What We Hand Down

Ray takes care of our neighborhood. Several single women of varying ages, elderly couples of varying activity levels, busy young families, live all around us. Ray, a skilled handyman, works to keep their lawns mowed, their gutters cleaned, their windows washed and replaced when needed, their shingles and siding and roof tiles in good repair. I see him around the neighborhood almost every non-rainy day; he wears his long-sleeved, acid yellow, work shirt, long cargo pants and a baseball hat. (He is protected against the sun. Ray is probably somewhere in his fifties, and when age starts creeping in, delight in that beef jerky tanned look goes creeping out.)

When two friends asked about finding someone reliable to clean their gutters and do some autumnal house repairs, of course I thought of Ray. I went to Sandi’s door to see if she had his contact number; Sandi was not home. Phyllis seemed to be gone, too. But then, driving James home from work, I saw Ray out mowing her lawn.

I deposited the boy at home and walked over to talk with Ray.


“Nah,” said Ray. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I got too much.” And he told me that, in addition to the neighborhood work that keeps him busy every single day, he manages a couple of apartment houses—does maintenance and repairs and, when needed, cleaning. And that week, all three skills were required, because a young tenant, months behind on the rent payments, had turned into a midnight runner.

Somehow, Ray said, they’d learned she debarked to someplace down south, leaving behind her a filthy flat with holes in the walls and broken windows and smelly, ratty clothing ankle-deep on all the floors of all the rooms. Ray needed to clean the place out, repair the holes and gashes and breaks, and paint and shampoo and scrub so the next tenant could move in to a place that was light and fresh and clean.

“These kids,” Ray said sadly, and he wiped an acid yellow arm over his beaded forehead. “They have no idea how to keep a place clean.”

“Who teaches them, I wonder?” I said, and I had a vision of kids growing up in chaos and moving out to live in chaos of their own making.

“Jeeeezzzz,” Ray answered, long and deep and distressed, “they don’t even know how to keep their laundry clean, half of ‘em. I think they run to WalMart when there’s no more clean socks.”

And we reminisced then, about our diligent mothers, who had Spring Cleaning and Fall Cleaning; who made us scrub down walls twice a year and wash the woodwork with Murphy’s Oil Soap suzzed up into a bucket of hot water. Who had days for washing and days for ironing, days that they baked and days they changed beds and scrubbed tub and toilet—because often, back then, the bathroom, no matter how many kids were crammed in the house, numbered one—and days they went to the market and brought home a week’s worth of groceries. They taught us, our mothers, to wield an iron and dry sparkling glasses in the dish drainer and to cook up a passable stew or spaghetti sauce. And though I certainly wasn’t grateful at the time, many’s the time I’ve silently thanked the household gods I had a clue about what to do when, and how to do it.

Ray, of course, as a boy back in the 1970’s, trained at his father’s school of household maintenance, too, and learned to change a fuse and run a mower, to stick his hands into gloves and clean disgusting, decomposing stuff out of gutters twice a year, to caulk a window and to reinforce a sagging table-leg and to keep a vegetable garden healthy and weed-free. He could seal a driveway and he could fix a small engine. He was good at those things, Ray was, and when he grew up and got married, he and his wife bought a fixer-upper and turned it into a proud-to-owner, and people started paying Ray to do the same for their houses.

We talked about all this, and then I asked Ray if he knew of anyone I could recommend to my friends who needed gutters cleaned.

Ray sighed, a shudder that shook his whole tired body, and he said no. “No one knows how to do this kind of work anymore,” he said sadly. “Or, if they do know how, they don’t want to do it.”

We talked a little bit more and then I thanked him and walked back home, leaving the man alone to get back to his work.

But the conversation stayed with me. I wonder: who’s passing the basic arts of living on down to our [collective] kids?


Last week, Mark replaced the motor for the fan in the powder room. The old one had been dying, loudly and painfully, for a year, but every fourth or fifth time, we’d flick the switch, and the thing would hum into quiet, vibrant life, and we’d say, “See? It’s okay! There must have just been something stuck.” Mark took it apart and cleaned it, and it was great for ten days or so, and then it just was done.

