Looking at my white-haired father in his wheelchair, it’s difficult to see any of the young, dark-haired fearsome father I grew up knowing. The sun is shining through the picture window of his nursing home room warming his back as he sits napping, head bowed, elbows propped on the armrests, wrists limply dangling over his lap.
“Hey there,” I say softly as I touch his arm. He lifts his head, sleepy eyes opening, trying to focus. I hear a slurppy sound as he catches back a bit of drool resting at his lips as he dozed.
“Oh, hi…” He pushes the wheelchair back a bit so I can sit on the side of his bed and he can look out the window. “Warm out?”
I fill him in on the weather and we go through our ritual of ordinary chatter, how is my mother, how is his car running, is the house ok… and then we fall back into the silence that is like an old place we have been before, many times. He turns his gaze to the cars outside the window, coming and going. I am just about to ask him if he would like to go outside for a bit when he breaks the silence himself.
“You know, it all went by too fast. I’d give anything for 10 more years but what’s the good. I can’t do anything. Just getting to the bathroom wears me out….. Used to be able to bounce tires off my knee all day long and come home and still do more…. “
“Those were hard times, Dad…all those years working at Uniroyal.”
“It was hard, sure, but it was good work. I enjoyed it. All of it.” I could see in his eyes he was seeing some part of those times again and there was a sense of satisfaction even amid all the trials I know had been there. “It all just went by too fast,” he said again, his voice drifted and he looked down at his hands, stretched them out before him and then let them drop and sighed.
In the weeks that followed, my father grew weaker and then passed away. At the funeral a friend of mine, a second generation Polish man, reflecting upon my father’s life, spoke of his past in a wonderful way. He wove my father’s story into the history of the time he lived…
“Stanley was born during the decade of the First World War into a poor immigrant farming family, the eldest of six children. The 1920s, even though a prosperous time for businesses, was not a prosperous time for farmers. Many farms were foreclosed on and lost during those years. Yet, Stanley’s family survived on their small farm through the hard work of his father and mother.”
“Stanley became the head of the family when his father died when Stanley was only sixteen, the same year the stock market crashed. It was 1929 and a sixteen year old boy picked up his father’s harness both figuratively and literally as he took over his father’s job at Nolan’s Tobacco driving one of the team of horses used on the farm.”
“I overheard Stanley’s sister this morning talking about how he worked so hard he rarely had time to take a break and eat lunch so he would stuff crackers into his pants pockets so he could eat while he was out working the team of horses, bringing tobacco in from the fields.”
“A sixteen year old boy working 7 days a week, 12 hour days driving horses and caring for them as well, all for $10 a week; responsible for a growing family at a time in our history when 13 million people were unemployed and people were starving. It would have been hard to live through that time but what must it have been like to have been a boy and been responsible for a family?”
“In 1935 with the optimism that only the young possess Stanley married Stella in the middle of the Great Depression. They started their married lives living with Stanley’s family. Stanley continued to work at Nolan’s and Stella pitched in and helped through various farming jobs and also working at Nolan’s…”
My mother sat silently, eyes closed as she listened. I wondered if she was remembering those first days of their lives together. I could recall her stories about working at the tobacco farm; I had heard them so many times.
She’d say, “I loved working for Nolan’s, even if they were Irish, they were nice. Your dad would work in the fields bringing tobacco in and I worked in the sorting barn, a big solid-looking barn on a hill near the fields. The drivers would bring in the dried tobacco leaves in and we girls would sort through the leaves, finding the ones that were big and without any holes for cigars and the damaged or small ones for cigarettes. I’d stand all day and sort, the cigar leaves to the right and the cigarette leaves to the left. It was a job I was good at too; I could spot any damage on the leaves that would ruin the leaf for a cigar. The boss knew I was good too, he would tell me so.”
“The only problem was they kept the concrete floor wet all the time so the leaves wouldn’t get too brittle and crack and I’d get so sick from the damp I couldn’t get up in the morning. Took us a while to figure out how to get past that, but your father did, he’d give me a good swig of blackberry brandy before I went to bed and that would keep me going.”
“I hated your father working his job though. He’d have to be up before dawn to feed the horses, haul water for them, groom them even before the day’s work began and he’d have to do it all over again after the field day’s work was done. He’d bed the horses down and clean the tack. We never could go anywhere to visit my folks or anything because he always had to be there to take care of those damn horses…. ”
It made me doubt if my dad had hated his job with the Nolan’s like my mom had. There’s something real and satisfying about working with horses. I saw that deep satisfaction with my daughter’s three year stint at owning her own horse. I can imagine my father finding those early morning hours away from the hustle and bustle of a too full house with too little means a haven. The smell of sweet hay and grain, the warmth of the horses’ bodies under his hands on a cold morning, the snorting of air as the horses recognized him, giving their approval at being fed and groomed. I’ll bet he loved it for the same reason my mother hated it.
My mother opened her eyes and Brian’s voice continued on.
