Learning to Work

My parents, living with seven children and a modest income, encouraged my siblings and me to accept any small jobs that came our way. If we worked, they explained, we could (a) start savings accounts for college and (b) have spending money for things we wanted beyond the basics they provided.

I wanted money for movie tickets, Malted Milk Balls, Ben Hur perfume, and shoes in colors other than black or brown, so I worked.

I specialized in babysitting, cherry picking, and chickens.

naughty-boy-mdWhen babysitting, I did the dishes, kept the floors swept, and tended sullen pre-teens resentful of my presence, children telling inane knock-knock jokes, toddlers chewing crayons, and babies needing diaper changes. As the hours crept by, I entertained myself by keeping a running total of my take-home pay.

At twenty-five cents an hour, my calculations didn’t require higher math.

I enjoyed babysitting, especially when the departing parents told me to help myself to anything I wanted to eat. I regularly hit pay dirt at the Millers: Twinkies, Cheetos, and Kool-Aid.

I thought of asking if I could move in.

The Bradfords offered no such delicacies, just four boys between six and twelve who knocked over houseplants, pulled the dog’s tail, and threw baseballs at each other—before their parents left.

Whenever I addressed the oldest with the simplest request or question—“Could you quit standing on my foot?” or “Where does your mother keep the band-aids?” — he gave the same meaningless answer: “Nay-duh kuh eyeballs.”

This strange witticism caused his brothers to laugh until they choked on the uncooked wieners they regularly sneaked from the refrigerator.

After five hours of such fun, I went home with  $1.25. And thought I was rich.

cherriesCherry picking offered seasonal employment and all the cherries I could eat. My sisters and I crashed ladders into trees and climbed headlong into high branches through the coolness of dawn. Stretching as though we were made of warm taffy, we gathered the cherries and plunked them into buckets we’d hung with metal hooks from nearby branches. As the sun rose, we ate, chattered, and kept count of the filled baskets accumulating below.

When a chugging tractor pulling a flatbed trailer approached, we scrambled down our ladders and watched carefully as the orchard boss weighed our baskets and recorded our earnings.

At three cents a pound, he didn’t need higher math either.

It wasn’t until years later that I appreciated the true value of working when young. The milkshakes and Jantzen sweaters I bought didn’t prove beneficial beyond the moment, but my recognition of the direct relationship of my work to money, savings, and purchasing power paid dividends my entire life.

An afterthought
I didn’t forget the chickens.
They deserve a post of their own;
you won’t want to miss it.

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