Class Acts

Some came here as immigrants. Others were born into the newly-arrived families or grew up among later generations, listening to their elders tell mysterious and compelling tales of those early, shadow-riven years.

A tangled knot of humanity, my family uprooted themselves from England’s Staffordshire hills, fled Ireland’s sweet, green County called Down and sailed away from Baltic seaports, searching for a better life, a richer life, a life more suited to an increase in well-being and independence.

Arriving in Virginia, Philadelphia or New York, they worked their way north, west and south by wagon and by boat. A handful paused in Ohio. Others followed the rivers to Kentucky and Tennessee. 

A few sought true adventurer, like my Great-great-grandfather David. He panned for gold in the Colorado Rockies, fought the Civil War from Vicksburg to the Rio Grande and then returned to Iowa, where he took a sweet girl named Annie as his bride and persuaded her back to Texas. They camped here on the prairie, just to the east of a rail town called Melissa, until the lure of familiarity and visions of deep, loamy soils enticed them back to Iowa, to family and to farm.

Decades later, Annie and David’s grand-daughter, Mabel, became my own mother’s mother. Heartbreakingly beautiful, Mabel accepted a proposal of marriage from one of the Elliott boys, but refused to  live either on his Nebraska prairie or in any of the efficient if inelegant soddies built from its soil.

While some of the family traveled north to Saskatchewan and others moved south to Louisiana, Edd and Mabel remained in Iowa, raising their family in a little town not far from David and Annie’s old farm.

It was in that town that my mother met my father. The eldest son of Swedish immigrants, Dad took pride in being the first family member to be born on American soil. He often laughed at the family joke that his parents had been forced to travel separately to Minnesota and set up separate households in Minneapolis before they could meet one another and marry. 

Why they chose to move on to Iowa remains a mystery. Perhaps they followed friends. Perhaps word of steady work in the central Iowa mines was spreading. But move they did, and they never seemed to regret it.

More stolid and far less romantic than my mother’s people, Ella and Alf could have been Everyfamily, laboring to bring their long-cherished dreams to fruition. They raised six children, adored their grandchildren, survived mining tragedies and the near-demise of their town during the Depression. They gardened and canned, worked with fabric and wood, gossiped in Swedish, read stories in English and generally lived a quiet, Midwestern life.

Like my family, most people in our towns were “working class” folk – farmers,  coal miners, draymen and carpenters. Perfectly aware of their position on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder, they were determined to move upward. 

Stung by her shanty Irish label, my mother imagined a lace-curtain life.  Injured by falling slate, my grandfather vowed never to allow his children to mine for coal.  Embarassed by their Depression-era need for assistance, neighbors said little but often swore, quietly and out of the presence of children, that one day they would free themselves of want. Already honest, they dreamed of respectability. Dignified in their insecurity, they lived to provide security for their children.

Limited by circumstance rather than ability, my own parents received only high-school educations. When the lack of further schooling prevented my father from moving up the corporate ladder, he was deeply frustrated and became determined I never should endure such humiliation.  After her experience of true poverty during the Depression, my mother saw education as a meal-ticket, a means of ensuring economic security, and she wanted me to have that ticket.

Like many parents, both were pleased to see me take joy in learning. Still, joyless learning did just as well, since the purpose of  a degree was to impress future employers.  Knowing this, I did well in high school and then became the first of my family to attend college.  One degree led to another, and both made possible an assortment of jobs with respectable paychecks.

They also made possible a different sort of education.  Working among masters of office politics, backbiting, dishonesty and bureaucratic maneuvering, I became increasingly frustrated and restless. Eventually, I’d had enough.  I banished my high heels to the back of the closet, moved aboard a boat, printed five hundred business cards and went shopping for sandpaper. I was about to become a varnisher.

It took years for me to discover what my mother had kept hidden – that she often helped her dad during a time when he made his living varnishing woodwork in homes. Despite her experience – or perhaps because of it – she viewed my career change with a combination of exasperation, chagrin and terror. 

“What will I tell people when they ask what you do?” she said.  “Tell them I varnish boats,” I said. “If that doesn’t sound fancy enough, tell them I’m a Brightwork Specialist.”   She wasn’t about to be put off, and tried a different tack. “For this, you got all that education?” Trying not to laugh, I said, “Look. If it weren’t for all that education, I wouldn’t have been smart enough to turn myself into a varnisher and start hanging around boats.”  My mother was not amused.

On the other hand, boatyards and boat workers terrified her more than my occupation embarassed her.  Every night, something was added to the litany of possible horrors. “They’re going to find you on a boat with your throat slit.”  “You’ll get pushed off a dock and drown.”  “You’ll fall from a mast and break your neck.”  “Those people are going to take advantage of you.”

“Those people”, of course, were products of my mother’s over-active imagination – stereotypical boatyard laborers assumed to be uneducated, insensitive,  unwilling to better themselves and morally corrupt. The reality was quite different. 

Not everyone working the yards was honest, but most were.  Not everyone spoke English, but we learned to communicate.  Some men weren’t sure about working alongside women, but women who could do the work were accepted.  There was less profanity than I’d heard in most offices, less gossip and far more easy humor. 

When someone drank too much and landed in jail, his friends bailed him out.  If someone  without resources had a need, others extended a hand. Always there was a general willingness to give a day’s work for a day’s pay, an enjoyment of the camaraderie of the workplace and a deep pride in producing quality work.

As time went on, I began to pay closer attention and found qualities I admired in boat workers popping up elsewhere – among construction workers, framing carpenters, farmers and mechanics.  After Hurricane Ike swept through Texas, the steady stream of tree trimmers, linemen, crane operators, electricians, divers and salvage experts who followed in his wake exhibited many of the same qualities. 

Coming from every part of the nation, as a group they were direct, open, confident and  proud of  their skills.  Problem solvers at heart, they didn’t whine about conditions or complain about the difficulties piled up around them.  Effective and professional, they’d come to do a job  and when they left, the job was done.

 Watching them work was mesmerizing.  Often using nothing more sophisticated than two-way radios and hand signals, they moved, heaved and unpiled buildings, boats and piers with a kind of understated grace usually reserved for symphony conductors or surgeons.   Their work was their “team-building exercise”, and nothing that could harm the team was tolerated.

On this Labor Day weekend, I remember them all, grateful for having had the opportunity to work with them. The working men and women of this country – stereotyped, ridiculed for lack of formal education or lack of manners, called by dismissive names and often imagined to be something they are not – are still, to a degree fewer and fewer people appreciate, the people who make this country work. 

They are the ones who have a visceral understanding of cause and effect.  They understand that inattentiveness may lead to the death of a co-worker, or human error bring the collapse of a company. Tolerant of one another, they have little tolerance for sloppy work or nasty behavior, and they still can experience the pride of a job well done.

Some years ago, as I watched the process of recovery after Hurricane Ike, a fellow standing next to me on the bulkhead said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”  Thinking he was referring to the boats tossed and tumbled and strewn about, I said, “It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”  “No,” he said. “Not that.  The crews. I’ve never seen so much hard work look so easy and even enjoyable.  Those guys really have class.”

“Yes,” I said then and think again today. “They really do.  They have all the class in the world.”

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142 thoughts on “Class Acts

  1. Hello Linda:

    After reading your blog post I know you even better. I always wondered where you came from. Now I do and why you like to take care of your boats so much.

    I like the expression, “working with class”. We need a lot of that sort of attitude nowadays when things are made to be disposed of immediately. We are losing quality in our work and the products we make. Everything is disposable, use it and throw it away to the garbage can.

    Great writing. Really enjoyed it, as I always do with all your work.



    1. Omar,

      That’s ok. There were times when my mom wondered where I came from, too.

      There’s nothing in the world like taking something old and worn, but fine, and bringing it back to life. Then there’s the challenge of maintaining it. There can be just as much pleasure in that. It’s extraordinarily satisfying to sit back at the end of a project and see beauty shining again.

      Beyond that, an 18th century occupation in the 21st can be interesting. The products have changed, but it’s work that still moves at its own pace. Computers may get faster and faster, but varnish dries when it will.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed “crafting” it for you.


  2. I am taking a break from the gossip, politics, backbiting, maneuvering, and dishonesty to read this.

    For months now I have been working on a change in my situation and here in these final days, we’re down to squabbling about job titles.

    I’ve half of what’s left of my mind and spirit to tell them I want to be a Brightwork Specialist.

    As always, this is a work of art.

    1. hippiecahier,

      I can only imagine what it’s like to do any kind of negotiating in your town. I’m happy I could provide a little diversion. Squabble on, sister – just don’t lose your spine.

      If you decide you want to go the Brightwork Specialist route, you ought to have plenty of customers around. You could come on down and do a six month apprenticeship. By the time you got back home, you’d be one of the best varnishers on the east coast.

      Actually, that’s not so funny. I was lucky enough to land a gig working with a woman here for a few months when I started, and it was great. Unpaid internships are fine, but actually working and making money while being supervised by someone who knows what they’re doing can’t be beat.

      I really appreciate those kind words about the post. Truly.