So Mark, who’d learned home repair at HIS father’s school, took the old motor out and sat down at the computer and searched. It WAS an old motor, too—sturdy and reliable, it lasted upwards of thirty years without a hiccup or a grumble. It had a name and a number on it, limned in the dust of the ages, and, while Mark couldn’t find that exact make, he did find a motor that would fit exactly into the space left vacant.

He ordered it; it arrived in two days, and he installed it in the powder room. The only glitch was where the wires connected; they interfered with the vent going back on and Mark had to get creative. But he handled that and screwed the vent back on, and now, there’s the reassuring whir of the powder room fan whenever needed.

“I was thinking about it,” said Mark, “and I just could have replaced the whole fan. But I thought, we throw things out too easily. Why not fix what we’ve got?”

He probably saved fifty dollars on the project, and he walked around for days with that straight-backed sense of accomplishment: I fixed it.

The week that Mark fixed the fan, I walked by a house down the street on garbage pick-up morning. A huge TV—the kind that has an enclosed triangular bump-out behind the mega-screen—sat at the curb. I had a vision of a sleek new flat-screen sitting or hanging proudly in the house. Maybe the owners would have had, too, to replace the TV stand or entertainment center; with each new technological innovation, the furniture that holds our media grows also obsolete.

As I pumped on up the street, I conjured a vision of my father unscrewing the back of our old black and white TV (my parents didn’t get a color set until most of us kids had flown the coop; my mother always claimed the picture was better—crisper, more delineated—in the black and white world). Dad would hunker down and peer and fiddle; he’d decide which tube was causing the problem. He would disconnect that tube and put it in a bag and drive down, on a Saturday afternoon, to the TV repair shop. He’d return with a new tube to ease back in; he’d replace the back of the old TV, and he’d turn it on, cock his hips and purse his lips, and run out to play with the antenna settings on top of the house.

He’d complain about the cost of replacement tubes: Two dollars! he’d mutter, bitterly, but fixing the TV was always a priority.

Today our televisions are sealed mysteries; and when they’re done, they’re done. We put them out at the curb, and we go buy a new one.

So it’s nice when something, like Mark’s fan, can be repaired. And essential that the house guy has the skills to fix it.


There has been a break-off in there somewhere, in how homely arts are being passed down. Oh, there are still families that take their kids and anchor their little faces on the jobs at hand and patiently—even when it would be easier to let them go play and just do it themselves—tell them which tool to get and what it’s called and how to wield it, explain why the baking soda is necessary to the mixture, or show them how to plummet down onto their knees and thoroughly scrub a bathtub. But that’s, I think, the exception these days.

Because lots of things have happened.

Maybe some of the change took place in my generation—we who came of age in the sixties and seventies and rejected so much of what we were expected to mindlessly accept. We women, we would work outside the home. We would bring home the bacon, and fry up the bacon, and be perfectly seductive and sweet-smelling at the end of the day. A whole industry grew up to support us, an industry that includes labor-saving appliances and ready-to-heat foods and mixes.

Michael Pollan, in his essay, “Eat Food: Food Defined,” advises this (and it’s his all-caps): DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. Real food, says Pollan, was the kind of food people ate before squeeze tubes of yogurt appeared in the dairy case and cereal breakfast bars became a thing. Pollan calls the food we eat today—the processed, packaged foods of mysterious origin,—‘modern food.’

They’re complicated, these modern foods, he says, and there are many reasons to avoid them.

There were many reasons to embrace them too, though, when changes came. Women were busy—stay-at-home moms in the sixties, for instance, often had five or more kids, all at various ages and stages, all needing various things, including time and rides and soulful attention. And food. Putting a meal on the table at 5:30 when the ravenous dad came home could be a challenge after an afternoon spent picking up, dropping off, meeting kids after practice or rehearsal and getting them home in time for homework and making their beds and all the frou-frah of everyday life.

