Lessons as good today as the day they were first learnt.
This is a guest post by Kate Baggott. If you’d also like to guest post here on JobMob, follow these guest post guidelines.
There is a quote from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities that everyone knows: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”
It is a quote that my teacher-mother never tires of explaining. “It was just like now,” she says.
As a freelancing single-mother, that quote is always on my mind because I am always looking for work or, more accurately, I am always looking for more work. The financial worries and pressures never abate, but the pleasure of doing work I love never fades.
There have never been more people like me in the workforce than there are now. There has never been more competition for work and there have never been such low prices for work. It is easy to despair that it is the “worst” of times.
Or is it?
In general, people are living longer than they ever have before and we all benefit. I was one of many lucky people who had grandparents who lived until I was well into adulthood. My maternal grandmother came to my wedding (luckily for her, she did not live to see the break-up) and it was a normal event. Most people born just one generation earlier than mine tended only to know their grandparents from photographs.
We have benefited hugely by having our very own witnesses to history. Nothing has prepared me for living through these best and worst of times more than the lessons I learned from my grandparents.
Lessons Learned From Grandparents
My maternal grandparents did not speak of the war they lived through, but they spoke of their own childhoods during the 1930s in Canada. Both of them were from large immigrant families of 9 children, but they each experienced one event very differently. The Great Depression came to have many nicknames. The most accurate one was probably “the dirty thirties.”
The Thirties certainly were dirty. And by dirty I mean corrupt. Anti-Semitism, for example, was rife and non-Jews did not just resent the Rothschilds and other members of the Jewish aristocracy for their wealth, but also the working class men and women of the labor-movement, the Bolsheviks who were all, according to lore, Jews. One local doctor my grandfather knew took an Irish name to cover his ethnicity. Since there were still signs at job sites that read “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish,” that tells you just how bad Anti-Semitism was.
“But,” my Irish grandfather joked, “it was the only way we had of getting a doctor into the family.”
The dirty Thirties also saw gangsters become folk heroes. Al Capone was a notorious murderer and psychopath, but he also opened soup kitchens to feed the hungry and lobbied for expiration dates on milk bottles so school children would not be served spoiled milk and become ill. Drinking bacteria-laden milk was actually killing children in major cities around North America, mostly during the hot summer months.
And, on a daily basis, employers were squeezing their employees for unpaid over time. Millionaire industrialists were cut their workers’ salaries and blamed “the economic situation” while they built bigger mansions for themselves. At the same time, independent businesspeople were doing everything they could to keep their employees working while making deals with their customers to make the struggle a little easier.
How did people survive these times of terrible corruption and great kindness all mixed together? What attitudes did they have that gave them the fortitude to survive times that were very much like their own?
This is what I learned from my grandparents:
My grandfather’s mother was very proud. None of her children would ever step foot outside the house looking less than respectable. The family never took a welfare payment because she refused to give up the family house. Where she cut corners was on food and family togetherness. Her daughters went to live as babysitters and household help with wealthy families during the summer months. Her sons tended the back garden and did agricultural work when they could get it. But, at every meal, each portion was carefully shared out and there can be no peace in a house that must hold six hungry boys. Even when they were grown and my grandmother was cooking for them, my grandmother said she often feared my grandfather and his brothers might come to blows over the last potato.
My grandmother’s family lost their farm during the Depression, but they don’t describe it as a tragedy. They moved into a small rental house, took Relief when they could get it and work when they could find it. They had holes in their shoes and the girls shared the “good” clothes when one of them had to go out to work and the others stayed home. But every cent they made, they spent making sure everyone was well-fed. As they aged, my grandmother and her siblings were good friends whose eyes shone with love when they talked about growing up together.
By the time he was 18, my grandfather and his siblings were orphans. He and the other three “adult” siblings, the oldest would have been about 22, took care of their five younger brothers and sister, the youngest of whom was no more than 7. That was it. It did not mean the older siblings gave up opportunities to build their own families, to pursue their careers or to create their own lives. Education was sacrificed, but literacy itself brought huge opportunities in those days and because they valued education so highly, they got as much out of school as they could for as long as it was possible. Taking care of their family and each other was the organizing feature of their lives. It remains mine too.
It seems that my grandfather moved quickly into management after he started working at the local car factory when he was 16. He could read and write perfectly and, while he was a member, he was not prominent in union activities. And yet, he only got where he did because of the union. Negotiated collective agreements gave hiring preference to the children of current employees and, during the worst of the Depression, put a system of job-sharing in place so everyone could keep the wolf from the door rather than institute lay-offs for half the employees. It was better to have a job for 6 months of the year rather than to be unemployed for 12 months of the year. It was subsistence for everyone rather than hunger for many and fat for few.
As a freelancer, I have none of the rights or entitlements a unionized worker has, but I want those rights too. People who are in positions like mine will never gain better conditions if we undermine those who seek them. I will not cross a picket line. I will not provide scab labor in a strike situation. It is a choice one makes.
My grandfather once talked about a job he had picking strawberries during the Depression. For some reason he didn’t have any of his brothers with him and, working the next row, was an entire family. The berries picked at each row, were gathered up at the end and the farmer picked them up, measured the amount, and kept a total of each row’s tally. The family working the other row had more people and one of them would always be near the end where the picked fruit waited for the farmer. While my grandfather’s back was turned, one of them would steal one of his picked baskets and add it to their own. At the end of the day, my grandfather earned less than half the amount of money he had expected. He never forgot that cruelty.
My grandmother remembered gifts. She remembered her teacher at the one-roomed elementary school bringing her a dress the teacher’s niece had outgrown. She remembered being asked to babysit a neighbor's children and then being served cake and lemonade with the rest of the family. And, when she remembered these small events, she named the people who performed these small kindnesses, she talked about which house they had lived in and about seeing them again years later. She never forgot those acts of kindnesses or the people who performed them.
The conditions of work and unemployment take us to lots of material and moral places. The choice between cruelty and kindness will come up and the legacy of our choices will survive. And that is a true in 2013 as it was in the dirty 30s.
Kate Baggott is a Canadian writer who just returned to her homeland after living in Germany for more than a decade. She is the author of the short story collection Love From Planet Wine Cooler. Links to recently published pieces can be found at http://www.katebaggott.com
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