December 4 – One Sunday when I was young, my father invited me to go to work with him that day. This, I thought, was an amazing opportunity. We pick up the story right around noon on that day…
Finally, Pa announced, “Twelve o’clock, time to eat.”
I jumped up from the floor in a hurry. Hadn’t I been waiting for that announcement for hours?!
Pa took me to the old enamel sink in the corner, set up a block of wood so I could reach the faucet, and handed me a bar of rough gray Lava soap. My hands weren’t very dirty, but the grime just rolled off Pa’s. Very methodically he unbuttoned the buttons on his long shirt sleeves. After carefully rolling up the sleeves, he used water and Lava and the old roller towel, while I waited impatiently to see what Ma had packed in the lunch bucket.
Sandwiches. Three huge ones for Pa and me (peanut butter and jelly and hard-boiled egg). A big piece of homemade apple pie wrapped in a piece of wax paper for Pa, and a smaller one for me. No potato chips or corn curls or Triscuits. No junk food at all. Who could afford any in those days?
There was also a pint jar of milk for each of us; Pa ripped the end of the rubber jar ring with his teeth and pulled. The ring loosened, and off came the zinc top. “Cups or glasses, or do you want to drink it from the jar?” Pa asked.
At the end of the meal, I smacked my lips. “Sure was good, Pa. Mom made us a good lunch, didn’t she?”
“She always does,” he answered tersely.
Pa carefully gathered up the pieces of paper and tossed them into a big barrel of trash. “Always do your best to keep things clean,” he advised. “Makes for a better place to live.”
Then he started off toward the office. In front of the door was a vending machine, very old-fashioned by today’s standards, but a really amazing thing in those days. On tip-toe I hung on to the bottom of the machine where five little windows showed five different kinds of bars. Five different kinds! I didn’t even know there WERE other candy bars.
Five besides Milky Ways, as that was Pa’s favorite, and only rarely did he feel he could afford to spend the nickel to buy one. With big eyes I read Mars Milky Way, and Snickers before my legs tired, and I had to let go of the machine. “What kind do you want, Sis?” Pa asked magnanimously.
I could choose? Unbelievable! “Mars,” I blurted out before Pa had time to change his mind. With just a bit of disappointment because l hadn’t chosen Milky Way, he reached way down into his old corduroys for a precious nickel. He put it into the slot, turned the handle, and wonder of wonders, out came that Mars bar encased in its colorful wrapper.
As Pa handed it to me, I felt as if I were receiving the world, all gift wrapped. Although I was eager to see what that bar looked like, and even more wanting to taste its delicious goodness, I still slowly and carefully unwrapped it, savoring the fact that it was mine, all mine!
At home candy came almost exclusively at Christmas, a small chocolate Santa in the toe of our stocking. I could hardly imagine my good fortune. Pa watched with pleasure, grinning almost shyly as he enjoyed my wonderment. First l lightly licked the end of the bar, savoring the heavenly chocolate taste Then I nibbled a tiny bite, chewing it ever so slowly, and letting the goodness trickle down my throat. My taste buds must have been going wild as I looked up at Pa, only then remembering that he had put in but one nickel! His simple treat had become my treat, and so it seems to me now.
“Here, Pa, have a bite!” I offered as I held up the precious morsel. “It’s good!”
Pa chuckled at my delight. “So it’s good, huh? Well, I’ll take just a little taste.”
After he handed the candy bar back to me, I nibbled again. After the second nibble, I thought of the “gang” back home, the “gang” who had no candy bar. Just as carefully as I had unwrapped the bar, I pulled the wrapper around the remainder, and asked Pa to put it in his sweater pocket to take home, “so everybody can have a bite,” I said.
By the time another six hours had crept by, I had had enough of all of those sights and sounds and smells that had so enthralled me that very early morning. I was ready to go home! As the years have gone by, I have thought so often of Pa working in shops for well over fifty years, from the year he was eleven and had to go to work in a paper mill.
How many times he must have become bored with his routine and wished that he could go home. But thoughts of his wife and seven kids kept him going After all, didn’t he collect $14 in his envelope every week during the depression?
Never in all those working years did he earn a good wage because he was “only a laborer.” If only l could have understood and appreciated his determination to do the best job he could as I was growing up. I might have told him that I appreciated him and his philosophy of “Anything worthwhile is worth working for,” and “Don’t ever let anybody pay your way. Get out and earn your own living.”
The return trip home up Schäal Avenue and Pear Street, up and over the box cars, and past the elm tree on Zimmerman wasn’t as exciting after work as it had been before work. I was tired and eager to share my Mars bar with the rest of the kids. I asked Ma to do the dividing. With a sharp paring knife, she painstakingly cut off minute bits of chocolate.
Feeling like a king bestowing a landed estate on one of his countrymen I doled them out to my sister and brothers, At suppertime I regaled everyone with my experiences in the shop, exulting over the polished wastebaskets and holding my nose when telling of the acrid smell of the paint room.
The next Monday morning, I heard Pa and Ma talking in the kitchen as he ate a steaming bowl of oatmeal, cooked nice and dry the way he liked it Their voices were low so they wouldn’t awaken their kids. As I drowsily turned over and reveled in the comfort of the warm bed, I was so glad that I didn’t have to leave the house with Pa.
Seven o’clock the day before, I had felt privileged that I could accompany him. But at five o’clock on Monday morning, I was glad that Pa was the working man in our house! – CHRIS