      1. Linda – I somehow missed your reply and the fact that you were Freshly Pressed again. Congratulations on that.

        The idea of an apprenticeship is more tempting than you might imagine. :-)

        1. Actually, I think I can imagine. I was thinking about you the other day – Friday? – when the Red Line went down and the commute was so nasty. Add that in with other sorts of red lines being drawn, redrawn, withdrawn… good grief.

          Thanks for the congrats. I was especially pleased for this one to be FP’d – my little way of reminding folks that our cities got built with a lot more than rock’n’roll. ;)

    1. Ellen,

      Thank you so much. This is your part of the world, too – at least loosely speaking. I’m sure you recognized many of the dynamics, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  3. I enjoyed your account and your family history very much indeed. It takes courage to listen to one’s own particular ‘heartbeat’ and go with it as you have. While those pioneers did have it hard, I often wonder whether they were doing the same when they left their own lands for the new world. If you wander about my blog you will see I have also put up some family history material.

    1. Christine,

      I stopped by first to read your current post, and just smiled and smiled. When I was a wee thing, we had neighbors who doted on me much as you do on Henry. I remember having a little plastic wading pool in the back yard. If it was out, they’d come over to test the water. If they felt it was too cool for such a delicate creature, they’d put a kettle on the stove and warm it up for me. Then we’d have a fine time with boat races, splashing and such.

      I’ve always been fascinated by accounts of people who left what they knew for what they didn’t – sometimes in the service of a dream, sometimes for simple survival. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, it was much harder then. They had no way to know what they were getting into.” Perhaps. On the other hand, there were much tighter communities waiting for some of them, as my Swedish grandparents found in Minnesota.

      I’m so happy you stopped by. Thank you for that, and for commenting. You’re always welcome!


    1. Melanie,

      Speaking of building things together, this may tickle you. In the process of writing this, I spoke with the woman in charge of the Coal Miners’ Museum in Melcher. One name led to another, and we discovered we’re related on the Elliott side. My grandpa Edd had a brother named Carl, who married her dad’s sister. I don’t know what that makes Sandy and I, but you’d better believe we had fun chatting for a while!

      Thanks so much for stopping by – I appreciate it.


    1. Jim,

      And there’s the rub. Even as our knowledge increases, our will often seems to be lacking. Knowledge alone isn’t enough. Add some encouragement, a hint of a path, a bit of persistence and determination – well, then you’ve got something!

      Speaking of – I saw a ring of big, white fungus from my window here today. I knew what they were, and thought, “I ought to go down and take a photo of those.” But I didn’t summon up the will. Maybe tomorrow.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Amen. Beautiful post. My family owned a union metal fabrication company and I grew up around hard working men. My home town was all factories and farmland. Now I, too, work at hard labor and know as those men I knew must have known: hard work is satisfying, but it can ruin a body.

    1. Martha,

      I’ve been lucky, as far as the body goes. I specialize in what I call an 80-grit manicure, but my knees and back seem to be holding up fine. One day I may just fall apart, like one of those old wooden “push puppets”. Cut that string, and it’s over – nothing left but a pile of pieces.

      I remember you mentioning your fondness for factories – no wonder.
      Metal fabrication, machine shops, welding shops, tool fabricators – there’s an entire network of support services underlying our economy that’s mostly invisible to most of the population. Information services and green technologies are lovely, but businesses like your family’s are no less critical.

      I do think people who do physical labor develop perspectives and attitudes that are much different from those held by people who only look at computer screens and click keys. The real world pushes back, whether you’re trying to nurture plants, frame a house or pour a slab. Having the opportunity to learn how to work in tandem with the physical world is a real gift.


  5. I’ve always admired plain-speaking men and women who make an impact on their environment & earn a living with their hands. You might like Christine Byl’s book, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods about her experience (with mostly men) working on national park trail crews; a great read about gender, labor and the natural world.

    1. Monica,

      I suspect I’d like that book very much. I follow montucky, who’s commented below. As his name suggests, he lives in Montana and maintains a marvelous photo blog. He posts images from his hikes in the wilderness areas surrounding him. I’ve often looked at the trails, trail markers and so on and wondered about the people who maintain them. It sounds like Byl’s book could be a good starting point for my education.

      I like your use of the phrase “plain-speaking”. It’s a gross over-simplification, of course, but there’s also some truth to the assertion that, in the boatyard, language is used to communicate, while in bureacracies it’s used to conceal.


  6. Wonderful post and wonderful story. I can relate in ways you may not realize (first in my immediate family to go to college, collected a couple of degrees, climbed the corporate ladder but found I didn’t care for the view from up there, then ditched it all to take up farming). Probably because of my working class roots, I share your admiration and love for workers and for good work. This is a fine and well-deserved tribute to those folks who keep the world going.

    1. Bill,

      I don’t think anyone who’s had the experience of creating, repairing, producing or restoring some “thing” could fail to appreciate the people who do it on a regular basis.

      Since your post yesterday I’ve been thinking about other differences between schooling then and now. I realized I’d forgotten about the shop and home ec classes that used to be required. Despite some underlying assumptions (shop for boys, home ec for girls) they provided an opportunity to master tools with guidance from people who knew their business.

      Best of all, there was something tangible to show for it. I still have a wooden heart my dad made in his freshman shop class and a bit of crocheting from my mother’s handwork class. I got rid of the horror I produced in sewing class as soon as I could, but all that doubling and halving of recipes in cooking class took care of my difficulty with fractions.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I’m glad you’re enjoying your new life. To paraphase someone, what does it profit a man if he gains the corner office but loses his soul?


  7. For those who seem to most enjoy being “masters of office politics, backbiting, dishonesty and bureaucratic maneuvering” I have always thought their job should have been as a parachute packer … and they have to test their own work!

    1. Daniel,

      Your comment strikes right to the heart of one problem we have in this country today. So many decisions are being made by people who never have to experience (let alone suffer) the consequences of a single one.

      I still remember my first parachute packing experience. I was coating a floor inside a boat with two-part epoxy. All was well until I opened the last two cans. One looked a bit different. I paused, but wasn’t experienced enough to take the time to run a test. There was a flaw in the product, and my last coat never cured.

      Believe me, I had plenty of time to ponder things as I scrubbed off that epoxy with solvent. At least that problem’s never popped up again!


  8. It was people who worked with their hands who built this country — the farmers, the factory workers, the carpenters, masons and brick layers, plumbers, steel workers, miners, railroad workers and mechanics. There’s nothing wrong with working in the “blue collar” professions. If you have steady work, make a living wage, are good at what you do, love what you do and take pride in your work, that’s a good career.

    What’s wrong is that the opportunity to have a higher education is not easily available to everyone who wants it. College tuition has become outrageously expensive anymore and so many of today’s college graduates were only able to attend college by taking out loans. They will start their careers saddled with an enormous burden of debt.

    1. WOL,

      Now and then I amuse myself with the thought of a book – a humorous look back at this little journey. I’ve got the title – some day I may see if an outline could be constructed. I’ve been at this twenty-three years now – maybe my twenty-fifth would be a good time to have a go at it.

      Your point’s well taken about the cost of a college education these days. On the other hand, much of that cost increase doesn’t have a thing to do with the quality of the education received. The building of fine new facilities, an obsession over luxuries like fancy dorms and skyrocketing administrative costs are disproportionately responsible for the increase.

      What I do know is that it’s possible to get a degree without coming out of the process loaded with a lifetime’s worth of debt, and it isn’t necessary to have a degree from a “prestigious” university in order to get a job. It may take a little more time, it may require selecting a state university or beginning at a community college, but it can be done.

      For various reasons, it took me nine years to get my first degree, but I wouldn’t give anything for the time I spent working in Kansas City in the middle of that, or for the work experiences I gained while in college. Daytime classes combined with the 11-7 shift at the local nursing home isn’t perfection, but my gosh, did I learn some lessons.
      This and that blew up during graduate school, too – but I worked two jobs the last year and walked out without a single dollar of debt. I’m more proud of that than of the degree.


      1. As well you should be proud of the degrees you literally earned. You did for yourself what most colleges often don’t — empower you to take charge of your life.

  9. I, too, was the first in my family to go to college. I’m glad to have had that opportunity, with grad school tacked on, and even more glad that I got to the newspaper business when it still stank of beer and cigar smoke and propane and molten lead and was devoted to nothing but journalism.

    But when I think about those who have taught me, I can make no important distinction between the professors who introduced me to abstract thought and someone like Freddy Martone, who worked in my grandfather’s grocery store. Freddy explained to me in a lecture I remember more frequently than any other that there is, indeed, a right way and a wrong way to sweep a floor, and that if you’re going to sweep it at all, you should WANT to do it the right way.

    Freddy also showed me how to plant radishes, how to make wine, how to weigh produce accurately without a scale, and how to drive a truck with a three-speed manual transmission — when I was 15. And when the work was done and we were either waiting for dinner or digesting it, he let me in on his 78 rpm recordings of Carlo Buti, known then as “the golden voice of Italy.” I don’t think Freddy went to high school, but he still held a degree called “class act.”