And just think how complicated that life would be if you were a mom who worked outside the home.

So what’d be wrong with taking a brick of burger from the freezer and stirring up, in twenty minutes or so, a hearty double pot of cheeseburger helper? And kids got used to the taste of powdered cheese mix, raised their eyebrows at concoctions that came from their mothers’ shelves and imaginations.

Why make a casserole from scratch when the family likes the Helper-style better?

And sometimes, the mixes WERE magically better. Hand-mixed and baked cakes, for instance, required patience and no loud thumping around the oven area for a good sixty minutes—a calm that could be tricky in a busy, bumptious household.  I can remember the first time my mother tried a cake mix, and the two chocolate layers came perfectly out of the oven, with their rounded tops and tender texture. She decanted them onto plates and let them cool; she frosted them into an exactly symmetrical, light and airy concoction.

Everyone loved that cake, and I don’t think my mother ever made another scratch cake after that. And I learned how to add mayonnaise to a chocolate cake mix, or spices to a yellow one, but I never learned, back then, to make a cake from scratch.


We are busy: more employed than ever before, and more locked in to outside the home activities—into meetings and classes and practices and memberships. Cooking from scratch is often a fond memory; these days, family supper itself—even a fast food one–is a rare event.

And a whole industry stands ready to assure us that we really don’t have time to cook.

I remember discussing favorite foods with a favorite student once. She mentioned that she loved mac and cheese, and I told her I had a great recipe.

“How would THAT work?” she asked, truly curious. The only kind of mac and cheese she’d ever eaten came in a slender blue box.


Another thing happened, sometime around those heady days of personal revolution and re-defining freedom: we decided, as a society, that everyone needed to go to college, preferably for a four-year degree.  I can remember my mother advocating what she called trade school—get a skill and get a job, she said, and then you can go to college if you want to. But you’d always, she suggested, have a skill to fall back on.

That was especially true for girls as divorce became more common; girls just couldn’t plan to be the home-half of a marriage partnership any more. Because husbands left for whatever reason, and wives were stuck with kids and mortgages and no viable resume.

My mother had shorthand skills and typed; when I went to high school, I looked forward to acquiring those skills, too, but my guidance counselor quickly disabused me. I could be business track or college track, and I had good grades. College track it was, and it would have taken organizational machinations to merge the two. So on to college I went, a two-fingered typist, wishing fervently that I’d at least found time for a keyboarding class. I graduated with my English literature degree and visited with friends who’d taken their business skills right to work after high school, and who were making more money than my father did after thirty years at the same plant.

But now, the jobs available have changed; the steel plants shuttered, manufacturing disappearing from US soil. Many industries demand at least a two-year degree of their entry level employees.

Going to college is an expectation. But what if learning a skill or a trade was an expectation, too—and what if we granted the earned respect to the people who did that?


Maybe Madison Avenue did this on purpose; if we’re functionally dependent, we need to buy products and devices and services that once we would have made or fixed or done at home. But there’s a costly loss in terms of pride and satisfaction and tradition…and in the sense that we’re sending our kids off into the world with the skills they need to navigate most kinds of emergencies.

So I try to be mindful. I blow dust from my sewing chest and, when I iron a shirt and find a tiny tear, I take the time to mend it,–before a tiny tear become a roaring rip and a good shirt becomes a rag or a discard. I buy some soft, pretty yarn on sale, and, at night, watching that sleek flat screen TV, I knit throws for the family room. I dig out recipes books and remember how to make soups and stews.

I think about making chocolate cupcakes, and when I discover there’s no devil’s food cake mix, I try making a batch from scratch. They are denser and moister. They sink down, a little, in their centers. I find a recipe for salted caramel icing, and I fill the little dents with that, and then frost again over the tops. The boyos say they like them better than boxed—but they could be just being kind.

And once a week, I try to engage Jim in the kitchen, sautéing and stir-frying, chopping and creating. He wavers between reluctance and fascination.

