Archive for Thursday, September 2, 2010

Laborer father becomes hero in daughter’s eyes

September 2, 2010

“Bowed by the weight of the centuries he leans/Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground/The emptiness of the ages in his face/And on his back the burden of the world” — Edwin Markham, “The Man with the Hoe.”

My dad was a laborer. He used to call himself the “step and fetch it guy.” It was a comment made partly in jest and partly in recognition of the rung on the ladder he had reached in the construction world. He carried lumber, buckets and tools, pushed wheel barrows, gripped and used jack hammers, and climbed scaffolds, all of which he hated but had no choice.

He had no choice. He took whatever jobs he could to support his family. Like most construction worker families, we went from feast to famine. When the jobs were plentiful, we ate well and had new shoes; when the jobs were scarce, we never went hungry, but we were frugal and had our shoes resoled instead.

He was a proud man. More than anything he wanted to be able to take care of his family without outside help, which he did. No job was beneath him and no man was above him except God.

I think about him when I read Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe.” More than anything, my dad wanted to be his own man. He wanted to stand tall and walk proud — hard to do in the world with only a third-grade education. He knew the world could be lopsided and he was often on the downside, but he was never bitter or angry, only silent mostly.

The day he turned 65, he was turned out. I rode home in the car with him from the construction site that day, both of us in eerie silence. I was in high school and there were younger kids coming up behind me to feed and support. I asked him what we were going to do.

“Start over,” he said.

The next day, he rented a plot of land and made it into a truck garden. He pedaled the vegetables from a wooden stand alongside the road. He was, for the first time in his life, his own man. His was back-breaking work — digging, planting, harvesting. He fed our family and other families, as well.

He never complained; he bore his burdens well. Would he have made more of his life if he had the opportunity? He made the most that any man could, given his education and position in life. And what of tomorrow’s workers: the miners, laborers, migrant workers and farmers? How will they support their families and bear their own burdens?

“And how will it be with kingdoms and with kings/With those who shaped him to the thing he is/When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world/After the silence of centuries?”

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