    1. Charles,

      Like you, I wouldn’t trade my years in academia for anything. Granted, the years I spent getting my bachelor’s degree weren’t particularly enjoyable, but I entered college at 16, and was there only because I was expected to be there. By the time I returned for my master’s, I had some years, some travel and a good bit of work in the real world behind me, and was there solely by my own choice. It makes a difference.

      Your story of Freddy calls to mind one of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches. I wish every student in every school, at whatever level, could have an opportunity to hear it. It’s not often quoted, yet it speaks directly to issues that still are plaguing us today. Its formal title is “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?”, but it’s often known as “the streetsweeper speech” – hence, the connection with Freddy.

      I’m especially grateful to be introduced to Carlo Buti. I found a lovely video of “Firenze Sogna” to tuck in here. I can imagine you and Freddy listening together – what a wonderful memory that must be.


  10. Linda, I really, really like this post. It is written with so much insight. The wording is perfect. The post is a testament to the fact that when it comes down to what matters it is not about how much education one possesses. It is about who you are inside and how dedicated you are to be the best that you can possibly be.

    Yes, I see my parents in this story and myself as well. Even though I did not make a career change my work was not “office work” so my situation was a bit different from yours. But I liked my work and the back stabbing, etc. did not exist all that much.

    I am glad that you found the Texas coast and the boats. I enjoy your writing style and the stories so much.


    1. Yvonne,

      Have you heard the expression, “life is lived forward, but it’s understood backward”? My grandmother had another way of putting it: “So soon old, so late smart”. Both little sayings point to the same reality – we need some years, some experience, some context, before we can begin to appreciate our history and the people who helped make us what we are.

      Interesting that you should mention being “the best that we can be”. Have a listen to Dr. King’s speech that I posted just above. I hadn’t listened to it in some time before today, but it’s really quite wonderful. I think you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement.

      I’m glad I found Texas, too, even though I found it long before I found boats. I first moved here in 1972 or 1973 (I’m so bad with dates!) but I didn’t begin varnishing boats until 1990, and then only after moving back. In any event, I’m settled now, and happy with my work – just like you!


    1. montucky,

      Yes, he was. You would have been entranced by the work of the guys who showed up to clean up that post hurricane mess. On the other hand, the folks who maintain your trails are no slouches.

      You know who qualifies as another “worker with class”, don’t you? The fellow in his eighties who brought you that load of logs. I still think of him from time to time – usually when someone gives me the eye and asks, “When are you going to retire?” Good heavens – your log hauler has twenty years on me!


    1. Thanks, Steve. I appreciate the kind words, very much.

      Here’s a tidbit I learned about my paternal grandparents while researching this. They came from the Swedish town of Gefle, originally Gävle – on the Baltic Sea. The Latin form of the town’s name is Gevalia, and in fact the coffee manufacturing company is there. I wonder if they allow people to “saucer and blow” in their tasting room?


      1. I don’t know about “saucer and blow” but someone who commented on my recent picture of a wasps’ nest likened it to a flying saucer—a saucer I certainly wouldn’t have dared to blow on.

    1. asproulla,

      Without family and without work, life certainly is impoverished – no question about that.

      I’m happy to have you stop by, and thank you for your gracious comment. Do come by again – you’re always welcome.


  11. There is something about people who work near the water or around boats that is very special. Maybe it is something to do with what they feel about the water and the freedom one feels on a boat out on the water…I don’t know. But it does seem that there is an unspoken camaraderie here. And the skills needed to build boats and repair them, etc…These are very special talents. I am so impressed that you know how to Varnish—I mean, this is an :”ART”!

    I absolutely adore that picture of your family…! Such an interesting History, my dear.

    1. OldOldLady,

      People who work on boats do tend to love the water, boats, and getting to go barefoot a lot. When I first decided to do it myself, I didn’t exactly plan to be a varnisher. I just wanted to spent more time around boats.

      So, I did what any reasonable person would do. I sat down with a legal pad and listed the things you could do to earn money with boats: fiberglass work, diesel mechanics, cleaning, rigging, carpentry, varnishing. It seemed like varnishing would be the easiest to learn, so off I went. I managed to learn the trade and build a bit of a clientele before my savings ran out – about three years down the road.

      I’ll tell you this. Learning to run a business was much harder than learning to varnish. Moving from a regular salary to bidding jobs and getting paid when they were done was a shock to my system. But it worked out fine.

      Glad you like the photo of the Elliott clan. One of these days I’ll introduce you to my favorite – Inazel Crowley, my great-aunt, who taught in a one room school and fancied herself a pulp fiction writer!


  12. When that nor’easter destroyed the front wall of my brother’s business, men showed up day after day to help. The cooperation with and responsibility for each other is great in these communities. I’ve seen it since I was a child.

    I enjoyed reading your family history. It’s wonderful that you have so much information about your ancestors. Funny that you ended up varnishing like your grandfather.

    1. Bella Rum,

      I suppose it’s the same there as it is here. People not only show up to help, they tell the stories of the experiences far into the future. In my favorite local café, there’s a sign on the wall that says, “Hurricane Ike Stories Told Here”. And they are. It doesn’t make a bit of difference that it was five years ago. It won’t make any difference when it’s fifty years ago. People who go through such things never get over the need to talk about it.

      As for the family, here’s what’s really funny. I mentioned to Steve, up above, that I finally found out where my paternal grandparents came from – Gefle, Sweden. The town kept burning down over the centuries until they got smart and went to stone and brick instead of wood, but it was a ship-building town because of its location on the Baltic Sea.

      How funny would it be for one grandfather to be a varnisher and the other a shipbuilder? is going to have all of its immigrant records free for the searching this weekend, and you can bet I’ll be right there.


  13. Fantastic post, Linda. I love to watch people work who know what they are doing and are committed to doing it. There is an elegant grace and efficiency in every movement, like watching a world class dancer or athlete move. Or a wonderful writer, such as you, express themselves.

    Love the circle that your varnishing career completed.

    Just plain good stuff. Thank you!

    1. Gary,

      Every now and then I’ll look up and see someone standing on the dock, just watching me put down varnish. Inevitably, they’ll say, “That looks so easy”. I take that as a great compliment, almost as great as when they say, “How did you get that so shiny? Did you spray it?”

      Honestly, I think learning to varnish prepared me for learning to write as much as anything in my life. When I came across Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous quotation – “Easy reading is damn hard writing” – I knew immediately what he meant, and went to work.

      Beyond that, I knew that I learned to varnish by varnishing, so I set about learning to write by writing. I suspect you’ve done the same with your painting. It’s just so wonderfully rewarding.

      Thanks for the kind words!


  14. Nice weaving Linda. The way you tell a story is just wonderful.

    Sometimes as I wander through the genealogies of my ancestors I am amazed at the twining of their lives. The coming together of families followed by the spreading lines of migration only to come together again in a different part of the country…or state.

    Be it the Georgia planter who ended up with the Arkansas maiden in the newly made state of Texas, or the northeastern Missouri farm girl who married the newcomer from Ohio to move south and worry about Pancho Villa’s raids in far south Texas… The roads they traveled, led, for better or worse, to me and my brothers and sister. Some of their stories I have yet to find… But that is another story.

    1. Gary,

      One of the things that’s amazed me as I’ve begun tracking these people is how much they did travel. When David and Annie weren’t happy on the Texas blackland prairie, they headed back to Iowa. One of the families they camped with in Texas, named Crooks, went up to Kansas.

      I have copies of letters, both hand-written and transcribed, written by Mrs. Crooks to Annie. They’re filled with details of their farming, the families and so on. Poplar Hill, Kansas, where the Crooks lived, is a ghost town now, but the cemetery is still there – about as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get, which is to say – pretty close to the past.

      But you’re right. Their stories led to our stories. Among my regrets in life is that I wasn’t more curious when I was younger and some of the old folks still were around. Now, so many of the questions will remain unanswered – but not all!


  15. I like thinking about work in all it’s various manifestations. I grew up on a farm, so early on I learned the satisfactions of laboring with my hands, teamwork, and persevering until a task was finished.

    Few of my adult jobs involved hand work, so my satisfactions moved to things about my work that engaged my mind. The work had to be intrinsically interesting. Now I work at a circulation desk at the library. Providing service can lack stimulation sometimes. I find meaning in looking at the bigger picture — seeing how my work helps democracy thrive by providing free access to information. And I find pride in being part of a team that delivers this service — I want to do my small part well.

    Like you, I’ve been writing my Labor Day blog post, so this has been top of mind with me, too. As your writing shows, work is so much more than a paycheck.

    1. Rosemary,

      The more I think about work, the more complicated it seems. Manual labor certainly doesn’t have to imply mindless work. In fact, for those in the construction trades, farming, manufacturing and so on, a whole range of knowledge and skills is needed to be successful.

      On the other hand, many people I know who work inside bureaucracies of one sort or another complain that they’re too often cut off from any sense of accomplishment. Everyone works, all the time, but nothing ever seems to get done.