He is firmly in the reluctant lane when we work on laundry and cleaning skills, but I persist. Slowly and surely, he’ll learn the skills; whether his house or apartment will meet the Mom-test—well, that’s not up to me. What’s up to me is to make sure he’s got the tools.

He’ll decide how to use them. Someday—and in the greater scheme of things, not so very far in the future—I’ll be gone. I hope he’ll be prepared, by then, for an independent life.


I believe we are at a transition time, a time of cataclysmic change, as life-changing a time as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time of wonder and magical technology. It’s a time when we’ve become entirely dependent on what’s made by other hands—a time of both opportunity and great danger.

And part of that danger is in what can be lost—the skills, the confidence, the knowledge passed on.


I text my friends and tell them Ray is not available. They text back, sadly, that they understand.

A guy like that is bound to be busy, they say.



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.

Working With Heart

Imagine what a harmonious world it could be if every single person, both young and old, shared a little of what he is good at doing.   (Quincey Jones)


Sister Mary Theresa: a pale, beautiful face framed by a white wimple.  Her hands, long-fingered and powdery clean, clasped her wooden rosary beads as she swished down the aisles. Her gauzy black veil brushed our desks as she ensured that we were earnestly penciling our letters neatly into the blue-lined spaces of our coarse yellow paper.

We loved Sister Mary Theresa, and when she stood in front of the room and told us to be diligent, we listened.  Work hard, she told us, and learn about your gifts.  Even someone who is six years old might discover her vocation.  And maybe, and Sister’s face would shine when she said this, MAYBE, there’s even a child in here–or two!- who has a religious vocation. Maybe, among us, there is a future priest!  Or a future nun!

Ah, my heart leapt, and I knew that was me, that I was destined for a life of sacrifice and prayer. I read the life of the Little Flower, and decided that nothing would do but to join a cloistered order of Carmelite nuns.  I wrote to them and declared my intentions.  They sent me flyers and literature and good advice: Wait a bit and explore all your options.

The next year, I had a lay teacher and the Beatles came to America, and I realized that I was REALLY intended to be a rock star. I wrote to the Beatles, too, but I never heard back from them regarding my future employment.  And a passing year and an impatient family bore the truth down upon me: to be a musician one needs some kind of musical ability.

So there I was, aged eight, without a clue, knowing only that I was destined neither to be a bride of Christ nor a female rock icon.  But I knew deep in my deepest knowing that I was destined for something: that I had skills and gifts and talents waiting to be discovered…that there was a vocation out there waiting for me.  There was a Pam-shaped niche, just waiting for me to grow up and fill it.

I embraced Sister Mary Theresa’s concept of vocation.


We all know people who are in the absolutely wrong jobs.

There’s the teacher (not the norm–there are great heroes in the ranks of teachers!) who chose the field because it was steady and paid decently, and she could be home when the kids were home. She is using the lessons plans she designed for her math class 15 years ago. Math hasn’t changed in that time; why should the way she does her work?  She grades one class’s papers while another is slogging along, completing that day’s assignment, at their desks.  She always gives quick written feedback, but she often ignores the raised hands and puzzled faces in front of her.  In the teachers’ lounge, she is bitter about cell phones and tattoos and rudeness and administrative decisions. She regularly refers to her high school students as ‘little shits.’  She can tell you exactly how many days there are until summer vacation.

There’s the worker in reception who regards the people he is meant to serve as a gross imposition on his time.

There’s the exhausted doctor whose mind is only on her watercolors.

There’s the government worker who plods along at his job for forty years, racking up the retirement dollars doing work he hates.  He and the wife are saving for their retirement, squirreling away money for a little retirement place in Florida.  He dies the week after he retires, from a massive heartache that explodes with no warning.  His kids, grown now, remember him falling asleep in his lounge chair after dinner, cigarette burning down to a nub.  He was always tired, always, remote, always a little bit sad. Not me, each vows. That will not be me.


