In my work as an economist, I have focused on studying the economics of the nonprofit sector. Central to this has been the study of labor markets in that sector, such as the market for volunteer labor. I found myself thinking of labor markets, and the study of such things in general, as our country prepares to celebrate Labor Day this weekend.
When my grandfather arrived in the United States from Italy in the early years of the 20th century, laws required him to have a relative sign for him so he would be allowed to immigrate to the United States. It is not surprising, then, that, after arriving, he immediately went to the home of the relative who had allowed him to enter the country. Once there, he hardly had a chance to breathe before he was told by his relative that “this is America, and in America, we work.” My grandfather took that advice to heart, and began to work. And work. And work.
He did not know English, but he was strong and he could read and understand numbers. And so, he and two traveling companions, two “paisanos,” took jobs hauling ice up and down stairs in tenement homes for use in ice boxes of the day. Young and strong, they easily carried blocks of ice up stairs, and, once they reached their destination, were able to read the numbers posted outside the apartments. “1” and “2” were read, in the minds of the new arrivals, as “uno” and “due,” but they were able to leave the correct number of blocks of ice for the people who lived there. And so began my grandfather’s experience of the United States.
It did not take long before he decided he wanted to have a business of his own, and, since he knew the ice business well, he decided to pursue that line of work. By the time he moved to my hometown in Connecticut, he found ways to expand his business into coal and eventually range oil and then fuel oil. In the years I knew him I don’t remember him ever going on a vacation with my grandmother, as “having fun” was quite a nasty phrase in his world. One month after he sold his business, he died.
My grandmother helped him with his business, although, to be more exact, she was his principle employee, as she kept the books and dealt with his customers. Meanwhile, my mother, who grew up with the business’ office just off her living room, inherited many of the workaholic tendencies that she saw in her parents. She pursued market work in a time when many women did not do so, often arriving at her job in the wee hours of the morning, so that she might be back in time to have breakfast with her family. She, like her father, was very strong, and preferred physical jobs to those she was expected to like. My father recalls that in the last year of her life, as her strength waned, she painted a porch on their house, and, only weeks before being admitted to hospice, was seen mowing the lawn at their home.
I am afraid that I did not inherit the physical strength that runs in my family, but, instead, find my joy in reading, writing and playing with math. Still, it is the work of new mothers that gains my greatest admiration. I took my child home from foster care, so, when I think of women who are caring for a baby in their first weeks of life, I am in awe of the work and effort that goes into the process, of the nights that are spent without sleep and the degree to which their bodies belong to someone else, someone who requires those bodies for simple survival. And so, as we celebrate Labor Day this weekend, I want to remember my grandfather and my mother, who worked their bodies to the bone until the last weeks of their lives. However, I also want to celebrate the women who labor as mothers to make life possible and wonderful for the people they call their children.
Who, in your life, do you admire for their work ethic?
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