      The one thing I do miss about my work is the absence of that “team” you speak of. While solitary work has some real advantages (time to think, freedom from the need to supervise others, and so on) I’ve always enjoyed working with other people. I suppose it’s just another example of the old adage that everything’s a trade-off.

      I knew you worked at the library, but I didn’t know in what capacity. Libraries really are wonderful. I called the one in my folks’ little town yesterday, looking for the name of the person in charge of their museum. After a wonderful chat with the woman at the desk, I called the woman whose name she gave me, and we had our own wonderful chat.

      In the middle of it all, I mentioned the name “Elliott”. She said, “I’m related to the Elliotts. My father’s sister married Carl.” I nearly spit out my coffee. Carl was my grandpa’s brother. Needless to say, there will be more visits in the future – not to mention a visit to the library!


  16. Linda, this post might be one of my favorites! You’ve shared so much about your family and background, and it’s obvious the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree (probably much to your mom’s chagrin!)

    I love the image of you tossing your high heels into the back of the closet and striking out to shore. That’s kind of what I did, too, so I have full empathy with it. My son, now in his first “real” job, is learning the ways of work, and I pray he finds good mentors to help in his transition.

    Work is valuable on so many levels. I’ve heard too many stories of people who retired one day, then died shortly thereafter (probably from boredom and inactivity). Man (and woman) wasn’t meant to sit in a chair and do nothing. Obviously, if all one *can* do is sit, then one sits — but that one should exercise his mind if possible and embrace whatever of life remains.

    1. Debbie,

      There always are alternative ways to look at events in our lives. Some of my friends said I’d lost my mind. I said I was engaging in “intuitive planning”. Invent a fancy phrase, and you’re good to go!

      You’re so right about Domer’s transition. We need to learn things that never show up in any curriculum: how to work, how to learn, how to judge people. Learning to add and subtract, or learning the rules of spelling or geography, require good teachers. Learning those life lessons requires a little living thrown into the mix – that is, time and experience.

      Every now and then I bump into someone who says, “I don’t dare retire – I don’t know what I’d do with myself with all that time on my hands.” Perhaps they’ve become so accustomed to the routines of life in a bureacracy – someone else always setting goals for them, then telling them when and how to meet them – that they haven’t developed the ability to be self-directed. Hard to say.

      But I’m with you. If the spirit’s willing but the body’s weak – well, at least the spirit’s still willing!


    1. Gué,

      We’d be living a pretty bland life, that’s where we’d be.

      It’s so interesting to me that after centuries of living with expressions like “the salt of the earth”, “the light of the world”, “the fat of the land” and “C’mer and give me some sugar”, we’re surrounded by people who want us to turn off the lights, give up sugar and salt and banish bacon and butter forever.

      As Mama used to say, “I’m eating my chicken-fried and cheese, and if I die, I die. At least I’ll live happy.”

      Seems to me that living for 93 years proved her point.


  17. Well, all I can say is that you did it again. You took one beautiful thread, attached another and another and finally wove it into the circle of life.

    I’m fascinated with your knowing your family history so far back. I can’t find much beyond my grandparents, although I know where my great grandfather came from. There are huge gaps. So I’m impressed that you have this information and that it has been cherished and passed down.

    I can’t help but think that someone should post this in the men’s bathroom at the docks where you work. And every bathroom in every construction area. What a tribute. It is from the head and from the heart — and I think the heart rules. Again, bravo.

    1. jeanie,

      What a laugh you’ve given me. Can’t you just see it? A hand-scrawled message on a restroom wall that says, “For a good read, go to http….”
      Actually, the bars would be a better bet. That’s really an interesting idea – the blog as broadside. Why not?

      I’ve been sitting on information about the families for years – little bits and scraps. There was quite a bit of research done a couple of generations back, and I’m so grateful for the unknown people who collected it. The families were large, and there was much intermarriage among families who traveled together to this country. It can get confusing. One day I need to start diagramming it all.

      The most intriguing tidbit I’ve found was a throwaway line in one document that two of the “way-way-back” fellows were with Washington at Valley Forge. And the “Annie” David married was Anne Eliza Nebraska Henry – I’d love it if her great-great-something was Patrick! Not much chance, I suppose – but I’m constantly being surprised.

      One thing I’ve decided is that most of this, once compiled, will go to the museum in my folks’ home town. The last thing I’d want is for all of this work – the photos, the ephemera, the documents – to just be tossed out when I die. I think the museum’s the best bet, especially since they’ve made an arrangement with the Iowa Historical Society to take over their holdlings if they lose their funding, etc. And I’m going to get the stuff there personally – that way I’ll know it’s in safe hands. It’s another one of those only-child dilemmas – what to do with the stuff!


  18. Really enjoyed traveling the ancestor roads – I have no doubt some of our relatives crossed paths somewhere along the way.

    Moms always want that lace curtain for you. They never see the world as you do – or that it’s changed. My mom was constantly trying to “shame me” to go back to teaching – a “respected position” – even when I mentioned while in sales I got to travel internationally and set my own schedule or while in research sat in offices fewer days of the week and made so much more than a teacher – she just never accepted those as “good” jobs. They are who they are.

    Now the ones who are observant, know how to use logic and reasoning skills, understand the natural science of the world/environment are the ones who work with their hands. Honest work. Real work. Fine people.

    1. phil,

      One thing we tend to forget is how many fewer people there were “back in the day”, and how much better communication was than we imagine. Beyond that, the lack of television and such meant more sitting-around-and-telling-stories. That is, gossiping about the people who’d been met along the way. I suspect plenty of people met other people on the trails they’d already heard about.

      What really turned Mom around re: my new job was working with me when she still was able. We might have made quite a team. She loved to sand, but hated to varnish. I love the brushwork, but can tire of the prep. She was the only one I’ve come across (apart from the long-time pros) who could meet my standards for a good sanding job.
      In the end, she still wished I was doing something respectable, but she understood that the work was enjoyable.

      Your last point’s well-taken. Plenty of people think those who do manual labor do so because they’re uneducated and incapable of thought or reasoning. The truth is that they’re among the best problem-solvers in the world. And you’re right that observation is one of their skills. Finding that hidden variable often is the first step toward a solution.


  19. My dear Brightwork Specialist friend –
    I think this is your very best post. Ever. Period.

    What a beautiful tribute to your family… If your Mum were still here to read it I’m sure she’d be so proud she’d give everyone a copy.

    1. Rosie,

      I’m glad to see you’re still around, however mud-covered you may be!

      And I’m glad you like the post. As for Mom – well, who knows? I haven’t been struck with lightning yet, so maybe it passed muster. I can just see her sitting up there on her heavenly cloud, squinting a little and saying, “Well… if Rosie liked it, maybe I should give it a read…”

      Happy almost September! I have this fantasy that things will slow down a bit at the museum with the kids back in school and we might have a post from you. That would be nice – but it certainy isn’t required.


  20. “I wouldn’t have been smart enough to turn myself into a varnisher and start hanging around boats.” My mother was not amused.

    Oh, boy, I’ll bet she wasn’t.

    I’d also hazard a guess that she told you, “Don’t get smart with me!”

    I’ve heard that one before.

    1. Gué,

      Actually, I can’t remember Mom ever saying, “Don’t get smart with me”, with or without the tagline “young lady!” She was a specialist in “Is that any way to talk to your mother?”

      It’s really too bad my dad died so early. Losing him was losing my best ally. His best line always was, “You know how your mother is”. He was the adventurous one, and despite being responsible almost to a fault, he cared far less for the opinion of others. Every time I notice one of his traits in myself, I’m happy.


  21. What a wonderful recounting of the working class of your family history! I’d known you’d done other things before the varnishing gig, but I didn’t realize you’d been varnishing for more than 20 years! Have you lived on a boat the whole time?

    Over dinner with some international students, one of them asked I came to be in California and we talked some about the previous generations, though I don’t have nearly the extensive knowledge of my ancestors as you do yours.

    1. nikkipolani,

      Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe I’ve lived for only 66 years – I’ve certainly packed them full.

      No, despite all my hanging around boats, I lived aboard the Catalina for a year and a half. Maybe almost two – it’s hard for me to remember.Once I decided I was going to stick with varnishing, I increasingly felt as though living aboard was equivalent to having a cot in the office. You know how much fun that would be! Living apart from the marinas was one of the best decisions I made – not least of all for the closet space.

      I’ve not yet tried to work my way back through records in the Old Countries, although I have some photostats of marriage and pension documents and a few town names to work with. Given your situation, I suspect going back to find information would be hard. I do remember how happy you were to find the CD with the photos of you and your father, and the scooter. As with so much in life, we make do with what we have, and go on.


      1. I did wonder how Miss Dixie fared living on a boat — now I know that she doesn’t! You certainly have packed your 66 years. I’m so glad you’re sharing about them :-)

        Yes, you’re right about records. With the war and not many official records anyway, my family history is limited to what my parents remember. It took me several years of haranguing to get a written family tree from my parents.

