Saturday, September 5, 2009
Labor Day Memories
Visiting my hometown in Georgia this summer, I drove up the road to my old school house. The red brick building was opened in 1915 and closed in 2001. Even though the school locked its doors for a final time nine years ago—it is still there. Two blocks away was the little four-room mill house where I was born. Across the street was the mill where my parents worked for over fifty years. In the early days they worked twelve-hour days. During the war years they sometimes worked seven days a week. Summers were unbearable, working in the Georgia heat in an unairconditioned building. So this Labor Day I remember back there and the memories swirl.
Wandering around the school grounds it all came back--teachers and a principal--whom I still believe was ten feet tall. All our teachers were women. Teacher’s faces long forgotten began to appear and sometimes I remembered a funny story. Back there I never knew they worked for a pittance. I never knew anything about their lives, their hopes and dreams. They just marched in every morning in those clean starched dresses and opened up their books and made it happen.
But the teachers are only part of my memories. There was Richard, our Janitor who swept our floors, took out the trash, cleaned our restrooms and struggled up the stairs with the heavy boxes of books. But there were other names and faces. Pastors who served in the red-brick church across the street. The woman I paid a dollar a week to teach me piano lessons after school. Mr. Jones who left his hard job in the mill to be our Boy Scout leader week after week. There were swimming instructors that taught us to swim, doctors who came and made house calls, bus drivers who would stop the city bus and take us four miles downtown.
We learned to lean on each other. We came to each other's rescue in times of trouble. We were all connected--doctors and domestics and so many in between--to a time and a place, and it mattered. This age of ours which points fingers and blames and trusts so very few has lost something basic. We still live our lives by connections. We still starve to death when those relational lifelines are cut.
As I sit here on the edge of yet another Labor Day weekend I wonder where I would be without that host of folk that kept us going. Labor Day came into being in 1882 when the son of an Irish immigrant realized the importance of the work his father and other immigrants had done and how they needed equitable wages and decent working conditions. So this Labor Day let us return to our roots. Let us think of all those who have helped make the journey far different than it would have been without them. Let us be grateful for that multitude of ties that bind us to the human family.
Once a man working on our furnace told me, "You would be surprised at how most people treat me and other workers when we come to help them out. Why, we have to come in through the back door. They look down their noses at us. They don't appreciate what we do and they gripe when we give them the bill. If I could do anything else I would. But mister, I got to eat."
Labor Day was established to force us to remember that real living is more than eating and wages. Arthur Miller reminded us in The Death of a Salesman that "attention must be paid." Every person deserves appreciation and dignity. Labor Day is more than a holiday at the end of the summer. It is a time for remembering how we are tied to one another and how this spinning globe would not be quite the same without the work of so many to whom we owe an immeasurable debt.