But there are the others, too–the people who seem made for their position, who, no matter what it is that they do, elevate the role to that of a true vocation.

There’s the adjunct math instructor dancing in the hallway because a struggling student has finally grasped the concept of derivatives.  The classroom ceiling cracked open, a beam of glowing light poured through on the student’s head, and she dropped her pen and looked up at him in wonder.

“I get it!” she said.  “I GET it!!!”

That’s it, he thinks; this is the job I’m meant to be doing.


There is the woman who has waited tables at the same family restaurant for thirty years.  She has her regulars, and she knows exactly what they want.  She knows the kids’ names and where they are in school and she serves each customer a heaping helping of personal interest along with the scrambled eggs. She makes strangers feel welcome; her quick eyes assess their state–tired, in need of comfort, confused or perplexed, excited to be visiting, here for a reason that involves bad news.  She knows when to suggest a soothing bowl of hot soup and when to grab a brochure of local sites and recommend a trip to the wildlife sanctuary or the sculpture park.

She quells the rude without offending and she reaches for crying babies and she makes sure the coffee cups are never, ever empty.  She can’t think of another job that would give her the same joy.  This kind of serving–well, it’s her vocation.


There is…

…The haircutter who makes sure every client leaves feeling as if she looks her absolute best.

…The coach, industrial foreman by day, who inspires kids to stretch, to grow, to push themselves and find out just what they are capable of doing.

…The guidance counselor who plants and harvests dreams.

…The stay at home mom who juggles diapers and library trips and dirty clothes and satisfying dinners day in and day out and makes her life look like a gift.

…The factory owner who knows the names of each of his 200 employees.  He spends at least one day, every two weeks, on the factory floor.  He asks about the kid who applied for a scholarship; he wants to know if the mother-in-law is out of the hospital. His people love him and love working for him.  His business withstands pressures that sink other enterprises.

These ones have found the work that makes their souls sing.

Maybe–although I don’t completely buy this–there’s not a mystical niche that was created for each of us before we were born.  But each of us has our own special formula of gifts and leanings, weaknesses and blind spots, abilities and potential. Tapping those particular talents and attributes taps into happiness.

So a young man we know, Noah, who has a pretty severe development disability, is happily employed at a family-owned diner.  Noah’s job coach realized that he was meticulous and orderly and loved to organize things into neat bundles.  So Noah does the job the wait staffers at the diner hate to do: he wraps silverware into linen napkins and places them in a big plastic bin. Noah never puts an even vaguely dirty fork into a pristine napkin.  He will set aside any piece of silverware that has the slightest hint of residue, and when he is done with his napkin rolling, he will take the suspect pieces back to the kitchen and wash them by hand.  He greets regular customers, his face lighting up; his joy is part of the warmth that draws them back to that diner three or four times a week.

Noah has found his niche, his calling.  (Oh, the wisdom of that job coach!)

So a young woman who loves working with kids, who just wants to help kids find their own niches, takes some social work classes while she is remediating her GPA: she needs a 2.75 to get into the education program.  But a funny thing happens. She falls in love with social work.  Knowing that it is a gritty, demanding field, and knowing that she will never make top pay, she plunges into a wholly unexpected course of study.  She loves her internship.  She gets a job at an inner-city children’s program and earns her MSW in the nooks and crannies of time.

She sees pain and heartache and often is called on to offer comfort.  But she sees, too, gleaming moments of triumph.  And she knows that this–this work, this exhausting and consuming work,–is what she is meant to do.

Self-knowledge is not taught in schools, but it should, maybe, be our first and continuous learning–its blossoming our ultimate goal. It is painful to see the unemployed woman, tender and slow and patient, talk about wanting to work in a fast-paced, high pressure office,–the exact kind of environment that will ignore her skills and sap her energy.  It is frustrating to see the child, awkward and clumsy but gifted with artistic skills, talk about his only consuming passion: to be a fast-moving, dexterous professional basketball star. And it is annoying to work with the real estate broker who goes through the motions, checking his text messages when he could be pointing out the possibilities.