  22. I really enjoyed this entry, Linda, full of warmth, sagacity and humour. It also had many links to my own background. I am the result of farming and mining stock, was first to go to college in the family and had a great-great grandfather, David,too.
    In Yorkshire we have a phrase that states those who work the land or with their hands are ‘salt of the earth’. The necessary backbone of life.

    1. Sandi,

      I remembered about the mining connection, and of course the farming – one of my favorite photos of yours is the one that shows the Yorkshire hills. But I didn’t know, or had forgotten, about your great-great-grandfather David. Coincidence (serendipty?) abounds! Oh – and our time in Africa, too – not to mention arriving back home in the same month and year. Really, it’s all quite amazing.

      “Salt of the earth” was common in my growing-up years, too. It always meant a good, plain-spoken, honest person. On the other hand, in the case of the “old salts” I’ve known, while the meaning isn’t exactly opposite, it does allow for a little dubiousness of character and a whole lot of story telling. See: Tristan Jones!


  23. “Just shoot it!”
    You have no idea (I hope) how long I sit here staring at the above command: “Leave a Reply”.
    The problem is not: “Words Fail me”.
    It is more the need to flip through the tattered Roll-a-Dex I use for a memory, insert new information cards, toss the cards that have faded too badly and find one or two that relate to the theme.
    So I take the paper mixing cup that has those words stenciled on it, pour in the prescribed doses of resin (words) and hardener (keystrokes) and stir.
    The clock starts running and depending on the ambient humidity (damp) and temperature (cool) I have a limited time to brush this comment out:
    Family history: similar \/
    Education/Work history: similar \/
    Salt of the Earth: in my own small way \/
    The rest of the mix is getting too hot.
    I think I will make another pot of coffee.

    1. Ken, I laughed out loud when I read this …it’s brilliant!
      I hope the coffee helped – I am a great believer in good coffee!

      1. Sandi, you may have missed the note I left somewhere that I found the home town of my paternal grandparents – Gefle, Sweden, which is now the home of Gevalia Kaffe! Maybe by the time the coffee blog comes around again, I’ll have more information to add!

    2. Ken,

      Honestly – you are clever beyond words. I just love it when you stop by, and I love this comment – I suspect the Gougeon Brothers would, too. West System as metaphor – why not? If only we could get words and keystrokes in those nice pump dispensers, so the proportion always would be perfect!

      There certainly are a good number of similarities in our families and backgrounds. A few personal preferences, too, I should say – most of which could be right at home in that “salt of the earth” label. Lack of pretension. Honesty. Curiosity.

      Just remember… In the future, for those smaller jobs (maybe a half-dozen bungs) or smaller comments, you can always use the West 101T repair packs! No muss, no fuss, and no overheated mix!

      Now it’s my turn for coffee.


      1. Smaller comments….!
        Once I mix the ingredients it’s “Hell Bent for Leather!”.
        But I like the small packages of epoxy.
        I’m basking in ” Lack of pretension. Honesty. Curiosity.”
        I’m going to try to live up to those standards.

  24. I come from a working class family, and I too was the first to get a degree in my family. I loved my classroom, but detested working with all those backbiters. I miss the kids and teaching but not the adults I had to work with. Sad isn’t it?

    Linda, your post today brought tears to my eyes. Tears of pride for the work ethic instilled in me by my family and my ancestors who passed it on down the line. A wonderful post.

    BTW, you may be a Varnishgal, but your work is good enough to earn a living. Have you thought about freelance writing?

    1. Lynda,

      Teachers I know say the same thing. They love teaching, they love their kids, but they’re up to “here” with poor curricula, an overly-politicized atmosphere, loads of bureaucratic paperwork and so on.

      Well, there are many ways to teach. Once you have the house finished (you know – in a couple of months!) who knows what other opportunities may open up to you in your new place.

      Doesn’t it feel good to feel pride – in family, in accomplishment, in country? Everyone needs something to take pride in – that’s one reason that work is so important. There’s just nothing like standing back and saying, “Well, darn! That looks GOOD!” It may be that new corner cupboard you’ve refinished, or the plants that are taking root in their new home – doesn’t have to be something huge. It’s the satisfaction that counts.

      That’s a wonderful compliment you’ve paid me about my writing – thank you! Have I thought about freelancing? Sure. But I’m not ready to plunge into that quagmire, for a whole variety of reasons. I’ve had the experience of being published in magazines and a poetry anthology, so I know what it’s like. But this is where I’m happiest right now.


  25. This is so wonderful, thank you. I also replied to your comment on my vine and branch blog. I know you don’t want re-blogging, But I would love to send a link out on my twitter feed. Your blog is so beautifully written. I won’t though without your permission. By the way, good work!

    1. Kim,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Having followed you for a bit now, I thought you would. And yes, of course you’re free to link to the piece on social media. I’d be honored.

      Isn’t it wonderful to be part of “weaving the web”? Or, to use your analogy, to be branches of this internet vine, too. There’s much to learn and share – and delight in, for all that.

      Thanks for the kind words!


  26. There is nothing more admirable than a fine craftsman/woman. I owe so much to them.

    Your story here reminds me, for example, of Jimmie, the electrician. During the freak snowstorm two years (?) back, when our power went out five days and no one could figure out the cause, he took it upon himself to walk the powerlines at and around our house to find out what the problem was. I didn’t ask him to do it, he just did it, and at no charge. That’s what made it possible for us to get the problem corrected, in the end.

    I learned more than I ever hoped to know about electrical conductivity, as well!

    1. Susan,

      I remember that snowstorm – rather, I remember you talking about it. Situations like that, where problems are compounded by unusual stressors, demand people with experience and the ability to reason. I have this visual of Jimmie walking about on your property with one of those “thought bubbles” above his head. The bubble, of course, is filled with every sort of thing that I wouldn’t understand, but he understood, and that’s what counted.

      Your comment about conductivity remind me of an important learning experience when I first starting working on boats. I was hosing one down, and experienced an intermittent, strange heaviness and tingling in my hand and arm. It came and went, but it certainly wasn’t “right”.

      The good news is that, before I killed myself, I figured out that a 120v outlet was unprotected, and every time I ran the stream of water from the hose over it, that stream conducted that electricity right down into my arm. The next time you see Jimmie, you can tell him the story and watch him laugh!


  27. Thank you Linda. This has to be my favorite post from you. It is so lovely to begin to know a friend, and since reading your blog, I think of you as my friend in Texas.

    We have much in common. As a child of the Depression, we were all “working class”, if only for a few years. I remember asking my grandma if we were poor, and she said no, we’re just broke. My family was Navy, which automatically placed me in the outsider class. I married a year out of high school, and delayed my college education until my children were in school when I became a perpetual student through three different colleges, and then decided to teach. I really hadn’t had a goal when I began as I was so excited to become the first in my family to attend college.

    I married a man who loves hard work, and came from a trucking company background. I have learned to roof houses, lay brick, some electrical, dig ditches, remodel houses, etc. His motto is that nothing is perfect, and either needs paint or a complete make-over. We have also put in a great deal of time fishing in Alaska, which was a different way of life for a city gal. In my education as a sculptor, I worked for some time in a foundry with some of the finest people I have ever known. You are absolutely correct in saying that people who work with their hands are usually “salt of the earth”. My husband is fond of saying that if you lost your wallet in Vegas, tell it goodbye, while in more cases than not, it may be returned by someone in the trades.

    Your research and description of your family history is so interesting, and should be in the museum for future generations. I have put together genealogies for all 4 branches of our family, and fortunately have a cousin who keeps adding to it. I’m beginning to think we are all related. I began my blog with the idea of informing my family of our family, and have done very little of that, so you have given me inspiration for future posts. Thanks again Linda.

    1. Kayti,

      Isn’t that just the truth? So many friendships are forged here on the blogs. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people I’ve come to know through blogging, and it’s been a wonderful experience.

      Your grandmother’s comment about not being poor, just broke, tickled me. Way back when, one of the first songs I heard David Grisman sing in concert was I Ain’t Broke, But I’m Badly Bent”. I still laugh every time I listen to it, having had the experience of being badly bent a time or two!

      You’ve had as many different lifetimes as I have. I do think the one thing that disconcerted my mother so was my willingness to change direction on a dime. Her search always had been for continuity and security, and giving up a guaranteed good job in favor of an unsecured future made no sense to her. Of course, she didn’t recognize that the marketplace and job markets were changing, too. When my dad’s company, Maytag, was sold to Whirlpool, with all the changes that brought – well! You would have thought aliens had landed. Some people were sure they had.

      In fact, much of what I’m putting together, and most of what I have in terms of ephemera, photos and records, will be going to the small museum in my folks’ hometown. When I discovered the woman in charge of the museum is also connected to the Elliotts – well, that was just the clincher. Who knows what else both of us will discover as we keep poking around?


  28. My, what a beautiful post, and so timely as well. These days the trades are in decline even while demand rises. So many young people rush to computers unaware of the joy of working with hands and people. it is true that we all seem to want more for our children, but sometimes forget that knowing what constitutes enough is the most important “more.”

