Tomorrow is Labor Day, the annual holiday that is supposed to celebrate the American working stiff (and give him/her a day off), although I doubt many of us actually remember that’s what it is supposed to represent.
My father was in an odd position on Labor Day. He was a business owner who had to work much harder than his employees. Such was the fate of the co-proprietor of a little hamburger stand that had to support two families, Dad’s and my uncle Jack’s.
It was a rare Labor Day that Dad and Jack didn’t work long hours; holidays meant that the place would be jumping, and all hands were needed on deck, in this case, sweating behind the grill, pouring drinks, making malts and shakes, frying onion rings, taking orders at the drive-up window or in the dining room, running trays of burgers and fries to impatient customers, and busing the tables for the next group of hungry diners. When the orders were piling up, it didn’t matter if you were the owner or an employee–everyone did everything.
In the early days, when Dad and Jack were building the business, and the Health Camp on the Circle was not yet the Waco landmark it became, Dad would be gone before sunrise and return home long after my sister and I were in bed, seven days a week.
The most important thing I learned from those days was that hard work is inherently ennobling. I don’t know whether Dad loved or hated what he did; he just did it, and never seemed unhappy doing it. I never heard him complain. Work, for him, was as essential as breathing. When the business became more established, and he was able to work fewer hours, he threw himself into other things, raising funds for the United Jewish Appeal and the Lions Club.
He wasn’t alone, of course. Our neighbors all seemed to wok as many hours as Dad did, eventually moving, as we did, from the little frame starter houses on Sleeper Avenue to grander homes. They were, after all, members of what’s been dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” men who came home from the war and went to work making America the economic power their children inherited.
I don’t mean to leave my mother out of this story. She worked as hard, or harder than Dad did. She was what we called then a homemaker, meaning she did all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, kept us clothed, got us to school and to after-school activities, made certain we did our homework, and attended PTA meetings and school performances and teacher conferences. At noon she would be in the office at the Health Camp doing the books, and a few years later, to help put her kids through college, working at Central Texas Iron Works as a bookkeeper. Dad would come home from the Health Camp exhausted, and slump in the yellow corduroy chair in the living room while Mom, who had worked at least as hard as he, cooked our supper and then did the dishes. If Mom ever complained about the workload, it was never when I was in earshot. Both my parents seemed to enjoy their lives.
Somehow they managed to scrape up the funds to send both Linda and me to college. Neither she nor I ever had to work as hard as our parents did to earn a reasonable living, and despite my misgivings about how we’ve handled the great nation we received from them, I’m reasonably confident that my children’s careers will be meaningful and profitable, as well.
On Labor Day, I can’t help thinking about how long and hard– and apparently happily–Dad and Mom worked, and thanking them for the example they set.