Honor in Work

September 7, 2009

Old farmer at a farm auction

Old farmer at a farm auction

Here is a poem in honor of Labor Day.

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Last year, one of my absolute favorite book finds was The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings by Kaylynn Deveney.  This slim volume of photographs captures the ordinary life of an elderly Welsh widow, Albert Hastings.  Hastings wrote the accompanying captions to the photos; his handwritten text graces this book and makes it a true collaboration with Deveney’s intimate photographs.

I’m inspired by Deveney’s thoughtful photographic approach to this project: “I often seek in my photographs the banal moments of the day — the experiences not usually considered significant enough to warrant a snapshot — the quiet clean up after the birthday party ends or the hour before we go to bed.  I look, too, for domestic patterns and arrangements, practiced daily routines that make us feel at home … I believe photographs of our possessions and domestic patterns can be portraits, just like photographs of our faces … the images of Bert’s folded pajamas, nightcap, space heater atop a biscuit tin, and the simple apparatus he engineered to hold a broken daffodil up straight in a shallow teacup, all speak to me of him.”

What follows is my attempt to present a portrait of my Dad inspired by Deveney’s photographic project.  My Dad is a 90-year-old retired farmer, recently widowed, who still lives in the old farmhouse of his childhood.  This is my tribute to him on Father’s Day.

Dad cooking breakfast of sausage and eggs

Dad cooking breakfast of sausage and eggs

Every morning of my recent visit, Dad made breakfast for us — either homemade sausage and eggs, bacon and eggs, or his specialty, pancakes.  He always adds oatmeal to his scrambled eggs and pancake batter.  The bandanna (always red or blue) hanging from his pocket is his handkerchief.  No disposable tissues for him.

Instant coffee

Instant coffee

Dad's favorite, stained coffee cup

Dad's favorite, stained coffee cup

Dad makes himself a cup of instant coffee three times a day, with every meal.  He heats the water for exactly 140 seconds in the microwave.  Although the cupboard is full of coffee cups, he uses the same stained and cracked cup for every meal.

Dad's kitchen countertop

Dad's kitchen counter top

A small, black radio sits atop the microwave, tuned to the local radio station.  Dad listens to the obituaries every day.

Pegging the laundry up to dry outside

Pegging the laundry up to dry outside

Dad hanging his laundry

Dad hanging his laundry

One man's laundry

One man's laundry

Monday is Dad’s laundry day.  He still uses the old wringer Maytag machine in the basement.  And although he owns a dryer, he never uses it.  In winter, he hangs his clothes on a wooden rack and clothes lines in the basement, and they slowly drip dry over several days.  Other seasons, he hangs the clothes on lines outside.

What a change from laundry days of my childhood, when Mom did laundry twice a week to keep up with the demands of our family of eleven.  Then multiple clothes lines could hardly hold all the laundry.  Now, Dad’s few wet clothes fill only half of one of the outdoor lines.

Halving a chicken with a vintage saw

Halving a chicken with a vintage saw

Getting the grill out of winter storage in the smoke house

Getting the grill out of winter storage in the smoke house

Basting the chicken

Basting the chicken

The mid-day meal is called dinner, and it’s eaten at 11:30 a.m.  (We call the evening meal supper, and it’s at 5:30 p.m.) When one of his children visits, it’s not unusual for Dad to prepare a special dinner of chicken on the grill.  He has several chickens in the freezer that my brother raised and butchered.  A whole chicken is too much for Dad to eat on his own, so he doesn’t cook them unless he has company.

Living room window

Living room window

Dad reading the local paper

Dad reading the local paper

IMG_0052-1

The mail comes around noon, Monday through Saturday, delivered to the old mailbox at the end of our long driveway.  The local paper is a weekly, and it comes every Thursday.  Dad looks forward to the mail, even though so much of it is solicitations.

Dad working a crossword puzzle

Dad working a crossword puzzle

Dad with ubiquitous toothpick

Dad with ubiquitous toothpick

Crossword puzzles

Crossword puzzles

Dad takes time most days to work his crossword puzzles.  Other daily rituals include an afternoon nap, attending five o’clock mass, a bottle of beer before supper, watching the six o’clock news, and then watching Wheel of Fortune.

Cracked paint on the east side of the house

Cracked paint on the east side of the house

Window and iron bed frame in upstairs bedroom

Window and iron bed frame in upstairs bedroom

Upstairs storage closet with extra bedding for company

Upstairs storage closet with extra bedding for company

Someday the old white farm house will be torn down.  My youngest brother now owns the half of the farm with the house, barn, and other buildings.  He plans to build his family’s retirement home there.  My oldest brother owns the other half of the farm, and his family already has a house there.  For now, I’m thankful that my old childhood home still stands, and that Dad is able to live out his old age there.

Dad's worn blue jeans hanging in his closet at the end of the day

Dad's worn blue jeans hanging in his closet at the end of the day