Home/Work

I needed some toffee bars, I decided, to make a special coffee cake the next morning: I wanted them to make a treat for Mark, and I wanted to take some slices, as a thank you, to a meeting. And we needed a loaf of bread. I reached for my car keys, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I could walk to the Family Dollar.”

It was ten o’clock on a cool and sunny Wednesday morning, and James was in the family room, typing away.

“I’m taking a walk to the store,” I told him.

There was a pause, and then, “Can I come?”

*************

I appreciated my geography, walking. Dandelions were suddenly awake, and I noticed, in the cracks suffered by the concrete, brave little violets pushing up, faces to the sun, undeterred by their brasher yellow weed companions. We strode a ways and turned a corner; walked further; turned again. Motors sputtered and choked and caught and grumbled; there was the smell of gas and fresh-cut grass.

In the field where the school once stood, some sort of perennials were beginning to push up through a thick tangle of weeds and clover. Their leaves and stems were a vivid maroon. I wondered who those perennials belonged to now, and I wondered if it would be stealing to come back later with a spade and an old tin pot.

We made the final turn onto Taylor. As we walked, Jim told me about his favorite movie directors, and then he regaled me with some scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a show which he has recently discovered and embraces wholeheartedly.

So Jim rambled, conversationally; so we walked, steadily. It was almost hypnotic until we startled an angry dog who lunged at us from a brick front porch. His chain brought him up short; spittle flew, and the dog grew more agitated. Alarmed, we scurried on.

I found everything I needed at the store, and we turned back home, careful to walk on the other side of the street, away from that dog who, agitated enough, just might pull his chain out from its moorings.

It was just enough of a walk to challenge us. Coming up the final hill, Jim asked, jovially enough, “WHOSE idea was it for me to tag along?”

He unlocked the door, drained the bottle of Dr. Pepper he’d bought himself, and he grinned.

“Just kidding,” he said.

************

I was tempted, with Jim, to launch into a granny-pated memory binge. “Why I remember walking a mile to the store for my mother when I was just six years old,” I would begin. But then I didn’t. Instead I mentioned to Terri, in an email, that we had walked to the Family Dollar…took a walk, I wrote, to the corner store.

Terri emailed back, later that day, with some reminiscences. She remembered walking to the store on Newton Street in Fredonia, as a child, and how the proprietor had frowned when their waiting dog leapt up, paws on the Sunbeam bread banner that served as a broad door handle.

Sullivan’s! I thought. I’d spent my first ten years in Fredonia, too; I remembered walking to Sullivan’s store.

For me, the walk involved crossing the Big Street—Route Twenty—at the light by St. Joseph Church and trudging a long way down Newton Street, which curled past the Pioneer Cemetery. I was always too spooked to walk on the cemetery side, which didn’t boast much in the way of sidewalk, anyway. Newton took me past the lumber store where Dad stopped, periodically, to replenish our building blocks. The owner would fill a cardboard box with scraps from his cuttings: perfect little squares and rectangles of wood that lent themselves to the most amazing living room floor architecture.

Where Newton Street curved, I could see, in the fields beyond the houses, the cement walls of what I thought was an abandoned factory; its door and windows stared, empty. My brothers called that Hobo Jungle; my mother, urgent, warned them never to go there. They made their faces smooth and innocent, and I felt panic rise: what might those ragged men, nameless and dangerous, jumping off a railroad car—what might they DO?

The walk was always longer than I remembered, and by the time I reached the store, I was glad to gather whatever I had to buy. Sometimes there was enough change for a candy bar, and I would sit on the cement steps, the bag by my side, and eat it as slowly as I could, fortifying for the long walk home.

What fascinated me most about Sullivan’s was that the family, mother, father, and two, I think, big boys, lived upstairs. What would that be like, I wondered—to live above the store? Could the boys run downstairs and get a candy bar or an ice cream sandwich whenever they wanted? Would they be called out of bed in the middle of the night by someone pounding on the door, needing cough syrup or baby aspirin? Did the milk man deliver early in the morning, before the store opened, when the family was still waking, still in their flannel pajamas and embarrassed to be seen?

Years and years later, the store closed, and new owners converted the downstairs to a flat. And years after that, my friend Teri rented the upstairs apartment. It was an amazement to visit and see it, a whole big living space, intact and sprawling, living and dining rooms, three bedrooms,–space enough for a family to live, to come together in the common areas, and to have their private spaces and protected secrets, all above the store that made their living.

