On this Labor Day weekend, I’m thinking a good deal about work and what it takes to keep doing it. My father farmed all his life until his heart disease forced him to stop. His second heart attack, the one that killed him, happened when he was mowing the yard on one of the hottest days of the year. My mother taught grade school for thirty-eight years. Many of those years she was also working other jobs. She helped my grandparents by working evenings and weekends in the general store they ran; she worked summers in the local shoe factory; and once she was married to my father, she worked on the farm. She drove grain trucks, greased machinery, milked cows, gathered eggs, fed the hogs. She tended a large vegetable garden. She canned green beans and tomato juice. She put up freezer corn. And there was the house to clean and the countless meals to cook and the clothes to wash and iron and put away.
After she retired from teaching, she worked as a laundress and a housecleaner at a local nursing home. I could go on and tell you about the time she walked a mile through a heavy snow because my father couldn’t get our car out of our driveway, and she had to be at work at five a.m. She didn’t once think about calling to say she was snowbound and wouldn’t be able to be there. She worked in that laundry even though the detergent left her hands raw and rash-eaten. I was a teenager at the time. I had no idea whether we needed the money her job provided or whether she kept working because that’s what she did all her life.
My parents weren’t exceptional. All sorts of fathers and mothers were working hard in our small Midwestern town. Like most teenagers, I whined when I had to work on the farm or in our garden, but somehow I got the message. Work was necessary. Work was my inheritance. Work was my duty. So it came to pass that I did a number of manual labor jobs before I became a teacher. I worked in that same shoe factory where my mother had spent her summers. I worked in a garment factory and a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I worked on a Christmas tree farm. I worked in the hayfields. I detasseled corn. I walked the beans, hoe in hand, cutting weeds. I plowed and disked and harrowed. I gradually learned that the paycheck I received wasn’t nearly as important as what I was learning about the nature of work itself. It asked of me a dedication that would eventually serve me well as a writer. I learned that the job didn’t get done unless I did it. I learned to concentrate on the task at hand, knowing that each thing done brought me closer to completing the work before me. I learned perseverance. I learned how to meet and overcome challenges. I learned the feeling of accomplishment that came to me when I knew I’d taken on and met all that the job required of me.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Nelson Mandela once said. So I encourage all you writers to keep doing what you’ve been called to do. Be steady and earnest with your habits. Be diligent. Dedicate yourselves to the tasks before you. Everything is possible if you put forth the effort. Keep doing the good work!