There are tests that show our aptitudes and our communications styles, free tests that we can take, and then wrestle with the knowledge unpeeled by the results. {See links at the end for a couple of examples.}

There are the things that people say to us, offhand remarks–Nobody bakes pies like you do, Carrie! or,–Whenever I want to build something, Calvin, I come to you for help planning.

There is the thread revealed by the journals we keep: Look at how many times in the past six months, Frieda thinks, I wrote about repurposing! Perhaps the clues are there, bread crumbs on the trail, waiting to be picked up.

What happened to Sister Mary Theresa, that beautiful young nun in the early 1960’s? Not many years later, the mysterious habits morphed into practical polyester suits, the swishing veils into pill box hats with short, bouncing plackets. Many, many nuns in those turbulent times tied up their sensible oxford shoes and marched out of the convent into secular life, into marriages and relationships and public schools and not-for-profit management.

I wonder if Sister Mary Theresa found, in those years of discovery, that her definition of vocation underwent a change. Because that’s a possibility, too–that the job that fits exactly when we’re 20 is not the right fit when we are 32.  That our vocation can grow and change as we do.

A constant awareness, I think, must be maintained.

Imagine, though, what life would be like if we encouraged and  cultivated that kind of self-knowledge. Imagine a world where everyone picked up the bread crumbs.

Imagine a world where every person was engaged in work that made their heart sing.


Some free online  inventories:

Find your strengths:


What’s your communications style?

Click to access CommunicationsStyleInventory.pdf


The Iron Man Interview


Rugs and Work and Things That Last


I changed the upstairs bathroom rugs last night, rolling up the long, multi-colored rag rug that provides a path away from the tub; grabbing, too, the shaggy little white rug that cradles the toes of shavers and make-up appliers leaning toward the mirror at the sink. I bundled them down the laundry chute and swiffered up the haze of baby powder that always descends upon the black tile. I pulled out a fresh set of rugs, the blue ones, the long one for the tub path, the short guy for the sink.

The blue rugs are my favorites, hand-woven from old blue jeans by Betty Lou and her church lady friends.  Almost fifteen years old, they seem indestructible–I have thrown them in the washer hundreds of times, maybe thousands; I have hung them over rope lines or draped them over pipes to dry. Umpteen sets of store-bought rugs have shed their rubbery backing and been tossed; my blue denim rugs last and last.

I use them, as I often use beloved items, thoughtlessly, taking their beautiful utility for granted.  But last night, for whatever reason, the act of spreading those rugs on the bathroom floor made me think of Betty Lou and Roscoe Village. We had moved to a new town after Mark finished law school, I was in-between full-time jobs, and I worked, for a year or two, as a historical interpreter at the little restored canal village.  I have been blessed with wonderful and challenging jobs in my working years, but never have I had another job so filled with fun and joy as working at Roscoe Village. And seldom have I met people so hard working and sincere.

I learned the real definition, at Roscoe, of “salt of the earth.”

There was Dick Hoover, a retired preacher, who taught me about the printer’s trade and about being a school marm in 1850’s Ohio.  Charley, a cabinet maker, shared secrets of the cooper’s craft, and showed me how one makes a round container from what I’d always figured to be unyielding wood.  Mary, who was 80 when I worked with her at Roscoe, had been there over 40 years; her picture as a beautiful young interpreter was printed and re-printed, to her delight, in the Village literature. And there was Betty Lou, ten years younger than Mary, who taught me the ins and the outs of 1850’s housewifery in a sleepy Ohio canal town.

I trained with college students; I was in my late forties.  I worried about finding comfortable shoes to wear that looked authentic; I worried about bundling my ornery hair into something resembling true frontier style.  The students worried about covering their new tattoos with the lacy cuffs of their gingham dresses, and whether their piercings–studs discreetly removed during work hours–would be evident to Village visitors.  They were lovely young people, hard-working, kind, and creative,but I grew closer to the elders, Dick, Charley, Mary, and especially Betty Lou.