I thought about that when my father got up in the wee, wee hours of the morning to drive to work at the power plant in the driving rain, or when he had, in the depth of winter, to shovel the drive and find the old Buick under mounds of snow. What would it be like, to live where you worked?

********************

When Jim was two years old, I, kind of accidentally, fell into doing day care work at home. Two urgent mothers called, needing loving care for their kids; I wanted to be home with James, but I needed income, too. So, “Bring them here,” I said, and then, every morning, moms would pull into the drive and unbuckle car seats and bring their baby or toddler or big kid into the house. Soon there were seven children—never all seven, all at once, though—who came to our house throughout the week.

We would read and walk and play outside; we would draw and eat hot lunches and I’d try—oh, I’d try so very hard—to get at least some of them down for naps. That seldom worked. Sometimes, I’d resort, in the afternoons, to popping kids in front of the television, and popping videocassettes into the VCR. I would do up lunch dishes as the kids sat and sang along with Barney or went on a trip in a hot air balloon with the nice people from Fisher Price. Their eyes would glaze over, and they would sway a little, and sometimes I would slip in and catch a little rest in the lounge chair before TV time was over.

Then there’d be snack time and outdoor play if the weather was good, and then, over a period of two hours or so, moms would start arriving to get their kids. They would come in, tired after working, and they’d listen patiently to tales of the day, slinging backpacks over shoulders, admiring artwork, bundling, bundling, bundling, their babies to the door. And they’d head home, to dinner and maybe an hour or two of family time before baths and books and bedtime, and then a welcome rest before the whole thing began again.

And, after all the wee ones left, I’d stand, my own warm and wonderful child with his arms wrapped around my knees, and survey the rumpled house: a blanket sprawled there on the floor; a burst of crayons splayed on a half-finished drawing; a rash of Lego by the fireplace. Snack-time dishes in the sink and a dinner yet to get and a selfish, impossible wish for a quiet hour’s respite.

There’s no demarcation between work and home when home is where you work.

********************

Of course, work at home is nothing new. Farm families have done it always, and their kids grow up surrounded by the family living—learning the secrets of milking, of driving a tractor, of planting and harvest, when they are very young. Those kids grow up knowing what it means to rear an animal, knowing that the cow they raised from birth, the sparky, scratchy chickens they knew as hatchlings, would eventually feed some family—the farm family itself, or one who bought and fixed that creature the farm kid raised as food.

A different kind of wisdom, those kids learned; there was (there is) a deep knowing of the earth and its seasons in kids who grow up, working the family farm.

*******************

High speed internet in our homes has opened up a new world of work-at-home; we call it, these days, telecommuting. It’s a thing, it seems to me: it’s a trend. We know a couple of people who telecommute. One provides IT tech support; he hides in a bedroom, at his computer, and spends the day talking people through technical problems. The other does technical work for a huge insurance company, and he has a separate study just for work. He gets up in the morning and has breakfast, and then he puts on a suit, goes into his study, and closes the door. He is At Work for eight hours; he emerges for breaks and a lunch, and then he goes back into the study. He goes back to work. His employer gets full value for his work-at-home routine.

I go looking for statistics about working at home in 2018, and Fundera.com tells me these things:

  • 7 million employees (2.8 per cent of the United States workforce) work at home for at least half of the workweek.
  • Forty percent more employers offer a work-at-home option today than did in 2012.
  • Guess what? Those employers find that work at home employees are less stressed and more productive. There’s less employee turnover among those who work at home.
  • Some folks who telecommute save up to $4,000.00 a year.

Telecommuting. Working at home. See? We invented it, didn’t we, we crafty citizens of the twenty-first century?

******************

And then I think about thousands and thousands of years, years before factories and big box stores and services that are open from 8 AM until 9 PM—all those thousands of years when home was also everything else—food processing plant and clothing factory, furniture production site, and butcher shop. People sewed their shirts and pants and dresses and chopped the wood for fuel; they learned to salt and smoke their meat and to make jelly from their apricots and to preserve that jelly in sturdy rows of gleaming jars…jars would supply a taste of summer on frigid winter nights. People who ran homes had to master a little bit of everything, and I can understand, thinking of this, the origins of that old saying: A man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s wok is never done.

Maybe, in community, people could specialize a little. Maybe the woman who was a wonderful baker contracted with another who wielded a deft and efficient needle: Alice supplied the bread for her neighbor, who sewed pants for Alice’s kids. Joshua did the roofing and built the chairs for most of the settlement, and the other men pitched in to help him in the fields. Little cottage industries sprang up, maybe, playing to the strengths of the people who lived in that cottage.