    1. Allen,

      You’ve captured an important aspect of all this with your phrase, “working with hands and people”. Even though I do my work alone, I know many of the carpenters, boat washers, fiberglass guys and canvas workers who have their own part to play in keeping a vessel shipshape. We coordinate, help out one another, and joke with one another. It’s a pleasure, and helps make the work enjoyable.

      There’s a radio talk show host in Houston who does a wonderful job of presenting alternatives to the view that college is the only possible preparation for a career, or that it need lead to spirit-crushing debt. He also happens to be a great advocate for education – for everyone, and by every means possible.

      Now and then, he devotes a three-hour segment to taking phone calls from people who’ve found an alternative route to success. I love those days – some of the stories are truly inspirational.


  29. I can’t help thinking what a perfect fit this varnishing is for you. Thank you for sharing your journey and the shoulders upon whom you stand. In your work you have time to think and reflect, a place to meet all walks of life, the tremendous satisfaction of crafting, the freedom to be outside, a necessary work that can carry you through decades. I can go on. Another proof of your authenticity…it brought Rosie out…(smile). You are a very interesting and sensitive person.

    I think you have synthesized your heritage quite nicely. I like the word “herencia” in Spanish. It means inheritance and heritage. Your inheritance is evident in the words and values you choose. I’ll be thinking of you this weekend mining

    1. Georgette,

      When I started my blog, one of the things I had to do was create that “about” page. I’ve hardly changed it, except for adding a few quotations. This is what I said, way back in 2008: “My dock provides both things Virginia Woolf recommended for a woman who writes: money, from the labor, and a room of my own – space and solitude for thought, remembrance, and creative reflection on the truths and mysteries of life.”

      How I was so smart to know what way back then I haven’t a clue. But it was on target, and so are you for noticing it.

      Wasn’t it fun to see Rosie? Such pleasure! I told her at some point that if she ever gets to this part of the country, we’ll find you and then find some gelato to share!

      I love the way other languages sometimes differentiate and sometimes synthesize in ways that English doesn’t. “Herencia” is a perfect example. My mother used to worry about not having “much to leave me”. She meant money, of course. Over time, I helped her understand that all the important things she’d given me never could be lost to a thief or a stock market crash. ;)

      Happy Labor Day! I’m taking four days off, so I’ll be sure to have enough time for research and a trip to Kitty’s Purple Cow in Surfside!


    1. Jason Ministries,

      Thanks so much. Family and work are some of the deepest satisfactions of life. I’m glad you enjoyed my way of reflecting on them, and thank you for your gracious comment.


  30. I came to your blog through ‘Freshly Pressed’, attracted by the title and the content certainly didn’t let it down!

    We seem to have a society ethos which despises anyone who works with their hands….but these are the people who keep our world running while the smart aleks live off their backs.

    I was a specialist in labour law for years….I’d have trusted my clients a lot further than I’d have trusted the HR bosses who were shafting them.

    1. Helen,

      I’m pleased that you were pleased. Sometimes I think the ones who labor with their hands are despised, but other times I think the plugged-in ones of the world just get impatient. While computers and their associated gadgetry are speeding up and up, varnish dries when it dries. A roofer can place only so many tiles or shingles in an hour. Taking out the bathroom plumbing – and putting it back together properly – can’t be rushed.

      The natural world and the work it requires hasn’t changed so very much over the centuries. In some ways, I have as much in common with those friends of yours in 1066 as I do with my 2013 friends!

      Lovely to have you stop by – you’re always welcome.


    1. awax1217,

      It was interesting to read your reflections on your teaching and work careers. What you said about college students and the desire to learn seemed right on target.

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you continue to find your own blogging enjoyable.


  31. Another between-class person here, born blue-collar and educated into the white-collar world. And yes, the machinations, insincerity, and butt-kissing are … alien to me, let’s just say that.

    The best thing that can be said about a working-class person by a working-class person is that they are straight-talking, passionate, and forthright … all of which are suicidal in the white-collar environment. Get loud, and you’re out of control. Offer someone the compliment of honesty in the service of a goal, and you’re not a “team player.” I’ve managed okay, but my glass head definitely keeps me from rising as far as my ability can take me, and I’m unwilling to engage in the naked duplicity needed to rise further.

    Have you ever read a book by a guy named Alfred Lubrano called “Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams?” If not, get that book now. It was a real eye-opener for me.

    1. 113yearslater,

      I certainly recognize the dynamics you mention, although I will say I’d amend that sentence to say, “…all of which can be suicidal in the white collar environment”. I didn’t leave that world solely because everyone was a jerk. Some were, but not all. What I did find is that the system as a whole put a lot of pressure even on the best to become jerk-like. I just had a hunch I’d be happier elsewhere. As luck would have it – I am.

      You really tickled me with that business about your glass head. What a wonderful revision of the old glass ceiling business! And it reminded me of something else. I’m old enough that, even though I wasn’t in the first wave of “first women”, I was in the second wave. Truth to tell, I got pretty sick of being plugged in here and there because the powers that be needed to fill a woman-slot.

      I’d not heard of Lubrano’s book. I read a couple of reviews – it sounds interesting. I wish I’d come across it thirty years ago. It might have come in handy.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate it very much.


    1. Jgncs,

      I just was sitting here going through some other photos. One is from Christmas, 1911, and on the back it only says, “This is the last year the family all was together. This was taken on the old place, in front of the house”. I’ve got to figure out who they are – there are plenty of aprons, bare feet, babies, calico and even an old hound!

      Thanks for stopping by – glad you enjoyed the pics!


  32. That was beautifully written. I had to laugh about your mother’s reaction to your new occupation. My mother would have said the same thing. One of her favorite lines was “What will the neighbors think?” Now that I am a mother, I am constantly warning my daughter about the dangers present in life. Glad you decided to go out and live yours!! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! :)

    1. tamberrinoartstudio,

      My mother never said it explicitly, but “what will people think?” was right up there at the top of the list of her concerns. It was status consciousness, of course – the old shanty Irish vs. lace-curtain Irish business.

      And she was self-aware enough to realize in her latter years her question, “What if something happens to you?” had a second, unspoken part, which sounded something like, “What, then, will happen to me?” The elderly are people, too, with their own anxieties and fears.

      But mothers are mothrs, young or old. I’m glad to hear you’re keeping your daughter in line, too!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the lovely comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and that I could give you a smile!


    1. It is nice, Gué. It’s a nice way to meet new people. I first met thinkingcowgirl because of being Freshly Pressed. I seem to remember that you follow her, too. She’s not posted for a while. I hope she’s vacationing!


  33. Our generation was born to parents who thought of college as the answer to everything. This put a lot of pressure on us. In the 1960’s, we began to see the seedy side of the “establishment”. Could I really be myself if I used my education? Many of us thought that rejecting the establishment was the answer to everything.

    I struggled with this my whole life. My resume is best summed up as “miscellaneous”.

    I look at any occupation. I see deadbeats. I see those who put their souls into their work.

    Wherever I work, I just try to be the latter.

    Freshly Pressed has noticed that you put your soul into your writing. Congratulations!

    1. Claudia,

      That whole “rejecting the establishment” thing was pretty righteous back in the mid-to-late sixties. Then, in the mid-seventies, I landed in Berkeley and discovered there were people who looked at me and saw “establishment” – on the hoof, so to speak. There’s nothing like a dude wearing a propeller beanie and finger cymbals calling you a freak to engender a little self-examination.

      I suppose in the end, you and are both have swerved into whatever satisfactions we have. The good news is that all the dead-ends, roadblocks and washed-out bridges have made things a whole lot more interesting, even when they weren’t so enjoyable.

      I’ve just spend a few minutes trying to remember if I’ve known any real deadbeats on the docks. I’ve known a couple of drunkards, one suspected thief and a truly weird person or two, but the deadbeats either get fired by employers or move on to something else. One thing’s for sure – there aren’t any HR departments on the docks. Do the work, you’ve got work. Be lazy, unproductive, unskilled or a jerk, and you can move on down the road. If only it were so everywhere.

      I know this – it looks like that new neighborhood is going to be soul nurturing for you. Well, except for the bingo, maybe.

      Thanks for the congrats! I can be of a divided mind about being Freshly Pressed sometimes, but I’m glad this one’s out there for Labor Day.

      Enjoy the holiday!


  34. I love the way you so eloquently laid down the family history groundwork, leading up to your rebellion, I mean departure from the office world! Our stories are similar, but I just wish I could shorten mine to one blog post as well as you have done here.

    So many memories came back to me about what little I know about my ancestors. Yes, my siblings and I were expected to go to college. It was just understood, with no other option available, although my parents were not offering to pay, but rather helped us apply for scholarships and save our money toward that end. Great story, Linda!

    PS Remind us again which blog post was Freshly Pressed, please?

    1. Bayou Woman,

      One thing about family histories – every discovered fact leads to a dozen more. I’m just nibbling around the edges a bit, now. The saga of grandpa David in the Civil War could be a whole book, and now that I’ve discovered I have a relative in charge of the Mining Museum in the town where my folks were raised – well! Who knows what lies ahead?

