Monday, May 28, 2012

The Worth of a Strong Back

The sun baked the high church roof as the workers labored  -- stripping off old shingles, loading the fallen shingles into wheelbarrows and pushing them to the dumpster, securing new shingles into place.  I watched as one tall, muscular young man tipped his heavy load of shingles off the wheelbarrow -- muscles rippling from his efforts.  And, I thought of politicians wrangling over the issue of raising the minimum wage.

Unfortunately, the legislators who make the final decisions concerning minimum wage and work standards are sitting in air-conditioned comfort as they argue over these issues.  To many of them, this is a political issue -- who wants to alienate business constituents with deep pockets.  There is a total disconnect between the work these legislators do each day and the work done by most minimum wage workers in this country.  

Unless you have earned your living doing physical work every day, it is difficult to place a value on this work.  Many educated professionals have never worked physically.  No matter how menial the physical work, it is hard work.  The construction laborer who does the digging and the lifting and the "grunt" work, the stock person who lifts and loads all day, the waitress who carries heavy trays back and forth again and again with a smile on her face, and the landscape worker who lifts and kneels and moves heavy stones are all physically exhausted by the end of their day.  Shouldn't they be paid a wage that allows them to afford decent housing, healthy food and health insurance?

As I was working in the garden the past two weekends -- digging and raking two new raised beds for vegetables, stringing fencing to keep my deer and rabbits out, planting and watering, I was once again reminded that physical work is tough.  I remember years ago thinking that painting looked like an easy job -- until we bought our old house and spent hours stripping wallpaper, sanding and painting -- up and down ladders, reaching and bending and kneeling.  I then realized that being a professional painter was no "walk in the park".

I wish each of our lawmakers would spend a few days as an "intern", working eight hours a day at a minimum wage job -- working with hands and back and muscles.  Maybe then they would realize that these workers deserve to receive fair compensation for their work -- compensation that will allow them to afford decent housing, healthy food and health insurance. 

Unfortunately, these people lack the political clout of the businesses that employ them.  Maybe we need a labor union for minimum wage workers -- to fight for their rights in a society which does not realize their worth.


Monday, May 21, 2012

And The Peonies Live On

The pressed glass pitcher is filled with pink peonies.  I place my hands around these heavy, voluptuous blossoms, breathing in their lovely perfume.  But this year, as I savor these precious spring flowers, sadness touches my heart.  I am thinking of Fred.  I picked these beautiful blooms last evening in his backyard, as I have for so many years; this year, though, Fred was not at the window or the back door.  He passed away before his daffodils bloomed and his grass turned green, and he is missed.  In a neighborhood of old homes where people move in and tend to stay on, Fred's passing impacted us all.  He was old, and he was sick, but his vital and caring spirit will live on in our hearts. 

2012 has so far been a year of losses -- wakes, funerals and grief have consumed too much of these months.  Not only have I grieved personally, but I have also grieved for friends who have lost loved ones.  I worry that this is a pattern, and that there are more to come.  I remember a decade ago when it seemed my sister and I attended funerals so often that we joked about becoming "professional mourners."  And now, that same sister that I laughed with is gone from my life.

There isn't much we can offer to our friends as they grieve -- a hug, a pot of hot soup, some cliched thoughts -- we feel helpless.  Grief is something we all have to deal with on our own terms.  The process of grief is long -- I still am moved to tears at the simplest of reminders, almost three years after my sister's death.

We attended a memorial mass for a friend on Saturday morning.  He was an outgoing, warm man and a loving father.  As his son spoke the eulogy, he said the last words he had spoken to his father the night before his sudden and totally unexpected death were, "I love you, Dad."  How wonderful to live with the knowledge that your last words were loving ones.  I, on the other hand, cried as I looked at the photo of this charming man, and remembered that my last words had been, "You'll have to come over for dinner sometime," but I never followed through.  I will always regret that.

And so, as these months of loss have weighed down my heart, I will not dwell on the things I neglected to do; instead, I will try to make that little extra effort to let my family and friends know that I love and cherish them.  For, in the end, all we are left with are the memories -- and only we can make those memories count for something good. 

And each year as I smell the peonies, or hear a West Virginia accent, I will remember Fred -- his crotchety side and his generous, loving side -- a man who overcame every adversity, a man with a will of iron, a strength of spirit, and a love for his fellow travelers along the way of life, which made us all better for having known him.