The Work You Do, the Person You Are

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I knew how to scrub floors on my knees and how to wash clothes in our zinc tub, but I had never seen a Hoover vacuum cleaner or an iron that wasn’t heated by fire. I wanted to refuse, or at least to complain, but I was afraid She would fire me, and I would lose the freedom the dollar gave me, as well as the standing I had at home—although both were slowly being eroded. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, “Listen. Still, I had trouble summoning the courage to discuss or object to the increasing demands She made. Until my mother asked me if I really wanted to work for castoffs. 4. 2. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. You don’t live there. But a larger part of my pride was based on the fact that I gave half my wages to my mother, which meant that some of my earnings were used for real things—an insurance-policy payment or what was owed to the milkman or the iceman. Go to work. And after pushing the piano my arms and legs hurt so badly. Confirmations that I was adultlike, not childlike. The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. They are loved, doted on, protected, and helped. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself. They could earn money; they could care for children younger than themselves; they could work the farm, take care of the herd, run errands, and much more. I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. Get your money. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide—and it earned me a slow smile, an approving nod from an adult. This was what I heard: 1. No “Oh, you poor little thing.” Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. Then one day, alone in the kitchen with my father, I let drop a few whines about the job. With your people. Fine, and yet   … You live here. CreditIllustration by Christoph Niemann

All I had to do for the two dollars was clean Her house for a few hours after school. Impressed by these worn things, which looked simply gorgeous to a little girl who had only two dresses to wear to school, I bought a few. I fell carrying the bookcases. Part of my pride in working for Her was earning money I could squander: on movies, candy, paddleballs, jacks, ice-cream cones. Little by little, I got better at cleaning Her house—good enough to be given more to do, much more. ♦ More in this series The Hardworking Immigrant Who Made Good By Akhil Sharma Business or Pleasure By Chris Ware The Countess’s Private Secretary By Jennifer Egan Brush Clearing with Teen-Age Boys in Arkansas By Richard Ford The Hardworking Immigrant Who Made Good By Akhil Sharma Business or Pleasure By Chris Ware The Countess’s Private Secretary By Jennifer Egan Brush Clearing with Teen-Age Boys in Arkansas By Richard Ford In the middle of the war, She had butter, sugar, steaks, and seam-up-the-back stockings. I suspect that children aren’t needed in that way now. Your real life is with us, your family. It was a beautiful house, too, with a plastic-covered sofa and chairs, wall-to-wall blue-and-white carpeting, a white enamel stove, a washing machine and a dryer—things that were common in Her neighborhood, absent in mine. And I knew that if I told my mother how unhappy I was she would tell me to quit. So I learned to say “No, thank you” to a faded sweater offered for a quarter of a week’s pay. In those days, the forties, children were not just loved or liked; they were needed. And come on home.” That was what he said. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are. She began to offer me her clothes, for a price. You make the job; it doesn’t make you. I was ordered to carry bookcases upstairs and, once, to move a piano from one side of a room to the other. 3.