My Father’s Curse
My father takes pride in being a worker. He grew up poor in Italy and emigrated to the U.S. when he was 16. He had $20 in his pocket and no grasp of the English language. Somehow, though, like so many seemingly mythical others, he amassed enough fortune to buy his own home and provide for his wife and three children. The amazing things you can do with a 6th grade education. I’m sure I couldn’t do what he did, and because of his efforts I was gifted the choice not to.
Taking the masculine identity of a provider, he found purpose in granting us an upbringing of safety and security. He has long defined himself by what he can offer in terms of financial support. Working long days for 50-plus years, there was no need to find a hobby. You work, then you sleep. You come home with groceries. His routine was simple. He never imagined his body would fail him. He never considered a life after work. Perhaps he didn’t think he’d live this long. Perhaps he didn’t believe that leisure was real. You rested so you could be ready for work. This was the point of a fulfilling existence.
Today, at 70, he struggles to relax and embrace rest. Strewn with health problems and a list of complications, he impatiently waits for the doctor’s OK so that he can return to the factory. It’s all he knows. It’s the only thing he’s allowed himself to be good at. He has not been curious about or acquired the skills to ease him into retirement. Having always worked gives faith to the belief that you’ll be able to continue working.
Hope and desire keeps all things possible. If you can work you can get better. Stopping work means stagnation and often regression. This is not the goal of anyone, let alone a recent retiree.
Like him, I am driven to do work to find purpose in my days. I relish in the freedom and lack of obligation that summer break affords, but by the third day I’m waking up to scrape tar off the basement floor. It needs to be done. I almost lament my efficiency at it. Continually finding projects becomes a drain in and of itself. I should be able to just lay in the sun and read. It’s what all the other teachers look forward to. For me, mechanical work will always trump academic work. It holds more value because that is the work my father did.
I have a special bond with my Dad. I respect the hell out of him. It sounds trite, but he always bought the cereal I liked. He did so without asking. This man with the perpetually dirty fingernails observed more than he let on. I take after him in this, too.
I have never heard my father say, Can you help me? It’s no wonder that I loathe these words too.
The only instance that I can remember of him ever needing help was with his writing. We had a large Italian family and went to many parties. For just about all of them, a card of offering was called for. Though he always opened his wallet and generously stuffed the envelopes with cash, he always asked one of us to, “write the card”. My father is a proud man, but he was ashamed of his spelling and penmanship. I admit we made him squirm on more than one occasion, and I’m disgusted with this disclosure. I can’t excuse the kid who did such a thing, because as soon as she experienced her own sense of smallness, she made sure subsequent cards were written out way before being asked. Help that is offered is much more likely to be accepted. I’ve lived this lesson ever since.
As I distress over all of this idle time on my hands, I think about my Dad and his shared discomfort. At least I know school will start back up in a few months. Thank goodness the plants and weeds in the yard keep growing. If I was in constant pain, like my Dad is, I don’t think I could endure it. He has trouble going for walks. I’m sure he’s grateful he can still drive and troll the entire Southside of Chicagoland for the lowest prices on tomatoes. Eating up an hour to save thirty cents a pound is a worthy accomplishment when it’s all you have left to do.
The will to work can get you out of a lot of tough situations, but it can also bind you in. Treating it like the end all and be all will make it true. When work is your only source of satisfaction, you bind yourself to a lifetime of labor. Time to and for yourself is meant to be a gift, not a source of anxious grumpiness.
The struggle to relax makes me appreciate work, and the work makes me appreciate what it has afforded me. Perhaps I can learn how to welcome rest without tying it to future endeavors. Maybe I can just sit and be present in the moment, and figure out there is value there, too. When I do figure it out, I’ll give my Dad a call and keep him talking. There’s no other place I have to be, and no one else who might need the distraction more.