Book: Resilience - The Life of a Mexican American. Novel based on a true life story. Names changed to protect participants. Introduction & 18 Chapters. I´ve posted first nine chapters. Interested in reader feedback. If interested, please read and provide me contructive feedback via comments. For additional chapters and poems, email (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chapter 4: Work Ethic

Dad was the hardest worker I knew. He worked three jobs to keep food on the table for our big family. He worked in the factory from six in the morning until three in the afternoon. Then he had his own business, painting people’s houses. If he had a painting job, he would come home from the factory, eat a quick bite, then went on to his next job. He came home at nine at night.

His third job was hauling sawdust for the factory. They paid him $20 - $40 a load. He drove his big red truck twenty miles to the saw-mill in St. Johns every other Saturday. Gas was thirty-seven cents a gallon, so it wasn’t too expensive to purchase the gas for his truck.

At the saw-mill, he took his big shovel and loaded the truck with sawdust. It must have taken a thousand shovelfuls to load that truck. Then he drove the twenty miles back to drop the load off to be shoveled across the oily shop floors.

While hauling sawdust was back breaking work, we kids thought it was fun. Sometimes Dad took the kids with him. I never really shoveled when I went, but I loved to climb the saw-dust Mountains and traipse down the hills making sure I made a few painless pratfalls on my way down.

Even with all of Dad’s jobs, he still had to figure out innovative ways to feed his ten children. He had friends who lived on a farm and from time to time, they gave him the fruit of their harvests. Sometimes, we received vegetables, sometimes milk and eggs. One time, they gave Dad a baby goat.

Dad’s idea was to bring the goat home, fatten him up over the next month and watch him grow. He figured a grown, fattened goat would provide us enough meat for a month. Boy, was he in for a surprise.

He brought the baby goat home and shared his plans with the entire family. As he laid out the details, the baby hopped and skipped and played with all of us kids.

At first, we played with him. Over the next few weeks, we grew to love Billy as a member of the family.

Since Dad worked so many jobs, he didn’t realize how close we grew to our Billy. After a month, our baby grew fat, we pampered him so well.

The last Saturday of the month, when all of my brothers and sisters and I were at the movies, Dad laid him to rest. Mom cooked him up nice and special into what she said was a delicious meat stew.

We arrived home and sat down at the dinner table. A few of the kids roamed by the kitchen and peeked into the stew pot to smell what was cooking.

A few of them became very quiet. As a matter of fact, the whole house was quiet.

As we sat at the dinner table, Mom spooned stew into our bowls but no one ate, except me. The stew was delicious. All watched as I gulped my second spoonful. I stopped.

“What’s the matter with everyone? Why aren’t you eating? Why are you looking at me?”

“Where’s Billy,” someone responded.

I looked at my spoonful. I knew at that moment I was chewing on Billy. I ran to the bathroom and spit out the meat.

Dad was disappointed that none of us ate the meat from our goat. He knew times were hard. He didn’t want to waste the meat however and he wound up giving all of it to his farmer friends.

The next time he brought potential meat home from the farm, he made sure to make it meat sooner so we wouldn’t make friends with the food.

It was tough keeping enough food on the table for a family of ten children so he continued to bring farm food home. Sometimes it was a brand new experience.

Once he brought home a truckload of chickens. He had us form a production line. He was at the head of the line and wrung the necks of the chickens.

Next, someone cut of the heads and feet. Next, the chickens were gutted. I was nervous about all of this but I was ok with my job. I was the chicken plucker.

With all the innovative ways we were obtaining food for our large family, Mom kept very busy with cooking, housework and caring for our family.

After Christina and Gloria moved out, I was next in line to receive Mom´s kitchen training. Mom taught me how to cook for a large family. Each dish was carefully prepared to feed as many people as possible at the lowest cost. All dishes were made from scratch, even the deserts. I baked beautiful deserts, cakes and pies that everyone said were delicious.

Mom taught me how to be a good cook, especially Mexican food. I learned how to make chili, although nowadays we call it salsa.

I learned to use the molcajete and tejolote when grinding cumin and garlic. This was key since these spices were added to almost every dish.