“…. but as Stanley’s brothers and sisters came of age, Stanley felt free enough to seek a better life for his small growing family through a move to Easthampton and factory work.”
“The end of the Depression was in sight but rumbles of War in Europe and then Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 cast another shadow over their lives together. In 1941 the United States entered the war while Stanley worked in a factory in Easthampton that manufactured shells and casings for bazookas and other artillery guns. He was needed in the factory to supply the troops with ammunition and so received a deferral from the draft. Even though having work during those war years was not a worry, the money being earned and the difficulties of living in a war-time environment continued the steady flow of difficulties and economic hardships which had marked Stanley’s life.”
My sister Alice nods her head in the back. She would have been five years old when the war started, old enough to remember the hard work to get by. I never fully understood my parents’ ways when it came to food and money but Alice understood. She’d lived through that time of deprivation that inwardly marked my mother and father as it would so many other people of that time. My parents’ house always had shelves and shelves of food stored in their cellar. There were large canisters of sugar, flour, and rows and rows of canning jars.
My father always had a garden in his yard, right up to the summer before he died. He would start turning over the ground early in the spring, spreading compost to “sweeten the soil.” He’d already have trays and trays of tomato plants sitting on windowsills around the house that he’d started from seed. Tomatoes, peppers, yellow wax beans, lettuce, cabbage were all vegetables he would grow in profusion. Yet even what he grew was never enough. He would go to the area farmers and buy bushels of fresh vegetables in the summer and my mother would can for days on end.
I can still see my mother standing in the kitchen with her red polka-dotted bandana around her head, full-sized apron around her bodice and waist she would push back a stray hair or a bead of sweat. She watched the gauge on the pressure cooker to make sure the glass jars filled with food were hot enough to be safe but not too hot to burst. Red-pepper sweet relish, corn, tomatoes, beets were just some of the different foods she would put by to get the family through the coming winter months. It had always seemed so silly to me to have all this food in the cellar when you could just go to the store and buy it. But my sister’s nodding head was the recognition that there was a time when that was not so and it was my mother and father working together that kept the family fed. The fear of not having enough food never left either of my parents and their cellar was never empty.
“After the war, Stanley took many different jobs in factories in Easthampton from shoe to chair to a doll factory. Finally in the early 50s Stanley found a resting place with the Fiske Tire Company in Chicopee Falls where he worked until he retired in 1972.”
This was a time I remembered. Dad worked at Fiske during my childhood and early adulthood. This is the part that puzzled me as I remembered back to what my dad had said only a month or two ago. “It was hard, sure, but it was good work. I enjoyed it. All of it.”
I remember his coming home from his 11-7 shift and us having to be so quiet so he could sleep… even when he was awake, if felt like being in a tomb because he wouldn’t tolerate any noise. I remember he always said the factory was so noisy that when he came home he just wanted some peace and quiet. I remember his low anger when some new management “kid” would show up at the plant and try and tell him a better way to do a job he’d been doing for 15 years. All because that “kid” had a college education and Dad did not. I remember his sore knees full of arthritis from years of bouncing newly made tires from the machine press he just took it off of, up onto a soaring stack of tires already made. I remember the times when the company wouldn’t agree to the Union demands and he would be out of work for 6 to 9 months at a time eating up any money he’d put away, the repeating cycle of one good year working and one bad year on strike. I remember his always worrying, thinking, planning about how to make his money stay and stretch. I remember his going to work in a hot, noisy, deadening job hour after hour, day after day, year after year and yet he could say it was all good. I hadn’t understood but I was beginning to.
“So as we remember Stanley now, his life and his accomplishments, there might be a tendency to judge what might have been different, what could have been done better. I bet Stanley himself, knowing what he learned through all his years could look back on his life and say, ‘I wish I had done some things differently.’ But it is important to remember the times he was living in. Stanley wasn’t concerned with identifying his destiny in life. Conversations about “finding oneself” were superfluous and extravagant. In today’s society, in our affluent lives we have the luxury to wonder if our relationships are fulfilling and satisfying; we can meditate on the direction our lives should take and whether the work we are doing is intellectually stimulating. We can seek out advice of others to help us navigate through difficult times. When he was growing up, raising a family there weren’t any self-help books; there weren’t counselors on every street corner offering advice on how to live one’s life and to raise one’s children. This was not the yardstick that Stanley used to measure the worth of his life. Stanley’s life purpose was providing his family with the necessities of life, to protect them from lack and deprivation and if he could raise his children up to another level, that was frosting on the cake.”
As I looked around the room and saw my brother and sister, all three children of his grown, two with college degrees, all three unafraid of work and a challenge I knew he had done more than merely keep the wolf away from the door. It was so clear that this was not a man who had lived his life in quiet desperation but he was a man who had wrested his life, our lives out a turbulent time and had succeeded in his own goals.
“And against that measure, against Stanley’s measure, his life was full and complete. He had done his job well.”
It was all good work.