rat carpenter.”
“You want me to quit?”
“Yes. If you want me to get you on down at the local as an apprentice carpenter, I can do that.”
“No, I don’t want to be a carpenter.”
Pop surely understood that one. But it brought him back to his original question: what was I doing? I pondered that question substantially that night. The next day I quit my job at the chicken house site and applied for college. I really appreciated Pop’s directness. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me to become a carpenter’s apprentice, because, when I worked for him on our house, he was highly critical of my lack of skills. He’d say things at supper like, “That boy can’t hit a nail.”
Anyway, college worked out for me. I got a job at a lumber company in that little college town and was fairly good at it, since I knew about different sizes and grades of lumber and all the sizes of nails. I also got good at framing pictures, which was an ancillary enterprise of the lumber company.
But, the best thing that happened was that I got married and the dean of men asked my wife and me to be dormitory hosts at a men’s dorm, apartment furnished, tuition paid. It was much better than carpentry and Pop approved of my new vocation. Years later, during my fourth year of graduate school, Pop asked me, “When you gonna get through with school, boy?” I said, “I’m right on the verge of finishing.” He replied, “Well, at least you are making a living at it.”
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

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