Things were busy at the Village in the summer months; tours came through every thirty minutes, and we ushered one group out the back door as another entered the front.  Betty Lou was usually the upstairs guide in Dr. Johnson’s house; she told people about the wonder of the Doctor’s family having real, imported wallpaper, showed them how the flycatcher worked, boasted about the Johnson’s fine china, shipped all the way from Europe at quite a pretty penny.  Downstairs, I was the cook; Betty Lou would send the visitors down the steep cellar stairs to where I had a trussed chicken spinning above the open fire on a string; fat would fall into the fire; flames would hiss and spit.  The chicken’s skin crisped and crackled, and people begged to try it, but health laws forbade that.  We could share, however, the corn bread and cakes we baked in a covered cast iron dutch oven set amidst the coals.

I learn to pile coals on top to insure even baking; Betty Lou could judge temperatures and baking times if she knew the type of wood we were using.

The days flew by, and so did the summer; before we knew it, the college kids were heading back to campus, and the park slowed down.  Tours were by appointment in the fall.  The breaks in between gave us time to clean and organize, and time to talk.

I learned that Betty Lou was a skilled weaver; there was a vintage loom in the village and her deft hands worked it swiftly.  She knew how to set the woof and weave the rag strips into the warp; she fringed the ends and sent the final product to the administration building store where shoppers scarfed them up at fifteen dollars a pop.  Outside of work, though, Betty Lou and her church lady friends had their own looms.  They crafted rugs from strips of old blue jeans.  These they sold for a pittance; I bought three rugs from them for less than the cost of one rug at the store.

Betty Lou was in no danger of her hands becoming the devil’s workshop; she was always busy, at work and at home, where she sewed and gardened and canned.  She worked at the village for extras; that year she was saving for a new living room suite.  She was never idle; in the free moments, she showed me how to cradle and wash that splendid china, how to coax the dust and grit up from between the polished floor boards of the Doctor’s house, and how to oil and wrap some of the antique tools in the downstairs work room.

She was a kind, clear, patient teacher; I liked working with her, and I diligently tried to keep up with her seasoned efficiency.  We talked as we worked, and I learned about Betty Lou’s life.

Her husband had been a miner in West Virginia, as had the men on both sides of their families.  Many died young of the black lung; some were lost in explosions and nightmarish cave-ins.  They decided, early on, it was no life for their boys, and they vowed, early on, to get clear of the mining life.  Their house was owned by the mine; the store in town was, too. If a family bought all their stuff from the store, there was never quite enough money; they fell into debt to their employers, and each year’s passage indebted them a little bit more.

Betty Lou’s husband was handy; he fixed up an old truck that someone gave him for a song, and they drove into the city to buy their groceries.  They only bought what they couldn’t grow or raise or catch themselves.  Her husband got permission to run plumbing to their house; they were the first in their coal-mining village to have indoor plumbing and hot water in a claw foot tub, a luxury for which their neighbors envied them no end.

But the thing that really incited envy was their television set, which they scrimped and saved to buy.  Betty Lou’s man ran the wiring and fixed the antenna, and they were so proud to be able to offer Betty Lou’s aging mother the treat of watching TV.  Betty Lou’s mama always watched the fights on Friday nights; she loved a good fight.  The family would gather round the television, and prickles would run up and down their backs.  We’re being watched, Betty Lou would think, and sure enough, when she turned around, she would see faces at every window, avidly watching the flickering screen.

Despite such luxuries, they lived very frugally, and before the children came of working age, they had moved to Ohio. Betty Lou’s husband got work, and the kids were enrolled in school.  They all graduated high school, Betty Lou said, something that would not have happened in their mining town back home.

