At our house, the floor is strewn with paper dolls. You can find them anywhere; the living room, the hall, the stairs. This morning I found these four girls under my daughter’s pillow.
“What’s the story here?” I asked. “What happened to the crumpled doll?”
“Oh,” she said. “This is Grace. She’s all the same girl. This is Grace when she’s happy in the summer. This is her happy in the winter. This one is her happy in the spring. The big one is Grace when she’s at work. She’s a construction worker, and she works hard.”
I watched as my daughter proceeded to show me how Grace worked. She crumpled her up in a ball, sent her skittering across the room, retrieved her and started again. “See her working, Mom?”
I know just how Grace feels!
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In honor of Grace the paper doll, here is a little story about my first real job...
The summer after sixth grade, I borrowed my mom’s bike and rode down the highway to Cook’s farm, took a deep breath, knocked on the door and asked for a job. He had a golden tooth, Mr. Cook. His comb-over blew freely in the warm June wind, flapping against his sandpaper brown, wrinkly cheek.
“If you last on my farm,” he said, “you’ll be able to get a job anywhere. Everyone knows I only keep hard workers.” We walked together down the hill toward an immense and lush vegetable garden. “I’ll ring the porch bell when it’s break time. It’ll be the best icy cold drink you’ll ever have.”
I took the five gallon bucket he offered me, and set my jaw as I walked to my half-acre long row of beans. No more parochial school, sixth grade uniforms for me. I was on my way to public junior high in the fall, and I wanted new clothes. Badly. I pictured them in my mind, the red swoosh-striped Nike shoes of my dreams. At $2.50 an hour, it wouldn’t take me long. Babysitting only earned me $2.00 an hour. How bad could farm work be? Here I’d get to be outside, away from frustrating little Sarah, who pouted about Barbies and fought with her sister and wanted the crusts cut off her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when her mom was at work. I made my mental calculations. Dad demanded I save $1.25 an hour for college, and give 25 cents an hour to charity, that left a dollar an hour for my shoes, which cost $40. Forty hours of work, forty bucks for the shoes I had coveted since the fourth grade.
I could do this.
Sweat trickled down the back of my neck and cooled as it slid between my shoulder blades. I was used to the work, but our garden at home was tiny compared to this one. I pulled at the clover, skunk cabbage and grass, and dug at the dandelions with their deep tap roots. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the mosquitos took refuge in the shady leaves. Out came the horseflies. Worse than dive bombing Kamikaze pilots, they plagued me every minute. At least if they were buzzing, they weren’t biting. But as soon as the buzzing stopped, inevitably I felt a stinging chomp. “Why didn’t I wear my hat?” I whined silently, slapping the top of my head and missing the fly. My favorite gardening hat was a huge sombrero with fringed grassy ends, which baffled the horseflies. I was almost never bothered or bitten at home with my sombrero. Here there were too many other teens working. I didn’t need a sombrero in front of them.
My eyes strayed from the beans, following Mr. Cook’s teenage son, as he entered the raspberry patch. Mr. Cook had barked orders out loud and clear today. “And remember, boys. No one in the raspberry patch but my son!” At home, I was in charge of strawberries and raspberries. I knew to be careful around the sharp thorns, and extra cautious of the new green canes, the ones that would bear next year’s fruit. My dad trusted me with the berries. Here, I was a bean girl. Hmph.
I worked through the row, trying to keep pace with the others. My bucket was only half full. Red welts were forming on the outsides of my fingers, where they scraped the earth. I switched to my left hand. Less effective, but less painful. One glance showed me that the older farm kids were leaving me in the dust. They emptied their full buckets, and began a new row. I swatted angrily at what seemed to be the 700th horsefly, and left a loamy brown streak of dirt across my cheek. “Shoes. Shoes. Shoes,” I silently chanted to myself. Another fly, another brown smudge on my face. “I am going to fit in at junior high.”
