Labor of Love

In the late 1970s, when my mother managed a high-rise apartment building in downtown Chicago, one of her tenants expressed the need for an assistant for a book project she was working on. Susan Wolfson was the daughter of and ghost writer for Ira J. Bach, a prominent architect and historian in Chicago. I managed to be the assistant she needed, at thirteen years old. The subject of her book was historic architecture in Chicago’s suburbs, and each route, each description, and each fact needed to be tested, revised, and double-checked. I spent time with architects, confirmed driving directions, and eventually we proofread the book together as we sat by the apartment swimming pool, reading the text out loud, including punctuation, picking up on any and all typographical errors. This work eventually led to more work with Susan, doing research on the Pullman Railroad, which took me to the carefully guarded original documents at Chicago’s independent research library, The Newberry. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that my professional path has been unconventional and adventurous. At one point, I was setting up operations for a non-governmental organization in four war-torn countries. All the more unexpected is that I am currently a piano teacher, as music was always my first love. That first job demanded flexibility, attention to detail, and intellectual curiosity. Nine years after working on the book, I gave my copy to my Japanese boss, as he was hosting guests from Japan and wanted to share it with them. While I don’t have the book anymore, I do have vivid memories of that summer of 1980 (the book was published the following year), and I am grateful that the first wage-earning opportunity I had was one that offered me the chance to learn, to be part of an enduring project, and to begin to see myself as a responsible person with the potential to do meaningful work.
Seven Fields, Pennsylvania

When I was fourteen, I became an orchard worker, sorting apricots and preparing them for drying. I worked for the farm so I could save up for shoes to wear to school. There were many long, hot summer days in the sun. The job taught me to appreciate the farm workers that provide our fruits and vegetables, the people who work behind the scenes under difficult conditions. It also taught me to respect nature; when the harvest went wrong, we had to look back at what we did to impact the habitat. As I entered high school and began my first art class, I was reminded of how colors are like the harvest. Perhaps my maker was reminding me that I was never really in control of the palette; I was just working with the colors, and I could use what I was given to create and display my masterpiece. It makes me consider that, because life is short, it is important to work with passion so that our masterpiece can brighten the lives of others.
Bay Area, California

My first steady summer job was working as a historical interpreter in the James Vanderpoel House, the Luykas Van Alen House, and the Ichabod Crane Schoolhouse in Kinderhook, New York. It was a lovely summer job I held from my junior year in high school all the way through my senior year of college. It was a privilege to learn the rich history of an area I’ve always called home. I offered personal guided tours to visitors from near and far. One particularly enjoyable aspect of my work afforded me the opportunity to don a Dutch costume, circa 1770, and participate in special tours for schoolchildren. During the moments when there were no visitors, I had full access to the beautiful gardens and grounds. Light would pour through the tall branches of the black locust trees behind the circa 1737 Dutch farmhouse, and I was transported to a place of long ago. In the peaceful, historic surroundings, I found solace and purpose, learning all about the history of the homes and the lives of those who lived there. My beloved summer job led me to pursue a career in teaching foreign languages. Reaching out and drawing students into a world beyond their own, I draw on my experience as an interpreter of the past to bring young minds into the wonders and possibilities of the future, just as I did long ago, one school group at a time.
Claverack, New York

In 1946, my first after-school job was as a local telephone operator, where I worked alongside other high school students. It was a fun atmosphere, and I loved it. Technology changed the system, and I continued on to become a long-distance operator in the big city. In 1979, this early experience gained me entrance back into the workforce after a marriage separation. This time, I worked on a computerized system in a hospital designed only for hospice patients in another state. People reaching me online would ask me how to speak to family members about dying. How do I speak to my brother? What do I tell him? I felt my compassionate answers weren’t enough, so I joined the bereavement team. I received training through their institute, studied with the interdisciplinary team, went to seminars, and became a grief counselor. I spoke on panels throughout the state to professionals who worked with hospice patients. I continued my education through community college and formed my own service called Reaching Out. Through this work, I found peace, love, and my destiny.
Ludlow, Vermont

My mother worked as a groundskeeper for a private estate near Treadwell, New York. Beginning at age twelve, I worked with her on the property during spring, summer, and fall. When I was sixteen, my mother slowly began transitioning me into a career as a groundskeeper. She had several other properties to care for, and with little time, she taught me everything she knew about gardens. She invested so much in me, right up until the day the angels called her home. I have always considered myself blessed to assist in the groundskeeping of the majestic place called Hill Haven, once known as Viking Hall. One of the Catskills’ secret gardens, my mother’s green thumb brought it back to life. As a little girl, I dreamed of having my own secret garden someday. I have been blessed to be a part of such a wonderful place. I care for and dream in the gardens as if they were my own. My mother lives on through me, and I am everything she inspired me to be.
East Meredith, New York

In the late 1970s, I participated in Beaumont High School’s Vocational Office Education (VOE) program, which partnered local businesses with students seeking employment. I started my first job with a small architectural firm, where I learned on the job and in the classroom. After graduation, I moved to a large city and accepted jobs that eventually turned into positions of greater responsibility. I soon found a new sense of accomplishment (and independence) in a workplace where women often had difficulty breaking through the glass ceiling. In the late 1980s, I accepted a position with the federal government, where I served as a secretary in several highly technical jobs before becoming a manager and acquisitions specialist. During this time, I found myself once again working with architects, but this time leading design and other teams. This position always reminded me of just how far I had come. I’ve since retired and now look back on my career with enormous gratitude for all those early opportunities that led to a wonderful journey!
Chantilly, Virginia

For more Labor Day–themed reader letters, see “Labor of Love” on page 11 of the September 2018 issue of Victoria.


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