      Scholarships and saving – that was the way we did it. Of course, we saved for everything. I still remember joining the Christmas Club at the bank when I was in grade school. Every Saturday I’d go uptown with Dad, and we’d stop by the bank. I’d give them my quarter or fifty cents, and they’d enter it into the passbook with absolute serious. The tellers always thanked me for my deposit. As the twig is bent, and all that.

      I’m glad you liked the story. This is the one that was Freshly Pressed. I guess there’s a widget for the sidebar, but I’m not inclined to add it. I’m truly a weird duck, aren’t I?

      Have a wonderful weekend – I picked up some fresh figs at the farmers’ market this morning. That’s a pretty good start on some celebrating!


      1. Where ARE my manners? I forgot to congratulate you! I didn’t put one the first time a blog post of mine was pressed freshly. But this time, they offered, so I took it!! No, you’re not a weird duck at all, Linda.

        But I can warn you if you didn’t know it already, getting pressed brings the strangers from far and wide as followers. That is where I’m weird: Even though I’ve chosen to blog on the WWW, when the whole wide world decides to follow my blog, it makes me a wee bit nervous if I can’t even pronounce their names. So, now, I’m wondering if getting freshly pressed is really such a good thing after all? Surely WordPress won’t mind my asking that rhetorical question? If so, then feel free to delete my wanderings.

        1. The first time I was Freshly Pressed, I’d been blogging about two months. That certainly supports “the luck of the draw” theory of how posts are chosen. It was all topic, and none of my writing skill – I can guarantee you that.

          The other three times, I’ve either been traveling or in the middle of a holiday weekend, which is either a positive or negative, depending. On the one hand, it’s easier to keep up with comments. On the other hand, responding to comments takes away from other things that have been planned. But my view has shifted somewhat, and I’d rather have the experience than not – especially with this post, which I think is a good reminder of some values that are under threat these days.

          I don’t mind the followers. For one thing, I’ve not linked to any of the “publicize” functions like Facebook or Twitter, so the number of followers is just that – folks who’ve clicked in from WordPress. It’s a good way to keep track of my blog’s reach – better than page views, I think.

          For a while I was getting exercised over “spam likes”. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience – as soon as a post goes up, there are people who like it within ten seconds. Of course they haven’t read it. One blogging friend says she’s come to take it as a sign they’re just glad she’s still alive. ;)

          It may take me a while, but I do visit the blogs of people who have followed mine. Some clearly are just trying to build up their stats, SEO, or whatever all that is. But most seem to have had some reason to click – they’re maintaining writing blogs, or family-centered blogs, or whatever. Who knows?

          There’s one guarantee I can make – none of them has a fig jam recipe that even comes close to yours!


    1. onechicklette,

      Amazing, isn’t it, how certain experiences resonate for us even when the setting or details are different? It seems our mothers were just a bit alike – I read your post about your mother wishing you lived in Manhattan. The dynamic’s not so different as here. They wish the best for us, but they do have their firm convictions!

      I’ve always loved Manhattan, though I wouldn’t want to live there now. I had an aunt who lived for decades on West 16th, even after my uncle died and his family wanted her to move to the Jersey shore. I had some wonderful visits there, and made some great memories.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the kind words. I appreciate them.


  35. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read and, as always, beautifully written. I love all those laborers who in so many ways truly created this country. And I love that you made a career change based on what really matters most, finding a place where we can be our best selves.

    I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend.

    1. Teresa Evangeline,

      If we can find – and nurture – our better selves, we’re blessed indeed. Personally, I have a multitude of selves running around inside, and every now and then a few of them need to be lovingly smacked down like a tantrum-throwing two-year old.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the read, and likewise hope your weekend’s lovely. We’re still simmering in the heat, so no beach-combing or prairie-walking for me. No malls or movie theatres, either – a friend and I are going to hit the road and just see where we end up.


  36. I remember listening to an interview on the radio, some years ago, of an American journalist, who had gone ‘undercover’ and taken up ‘unskilled’ work. She said, if it hadn’t been for the help and consideration shown by her fellow workers, she would have gone down under the pressure. The ‘unskilled’ work, in all its various forms, she found required many skills, most of which she, with her college education, sadly lacked.

    Wish I could remember her name, but too many days have passed for it to return to my mind. Her point was, to value the contribution made by those mostly forgotten unseen workers. And that they deserved to be paid much more for their skilled work!
    Hope you’re having a wonderful Labour Day holiday♥

    1. eremophila,

      It’s quite amazing to me how many basic skills people lack these days. I still remember learning how to count back change. I couldn’t have been very old at all, but I can see those “coins” and paper bills as if it were yesterday. Being able to hang a crown molding ledge straight, knowing how to make gravy, understanding which cleaning products to use and which to avoid – none of those is equivalent to finish carpentry, but they’re stepping stones.

      The woman you mention was quite right. What appears “unskilled” labor may appear so only because it involves physical labor, which is seriously undervalued. One of the great delights for marine canvas workers, varnishers, boat compound-and-waxers and such is the inevitable encounter with the person who says, “Oh, fiddle. I’m just going to do it myself. It’s not that hard, and it’ll be much cheaper.”
      Having the second conversation with that customer is one of the fun benefits of my work, along with the ability to go barefooted and talk to the ducks.


  37. My father was the first in his entire family to earn a college degree. He paid his way to an education by raising pigs/litters. He wanted to move away from the farm and he successfully did it.

    I, too, earned a college degree and was proud to help make a difference in the financial bottom-line of our family’s economic standing.

    But, I will never forget the extreme pride I felt when shaking my uncle’s hands…He had tough, muscular, calloused hands from working long hours as a successful farmer. His skin was a deep brown and his face lined with deep furrows from his long hours standing and working in the sun. There is something deeply fulfilling and respectable in laboring intently for a purpose. My uncle had that pride in his large farm operation in southeastern MN.

    May you find deep fulfillment in your labors, as well.

    Congratulations on your achievements in academia, too!!


    1. greatredwoman,

      You’re exactly right. There is deep fulfillment in laboring for a purpose, whatever that purpose might be and whatever form the labor takes. I suspect you, your father and your uncle approach your work in much the same way – with persistence, a commitment to quality and an understanding of the sacrifice success entails.

      One of the most touching experiences I had on a trip to Minnesota a couple of years ago was visiting one of the state’s Century Farms. Seeing the sign listing the generations who had worked the land was deeply touching. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, a good farmer is hard to find. My best to those in your family, as well as to those who’ve chosen other paths.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your very kind words. I do appreciate them – and you’re always welcome!


  38. Linda, a lovely and timely post which makes me want to write something about my own family history. I’ve waffled on scanning the old photos I have been entrusted with or thinking of a cohesive order to approach an article of some kind. Your story has a sweet realness to it that transcends a mere historical accounting.

    I did find in our area after hurricane Wilma took down 98 percent of our power grid and gas could not be pumped from so many gas stations having no generators, that people came together in amazing ways. Everything was different; we were all in the same boat and we became comrades with everyone we interacted with to endure the weeks of no electricity and no traffic lights. Would you believe South Forida drivers were courteous and careful navigating Broward County streets with no traffic lights?

    I still remember how an FPL guy who was to fix something at the end of the street (after 3 weeks of no electricity) got hijacked by the men on our street to right all the tilted power poles all the way up our street. The men were like cowboys. They threw ropes and leveraged and whatever to work with the FPL man to get them up. My house was last as they got to it to on that long but fun day. It was a sight to see. Just everywhere folks got together to share generators and fix broken things. I will never forget the atmosphere of mutual accomplishment and help for all of us so normally insulated from each other going to and from work.

    Oh, on the Freshly Pressed thing… I think in your very special case they could Freshly Press everything you do. I wonder how hard it is for them to wait for which to choose?

    1. Judy,

      Be honest, now. You know as well as I do that not everything you or I produce is of equal quality. That’s just the way it is. I’m delighted that this post got highlighted – no question about that. But there certainly are some in the archives that wouldn’t deserve the honor, even if you brushed their hair and made them put on some lipstick!

      There’s nothing like life, post-disaster. I know another blogger who lives in Lauderhill – and I believe it’s FPL her son works for. Maybe he was the one who righted your poles!

      After Ike’s landfall on Saturday night, I had to drive from Tyler to Nacogdoches on Sunday morning. Despite the downed lines and trees, the roads were open. The folks in all those homes along the highways had been out already with their chainsaws, clearing the roads and stacking the wood so that emergency crews could get through. There was no need to wait for outside help – not for those first steps, anyway.

      I took Mom up to Kansas City to stay with her sister while I went home and got things back in order. On my way into Houston, I thought I was calling a friend to see if we had power back on. I got a wrong number, and ended up talking to an unknown woman for a full five minutes. Did I have plenty of gas in the car? Did I have water and food? Was I really ok? Did I need any information about my neighborhood?

      It was the best wrong number of my life – but that’s just the way people were.

      A friend and I were reminiscing about September hurricanes this afternoon. Rita, Ike and Carla were the biggies in our lifetime, and in every instance, we saw the dynamic you describe. People pulling together, differences set aside. If only it didn’t take a disaster for that to happen!


