This January on the 28th anniversary of the day he died at age 91, Oscar and I lit a special 24-hour candle in memory of his father. And with this annual ritual came a flood of memories of the man, husband, father and grandfather portrayed by this Polish immigrant who arrived here alone at the age 17, not knowing the language and searching for a way to earn a living.
As I watched Oscar light the candle and speak briefly to and about his father, I was struck by the lessons of so many things his dad had provided, and we began to talk and think about them.
His father started his work life sewing button holes in vests in a factory in Baltimore, which progressed to peddling lemons from a crate he carried in Washington, D.C. That was followed by selling meats and vegetables from a horse-drawn cart, and eventually he came to be in the wholesale meat business. He opened a store where he worked, along with each of his five sons at one time or another, for 60 years.
As we talked about the invisible inheritance our parents leave us by their example, I also began to think of my dad. After a brief stint as a shipyard welder during World War II, he opened a grocery store, and then a family shoe store that was in business for 31 years.
The lessons these two men left were what we absorbed by watching them first as children, then as adolescents and finally as adults and parents ourselves. Hard work was one of the first values they conveyed as we watched them both put in the long hours and do the mental and physical labor required to meet the needs and demands of their customers. Both were models of honesty and recognized the dignity of every employee and customer. They appreciated reliability and modeled it.
And as we reflected upon the lessons both of our fathers silently taught us through their example, Oscar and I began to wonder and discuss what values we hope we convey to our children and grandchildren. A work ethic is an inheritance each of us models and perhaps modifies during the course of our lives, and children begin to see and absorb this information and the accompanying expectations at a very young age.
We saw our dads working hard, being honest and doing the best they could. They were our teachers, mentors and models of what they hoped we would accept as our own values. And we see our children working hard to pass this heritage on to their children as well.
For women, today’s world of work is very different from the generation of our mothers. For most of our mothers, their occupation was wife and mother and their workplace was in the home. Their efforts, honesty and demonstrated values were not public but we saw them. As the opportunities in the world of work expanded, invited and provided work for today’s mothers, their values have become more public.
This is not to say there aren’t parents who provide poor life lessons by their chosen behaviors. But for us this annual lighting of the candle of remembrance is an opportunity to say thank you to the parents who gave us life, and then modeled how best to live it.
Freelance writer Judy Kramer can be reached by email at [email protected] She is author of “Changing Places: A Journey with My Parents into Their Old Age.”