Mom took me to the grocery store to teach me what ingredients to buy for our meals. Key items were chili powder, garlic, cumin seed, baking powder, flour, lard, beans and rice. These were the staples.

I even cooked for my brothers and cleaned up after them without complaining too much.

While I learned to love to cook, I was still resistant to Mom´s “serve the man” philosophy.

Years later Mom said to me, “Mija, you were always so obstinate. You had all of these ideas and hopes and dreams in your head. You didn´t want to understand that women are not men. You can be a strong woman and still serve the man.” I hugged her afterwards even though I still didn´t agree with her.

After my cooking classes, I often helped my Dad. He was such a hard worker and he liked it when we helped him out.

At 14, when my brothers wouldn’t finish painting our house that Dad started painting, I finished painting it by myself.

My brothers said I was crazy.

It was a hot, lazy summer afternoon. Everyone else went off playing. Not me. I took out the paint cans, stood the ladder next to the house and painted the whole unfinished side of the house.

I was justly rewarded. When Dad came home, he said he was very proud of my work. I beamed. I was very proud that my work was well received by Dad.

The opportunities I had to show Dad my work ethic at home were few and far between since he was gone so often. Sometimes I motivated my little brother and sisters to help me clean our huge backyard.

The months after I painted the house, he sometimes brought work home for me and my little crew. Once, he brought home four chairs that were caked with various layers of paint. I remember the top coat was a putrid green.

Dad said, “Kiki, the lady wants these chairs repainted. First, you have to take off all the paint with this paint thinner. Next, you need to sand the chairs with this sandpaper. Then you repaint the chairs with varnish.”

He provided me all the tools I needed. So I asked him to get me up early the next day, right when he left for work. I started on the chairs right away.

First, I used the thinner to take off the paint. This wasn’t any easy chore. Layer after layer of paint had to be coddled off. I put the thinner on and I waited for the paint to start to bubble. I then took the putty knife and worked at it until I coached it off. It took hours to get that paint off.

I persuaded my brother Rick to help me. It was grueling work. Every once in a while, Mom looked out the back door just to see our progress.

I refused to fail. My fingers were raw, but the paint was finally off.

By now, it was 3:00. Dad would be home by six. Mom said we needed to hurry if we hoped to finish on time.

Next we sanded the chairs to prepare them for the staining. Sanding wasn’t easy and I didn’t think we sanded them well enough around the intricate wood moldings of the chair backs, but it was good enough. I then used an old towel to wipe down the chairs.

Next, I brought out the varnish and the special brushes Dad used for his most delicate jobs. These brushes were made of very fine animal hairs. He said I should use them for this job. The brushes kissed the varnish onto the chairs.

After the first chair was finished, I stepped back and looked at it. It looked good. Mom peeked out the door and gave us a quick smile and a nod.

Dad pulled up in his big old red truck just as I finished the last chair. The truck was rickety, but it was functional. He stepped down from his truck and walked over to where we were. He looked at the chairs, shiny and new looking, like fine antiques.

Dad whistled. “Beautiful! They are just beautiful!”

I was so proud I was just beaming.

Mom came outside and said, “They worked on them all day!” She was proud too.

Dad walked around those chairs, rubbing his chin, staring at them and Rick and me in admiration.

The next day, Dad packed the chairs onto his truck and gave them to the lady.

That evening, he came home beaming. He said he set the chairs down in the lady’s garage. She came out and looked at them. She started crying. He asked her what was wrong. She said her tears were tears of joy. The chairs looked just like they did when her husband bought them. Her husband had passed away and this was a very sentimental moment for her. The old lady came up to Dad and kissed him on the cheek.

“I was going to throw these chairs away,” she said, “and instead, you brought them back to me as beautiful as when they were new.”

When he told us, I was very, very proud. It didn’t matter that my hands were still hurting. What did matter was I learned something new that day.

I learned that no challenge was too difficult to overcome and I should never give up. If I worked hard enough almost anything was possible. I also learned that hard work would be recognized. I remember that day and I remember how it affected my life.

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