Growing up in Springdale, Arkansas, I was a witness to the hard labor of my parents. When we first moved from Tulsa, my parents bought a run-down house on the poor side of town and systematically rebuilt practically the entire thing. My mom dad built closets for the bedrooms, cabinets for the bathroom, layed itchy insulation (which to me resembled pink cotton candy), and replaced the kitchen floor. We painted the house together, a bright lemon yellow. My parents never stopped working, even while at home. They always searched for ways to save money and provide for us, and many times we canned together in the kitchen. Peaches, tomatoes, and pale green beans, we spent hours in the hot kitchen with the terrifying pressure cooker. Dad and mom worked side by side.
My parents both worked at industrial plants, pulling twelve hours shifts. He never took a sick day. My dad worked nights, and I remember how he placed foil in his window to reflect the sun. He worked lots of overtime at the Glad Company in Rogers, a large blue building I saw often. When my sisters and I were home from school, we would ride with him to pick up his paycheck. Everyone we saw greeted my dad and waved at him, and more than once we kids were bored stiff as he spoke and chatted with everyone he met. Dad was a popular guy.
Once he took me in to see where he worked, Line 9. The conveyor belt spun with a squeal as heat radiated from the friction. Dad’s job was guiding boxes with the Glad label through a machine that glued them together. The plant was noisy and hot, and seemed enormous to me, but as a young girl I found it fascinating and told my dad that I wanted to work there with him when I grew up. It had less to do with the job and more to do with spending time with the man I admired most.
When Dad was diagnosed with Stage IV Renal Cell Carcinoma Kidney Cancer, the first thing he asked the doctor was, “When can I go back to work?” The doctor shook his head slowly and said, “It’s probably time to file for disability.”
More than anything else–the chemo, the radiation, the experimental drug trials he flew to in Maryland–I believe that not working was the hardest part of cancer for my dad. He craved the manual labor the way I crave chocolate. His regimented personality loved the order and predictability his job gave. To have that completely taken away in a single moment proved devastating.
All these years later, I have inherited my father’s work ethic. I love teaching and writing, and when I am not doing these two things, I feel a bit empty. The comfort of words on a screen, appearing a letter at a time as I create them, fulfill me in a way many things cannot. I become obsessed with seeing their progress. To me, my words are the labor of my hands.
I am my father’s daughter.