      1. Perhaps I’ll simply say that your humblest missive somehow still transcends the ordinary.

        I did find that continuity interesting that your mother helped varnish homes. Maybe the aromatic essences of such materials is wired in somehow :)!! But, to be by the sea sweetens the whole deal.

    1. Don,

      Thanks so much. With every bit of information about them I glean, I become more amazed at their tenacity, grit and occasional weirdness.
      It’s the best reason to learn about our ancestors – to understand that they were people, too, with the virtues and foibles common to us all.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. And a happy Labor Day to you!


  39. Oh, my gosh, yes. How wonderful and beautifully written is this reminder about all the people who do make this country a livable place. They are so often, too often, ignored or demeaned. And your life’s journey to the career you have now is so fascinating to me, Linda. I do envy you so much. It sounds like you’ve found your place.

    1. SDS,

      Well, whether this is “my place” or not, it’s where I am, so I figure I might as well hang a picture or two and throw some supplies in the pantry. Sometimes I think all my moving around, swerving from one career to the next and dealing with the attendant challenges, is precisely what’s prepared me for this stage of life. I’ve seen so much and experienced so much, both good and bad, that I can’t even imagine not being able to cope with whatever shows up next.

      I like that you speak of the people who make this country “livable”. So often the phrase chosen is “who make this country work”. I understand that way of putting it, but “livable” is a virtue, too, with all its overtones of grace, beauty and comfort. Your new arrangement with your mother may be workable, but you wouldn’t want it to end there. From my vantage point, it looks like the work you’ve both done have you well on the way to livable!


      1. I swerved from one career to another, too, Linda, but I think you got a career and a lifestyle in your choice. And they sound wonderful.

  40. Shall I say, a ‘monumental post’? That’s the feeling I got. Congrats, Linda, on your recounting your own roots, and then looking out to other similar sagas, and finally landing on Labor Day. Again, wonderful writing.

    Now, I’m a bit amused to find you’ve relatives immigrating to Saskatchewan. Another thought, the word ‘immigrating’ has so many different facets. Despite under one umbrella, immigrants from various locales in the world coming here to the ‘new world’, and in various time periods, can be so different and carry a spectrum of tales to tell. Indeed, we’re a land of immigrants, and yet, we’re all very distinct in our roots and cultures as well.

    1. Arti,

      I’m not sure how long that part of the family stayed in Saskatchewan. Not so very long. Some of them moved back to Iowa, but some eventually landed in Minnesota.

      I have a very few photos of them: some men gathered around a steam thresher, two boys playing marbles in a dirt street in front of a house, two girls on a horse. My favorite is of mother’s cousin Tom, with his brace of birds and his dog. If you go to this post and look at the tintype, he was the son of the girl on the right or the left. The one in the middle is Inazel – I know that for certain. The others are Amanda and Belva, and it’s Belva who’s his mother. I just don’t know which one she is.

      I spent some time with this past weekend, and learned a few things – like the port from which my paternal grandparents sailed to come to America. There was a lot more traveling going on in those days than I’ve ever imagined – even without freeways and air travel, those folks got around!


  41. Out of the many wonderful phrases and sentences you’ve crafted into this post, here’s the one that seems to be sticking with me: “…a deep pride in producing quality work.” When I think about the professions that seem to garner attention and admiration these days, I wonder how we managed to lose sight of that important value. I’m sure your ancestors placed it high on their list.

    1. Charles,

      All I need do to see that “deep pride in producing quality work” is look around at the few things that have come down to me through the family: hand-stitched quilts, a solid oak blanket chest made from my grandmother’s dining table, and so on.

      My first lessons in patience and perfection came from my grandmother, who taught me to embroider. Every piece needed to be as neat on the back as on the front. My goodness – she embroidered favorite recipes onto tea towels. I still have a few, and they’re easier to read than my scribbled recipe cards.

      Even today there are people who take pride in their work. I bought a table from a fellow in Maine whose blog I read regularly. He called it his “Evangeline Table” – when I saw it, there was no question I had to have it. It was the pearl of great price, for any number of reasons. You can see one of the few he made here, and read about it.

      It’s in my living room now, with a notebook in the drawer that’s been dedicated to a particular project.Mostly I look at the table, just because it’s so beautiful and compelling, and because it’s wonderful to know someone who still can do such things.


  42. Hi, (since everyone calls you Linda here, I’ll call you Linda, even though I’m used to calling you Shore, lol) Linda! Ylee was taken, so I had to use a different login name here, since I don’t have FB or a Twitter acct. Anyway, I read your post above, and I must say the tide of immigrants coming here has never stopped, there are still plenty of folks that look down upon them, and someday, these hard-working, honest people will prove them wrong!

    You’ve written a lot! I have some catching up to do! :’ )

    1. wileybr549,

      My gosh! What an absolute delight to find you here. It tickled me to death when I got home from work.

      I thought about you over Labor Day weekend when I came across a couple of snapshots taken on the ferry we used to ride when we crossed the river into Kentucky. There’s also a snapshot of what appears to be a lock or dam, or both. But even better, I’ve found evidence that the Crowley clan traveled to Iowa via flatboat on the Ohio and then via wagon. One of these days I’ll get that all sorted out so I can share it with some kind of coherence. Some of them are buried in southern Ohio, and I see that the name some of them bore – Paxton – pops up in Kentucky.

      You’re exactly right that the tide of immigrants never has stopped. It’s just that, for many years, people paid them far less attention. I work alongside some fairly recent immigrants myself. They come from different countries than my ancestors and they have quite different stories to tell, but we get along just fine. I can’t see much difference in their goals and the goals my grandparents had when them arrived.

      I have been a little busy here! Now you see why I decided to cut back for a while at WU. I just couldn’t maintain two blogs. I have a hard enough time getting over there to chat – although I’m doing better!

      Thanks so much for stopping by!


  43. Love the post. It’s a good reminder that there’s dignity in all work. Plus, the family history aspect was pretty impressive and motivates me to discover more about my ancestors.

    1. marlajayne,

      Thanks so much for the comment, and the kind words.

      An acquaintance made an interesting observation yesterday. She said she thought the reason certain reality shows on television have become so popular, like “Dirty Jobs” or “Swamp People”, isnt’ just that the jobs are gross or weird. It’s her contention that people are hungering to actually end their days able to see what they’ve accomplished. It’s an interesting thought, and to one extent or another no doubt true.

      It’s been pure fun tracing the family. I’m amazed at how much I’ve been able to unearth with only a few clues to start with. I suppose combing the microfiche files will be necessary eventually, especially for unearthing correspondence and such, but the basic facts are so easily available online it’s just amazing.

      Thanks again for stopping by. You’re always welcome!


      1. I hope I haven’t already commented on this. Since I’m using my iPad, I can’t tell. About those “dirty jobs,” it reminds me of a time when I had an administrative position on an interim basis. To me, it was dreadful–one meeting after another, and at the end of the day, I felt that I had accomplished very little. Fortunately, the ordeal ended, and I was able to go back into the class room where every single day counted (for me anyway).

        1. marlajayne,

          Since I don’t have an iPad, I really was interested in your remark about not being able to see the comments. I’m going to have to find someone with some gadgets and check things out.

          A good administrator is a gift, but far too often they seem to experience the kind of frustration you express. I suppose the reasons vary with each situation, but I’ve always remembered something I heard years ago: the purpose of any bureaucracy is to maintain the bureaucracy. Whether it’s our Congress or the local school board, that surely seems true!


  44. Such a fantastic post…. Not enough is done to speak to, to commemorate this work; all work. If more people took such pride, there would definitely be a higher level of happiness in the workplace. Of course, impediments exist — but as you did (and myself), there’s always change.

    Thank you for this! And the stories of your family are just fascinating.

    1. FeyGirl,

      I was blessed to be raised in a family that never considered work to be a curse. They recognized that drudgery exists, of course (life in a coal mine wasn’t easy or pleasant for my grandfather, any more than life in a corporate structure was pleasant for my dad), but all-in-all, the pleasure of creating and maintaining a home and family by labor was seen as an opportunity to cherish.

      And yes – change is possible! That always was the basic conflict I had with my mother. Her concern always was “security” – but she grew up, married and raised her child in a world where “company towns” still existed, and the perceived obligation between the company and the employee was mutual. Long gone, that!


  45. Very interesting to read about your family history, Linda. And yes, it’s important to value everyone for the services they undertake for society in the course of their work, whatever it may be.

    This reminds me of when I was teaching at a particular campus of my old university many years ago, where the two most pleasant and interesting people to chat with were an English professor (now an acclaimed author in Australia) and a cleaner.

    1. Andrew,

      It’s been very interesting for me to begin exploring my family history. I’ve already turned up two distant cousins because of these blog entries, and both have been engaged in their own searches. Fun, beyond belief.

      Some people would think the professor and the cleaner were at opposite ends of some spectrum or other. Not so! They’re on one end, and at the other end? Well, perhaps the detached and uninterested. I find it hard to understand how anyone could live without curiosity and interest in the world around them, but some certainly do – and you can’t predict it at all by occupation.


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