Labor Day and the Hard-Working Man

In celebration of my grandfather and all hard-working men and women.

“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.”

~Celia Thaxter

Turn the calendar page, August, September, and begin the slow transition from summer to fall. Labor Day—one, last lazy day before exchanging beach totes for backpacks and tank tops for dress shirts.

Labor Day stirs memories of my grandfather. I barely knew him; he died a few days after my third birthday, but my mother’s stories kept him alive in my heart. He was a man who loved his country, a man of strong moral character, a reflection of his ancestors who were early arrivals to America and fought for freedom in every war since the Revolution. Most of all, my grandfather was a hard-working man.

In the 1920s, Grandpa managed a small Woolworth’s dime store in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He turned it into a thriving business, and his hard work led to a promotion managing a bigger Woolworth’s in Duluth. Grandpa packed up his family—his pregnant wife and their two small children, his mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her young son—and they left the cold, Wisconsin winter for an even colder winter in northern Minnesota. And then, in a sliver of time, the stock market crashed. Grandpa lost his job.

There was no going back. Seven family members relied on him, and Grandpa moved them to a welfare tenement where they accepted “relief.” My great-grandmother felt so embarrassed that she would get off the streetcar several blocks from home and walk there. “Us taking welfare is like taking food from the mouths of babes,” she said. And my grandfather agreed. He labored long and hard at any small job he could find until he earned enough to move his family back to Kenosha.

A new job awaited him there in a dusty factory that made brass rods and tubing. The factory thrived during the war, and Grandpa thrived, too. He never went back to managing a business and he never earned enough to buy a house, but he managed his family well. He always paid, as he would say, “his fair share,” and he did whatever he could to help those who were out of work or down on their luck.

My grandfather worked hard, and he didn’t complain. On Labor Days, he felt grateful for rest, but even more grateful for work. In his later years when emphysema made his walk to the factory more difficult, he remained grateful. He added a few extra minutes to his walk and sat down on the curb halfway there to catch his breath. He sipped hot coffee from the thermos my grandmother packed in his black, metal lunch bucket, and then he walked on, thankful that he had a job.

These words from Jesus are printed on my grandfather’s funeral card: “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” When he died, Henry Wadsworth Johnston Ellsworth was 64 years old and nine months short of retiring from his work.

I miss him. I wish I had known him longer, but on this Labor Day I praise God for the legacy of a hard-working man, a grateful man who didn’t complain.

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Filed under Gratefulness, History, Labor Day, Uncategorized

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