Sometimes we would talk as we worked, sometimes as we took our lunch in the ‘modern’ kitchen.  The doctor’s house had been a residence until the sixties; a main floor kitchen had been added.  When the Foundation acquired the house, it made no changes. The kitchen table with its tubular metal legs, the vinyl covered chairs, and the stove and refrigerator, were splendid in their 1950’s glory.  A microwave had been added for employee convenience, but everything else,–the speckled linoleum, the cabinets with their wooden cutout trim,–was just as it had been went the last tenants left.

There was a feel about the doctor’s house, a depth, a layer,–something that made goose bumps prickle, especially when I was upstairs alone.  The doctor and his wife had been abolitionists, and their home was a well-known stop on the Underground Railroad.  There was a story of an escaped mother with a sick baby; some people said the baby died in the mother’s arms while they were hidden. To cry out would have been to reveal them both, along with the people who sheltered them, and so the grieving mother held the body of her dead infant while searchers trod the floors above her.  The doctor, the story went, was inconsolable over the loss, over the fact that he couldn’t save that baby.  The baby’s mother could not be comforted.  The tiny body could not even have a proper burial without risking exposure.

Sometimes it seemed I would hear things there; sometimes there were furtive movements–mice, maybe?–glimpsed from the corner of my eye. One day I confessed to Betty Lou that the place spooked me, just a little, and she said they’d all felt it.  It was real, she said; and she said, too, that sorrow was hard to purge.

She told me then about her own sorrow.  After saving and sacrificing so they could move north, move away from the danger of early death for their boys, Betty Lou lost her daughter, who would have been just about my age, in a senseless crash.  It was in the last days of the girl’s senior year of high school; she’d forgotten something she needed at home and got permission, at about ten in the morning, to drive home and get it. She was a careful driver, she had a friend with her; they were not distracted or flighty or under any kind of influence.  But a semi truck swerved, crossed into their lane; the girls, just like that, were gone.

“Oh,” I said, helplessly, “oh, Betty Lou,” and I couldn’t think of anything to add. We sat, eyes welling, for a moment, and then she said, Well, it couldn’t be helped. She talked a little about the kindness of friends, family, and strangers, and then another tour group came in the door and we sprang to our stations, resumed our personnas. The subject never again emerged.

Betty Lou enjoyed life, worked hard, and gave substantially, and it would not be an exaggeration to admit that I revered her.  Life moved on; another job beckoned, and I left the employ–and the joy–of the Village.  I tried to go back at least once a year, though, taking visitors to see the old canal town, reconnecting with Dick, Mary, Charley, and Betty Lou.

And then another move took us seventy further miles away; the trip to the village was no longer an easy indulgence.  Life filled up; time went on, and suddenly my time at Roscoe was five, and then seven, years ago.

I saw Dick at an event, and asked about my old colleagues.  He told me with great sadness that he’d buried Charley just that past winter.

That chance meeting was five years ago, and I am a little afraid, now, to go back and inquire. Mary–she’d be 92 or so, I think; Betty Lou, in her eighties.  Should I ask the questions whose answers I don’t want to hear? I push away that thought and plunge into the busyness of daily life, until a moment like last night’s, when a touch, an action, bring lovely memories back.

Someone remarked, the other day at work, that we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families. Work has become our new neighborhood; it’s where we find our friends, get our support.  I am lucky now, and I have been lucky in the past, to work with wonderful caring people, people of integrity and creativity, passion and compassion–people who have visions of making things better and who believe our small contributions can help.  I have had wonderful mentors in all my professional roles; some of those mentors have become lifelong friends.

My time at Roscoe Village was an interlude, a veering off the path, and I thank God for that special, unexpected time, and for the blessing of the wonderful people I had the honor to work with.  I spread my denim rugs on my swept bathroom floor, I feel them with my bare feet, tucking and untucking the nubby, firm, ridged fabric with my toes.  I will go back–perhaps this Fall,–and I will see if any familiar faces remain.  But time passes; I can accept that now.

As Betty Lou says, it can’t be helped.  But I know this, now, too: the things we shared together will always, somehow, remain.

Betty Lou and Charley
Betty Lou and Charley