But in the remote regions, where neighbors were scarce and life depended on what you grew and crafted and produced, you couldn’t have the luxury of playing your best hand. You were the source; if you didn’t do it, there was an absence. And that of course could be the difference for a family. Absence of work completed could mean hunger and cold—could, of course, mean death.

Thousands of years of people who were work-at-home laborers, and then a couple of hundred years of industrial and technical revolution. And when technology makes it possible for some people to go back home to work, we seize on it. Look what we invented, we say. We’ll call it ‘work-at-home.’

*************************

I send off a response to Terri’s email, sharing memories of glass bottles of Coke and big bins of Italian olives, of fresh-sliced cold cuts, and of the people we knew who lived above their stores. And then I open up a file and get to work myself, editing a narrative for a grant I’m writing, a grant that is due the next day. I send off emails to the people who are guiding the process; we circle in, closer and closer, to a finished product—to the moment we are ready, when we can push a button that says, ‘Sign and submit.’

And I realize that, once again, I am doing it. Although I have time to take spring rambles to the chain store half a mile away, time to clip the leash on the crazy dog and let her tug me off on a neighborhood wander three or four times throughout the day, I am, again, working at home. The lines blur, and the hours blend, and I might be doing grant work at 7 PM and baking cookies at 11:30 AM, and that’s because I can. Those are choices I can make, when I can work at home.

15 thoughts on “Home/Work

    1. Thank you so much! I am honored! Right now I am without internet…visiting in a rural area, and only connected via cell phone…but I look forward to exploring this on Monday!

  1. Pam, Love your writing style. I feel like I “get lost” in your posts. They prompt smiles and nods and remembrances. I’m such a homebody. I don’t work much any more, but everything I do…I do here in my tiny family room or my pink shed. I loved the passage about day care the best! My life followed a similar path. I went back to work a few months after having my daughter and hated being there! I took in a neighbor’s daughter a few times a week. LOL, I remember the mess and the exhaustion! Now I’m thinking of Italian olives….

      1. Love it! And of course, I am following…

        I have a desk in the corner of our living room–it’s kitty-corner to the fireplace, which is a wonderful thing on cold nights. But I have to confess that often I wind up writing at the dining room table, especially in the morning quiet.

    1. Of course, we all knew where Johnstown was from the infamous flood…

      Remember when the corner stores disappeared? I remember being very sad when the last holdout closed its doors…

  2. Pingback: Home/Work | vilsomrodrigues

  3. As one who has been most graciously been granted the privilege of working from home within the last couple of years, I appreciate your essay, Pam, not least of all for its timely, almost timeless, reminder that there was a long era of human history when *everybody* worked from home. It takes a great deal of discipline to work at home in the 21st century because of all the digital distractions, and I will tell you frankly that not everybody can do it. I myself have known five or six people in my profession alone who started working from home but returned to the office because they couldn’t handle the distractions or because they couldn’t handle the silence. They needed the company of their fellow workers. We can and should multiply that number by thousands across the country.

    That last little bit of truth makes me think of this: in all the centuries of working from home before this one, when entire families–often, several generations–lived under one roof, it must have taken discipline of a different kind–a grace, a discretion, a forbearance–not to interfere in the lives of the adults and the children around us, no matter how close we might be. The Chinese veneration of ancestors grew out of this constant closeness, but my Chinese ESL students and my reading has convinced me that the Chinese have a paid a high price emotionally for this closeness and many no longer venerate their ancestors or laud the elders in their extended families as they used to.

    Although I am used to the solitude enforced by my singleness, I long sometimes, like William Butler Yeats at his writing desk, for someone to interrupt me–a phone call, a knock at the door, a brief chat–and remind me that people do like each other; they do talk to each other. They’re not always and forever bound to the computer screen in front of which they make their living. In such situations, it’s the little things that save me: an e-mail from my sister, a short walk to the apartment complex’s main office where a nice plate of oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies waits on a table, silently begging me to filch one (I’ve never taken two, but I want to. I want to so badly.) It does not take much to please me, or to keep my day going.

    1. I remember reading a YA novel about a returning Japanese soldier, but not the title…it made the point that people in the culture built ‘invisible walls’ to maintain their privacy. I think you’re right, John: there must be a cost in maintaining those barriers.

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