An hour and a half passed by. My anger and determination were fading, and the monotony of weeding beans in the heat was overpowering. Mr. Cook appeared on the hill. Was freedom coming? Did he see how great I was doing, and I would be hired? This was a trial day, and I needed to impress him enough so I could earn my shoes. I glanced at the shade of the foresty raspberry canes. Neat, parallel rows of tangled, brambly plants. Delicious fruit hidden in secret under each jagged leaf. Mr. Cook walked closer. Maybe I was getting promoted! Maybe he saw my superb gardening skills, and I could go pick raspberries now! It was all I could do to keep weeding.
“Well. I can see you’re a fine weeder. Before I hire you for the summer, I want to see how you do in another part of the garden.”
Angel choruses rang out hallelujah in my head. “Rejoice! I’m off to the raspberries!” they sang. I smiled at Mr. Cook. The raspberries were calling me, and the shoes would be mine. “Great! I’m ready.” So long, beans. So long, losers. I smiled at the poor unfortunate other older teens, still stuck in the bean patch. I was off to better things.
Mr. Cook started toward the raspberry patch, but instead made a sharp turn left. “Over this way,” he said. “I’ll be watching to see how you handle this job.” We walked down another hill, near the edge of the woods. A lake lay hidden in the trees somewhere, I knew. But I didn’t see any raspberries. “Here you go” he said, handing me a pitchfork and a shovel. “You know how to dig potatoes? You have to be strong and careful too. Shovel around each plant, to dig it up, then loosen the potatoes with the pitchfork. I can’t sell damaged potatoes at the farmer’s market, so be careful.”
Shovel in hand, I dug in. This was a test I would not fail. Dig, Dig, Dig. Pick up pitchfork. Loosen earth, grope around in the darkness, searching for potatoes. Loosen dirt more. On my knees, I grubbed around at that first plant for a good ten minutes. Potatoes in the bushel basket, move on down the row. Was Mr. Cook watching? I hoped so. I pushed in to the second mound of potatoes. The plants grew thick, almost to my waist. As I put shovel to dirt, a flash of gold caught my eye. Potato bug. Looking closer, I suddenly realized hordes of reddish gold striped beetles were crawling everywhere. Stalks, leaves, dirt. I gasped and a sick feeling of doom filled the pit of my stomach. Thirty rows of potato bug-infested organic potatoes stood like the Berlin wall, between me and my Nike shoes. I closed my eyes and placed the shovel against the mound. Dig, but don’t get too close. I brushed against the leaves, and a beetle crawled up my calf. Brushing it aside, I got down on the ground to pull the potatoes out of the loosened soil. An itch on my neck…potato bug. Crawling up my arm…two more. Top of my head, on my shoelace, on my arm, crawling towards my sleeve opening! “Oooh my gaaaaawsh!” I jumped and screamed, leaping for safety away from the potato plants. I shivered despite the heat, gasping for air.
Mr. Cook was watching from his porch.
What should I do? I glanced at the crawling field of potatoes, and back at the porch. I even stole one panicky look at the forest, thinking for an instant that I could make a break for it, through the woods and lake and on to my house. Flight or fight? One more look back at Mr. Cook. Exhale. No dumb bug was going to stop me from getting what I wanted. Furious determination rose in my twelve year old brain, stronger than fear. Inhale. Step back into potatoes.
I dug a bushel basket full that day, and didn’t even notice my blistered palms. When the bell rang out on the porch, I emerged victorious, sweat pouring off my brow in dirty brown rivulets, face streaked, with blackened limbs ground in with soil and bug carcasses.
Mrs. Cook came out on the porch and offered me a tall glass of icy cold Kool Aid, and I felt she was an angel of mercy. It was red.
“Thank you,” was all I could mumble before I sucked it down to the last drop, feeling the chill swoosh all the way down my esophagus and down to my stomach like a red Nike stripe. It was the most satisfying drink of my life. I had earned it by determination and defeating my own fear.
“You done good,” said Mr. Cook. “You’re hired. See you tomorrow.”
I pedaled uphill slowly, savoring the aches in my back and legs, and enjoying the wind in my face. It was the cool wind of fulfillment. I looked like I’d been through a war, but I had $7.50 in my pocket, and Kool Aid sloshing in my stomach.
Victory would be mine.