A family history of toil

According to the vast collective mind of the Internet, we Americans work a lot: more than we used to, more than most other countries, and, according to the National Sleep Foundation, a staggering 38% of us work over 50 hours each week. In our family, we call that slacking — endless toil (occasionally even productive) seems to be in our genes.

My great (x8) grandfather, Thomas Lewis, arrived in New Amsterdam aboard the Dutch East India ship the Blauwe Duiff (Blue Dove) on Sept. 5, 1656, looking for work. He found it. Eventually, my family settled in the Hudson River Valley at a place they called Whalesback Farm to grow hay and apples and raise livestock. Again, there was no shortage of work, only hours and daylight. Hence, for the last 350 years or so, our family tradition of hard work has continued.

My first job (aside from the inevitable paper route), was disgusting. I worked on a small barge with a giant underwater sickle bar in front, cruising around freshwater lakes eradicating unwanted pondweeds. In the stern was the wheelhouse, where my fat boss sat under a ratty umbrella, drinking iced tea, smoking cigars, scratching his armpits, steering, squinting, belching, and yelling at me. I stood fore, just back of the slashing sickle, as great rafts of slimy marsh clippings slid onto the deck. My only task was to bend my back under the hot sun all day and pitchfork this mucky, sodden mass (leech-ridden, teaming with terrified minnows, writhing snakes, and the occasional turtle) into a steaming pile on the back of the barge. Just before the gunwales went under, the boss would drive the thing at full throttle up onto the shore, where I would pitch the whole mess back off the barge and into the woods, to rot. Then, we’d head back out to sea. I got 15 minutes off for lunch.

That was almost 40 years ago. Now, like most of us, I make a living sitting in a climate-controlled office staring at computer screens and pushing soy-based electrons around with my right index finger. My armpits don’t itch, I don’t need an umbrella, and I can take a 15-minute break whenever I please.
Still, while the toil is certainly less toilsome and I can’t remember the last time I had to pinch leeches off my legs at lunch, at the end of each week I still seem to burn up something like 60 hours. It’s easy to start feeling sorry for myself.

Several years ago, my dad sent me transcribed copies of my great (x3) grandfather’s diaries from Whalesback Farm during the years of 1864 and ’69. The farm was in full swing; my ancestors had been plowing and sowing and reaping for over a 100 years by then.

Just to read these diaries is wearying work. Every day started early and ended late and was brimming with hauling and piling and skidding and mending and digging and cutting and ditching and planting and stacking and other various and sundry labors involving muscle, sinew, and sweat (both human and animal). There wasn’t an internal combustion engine or hydraulic line in sight.

Weather and illness were constant concerns, and except for church on Sundays (another family tradition that continues to this day), no one ever seemed to sit down. It isn’t until Thursday, June 17, 1869 that I find even the slightest slack in the family harness: “Nothing of consequence happened today. Frank ploughed [sic] corn, I worked about the house and this afternoon went to Barrytown with a load of hay.”

The diaries just go on and on like a run-on sentence without commas jumping from one big thing to another in an endless string of chores and projects and dawn-to-dusk labor that is so exhausting to read that every once in a while you have to close your eyes just to breathe.
“Friday, April 2: Rather a pleasant day with south wind. I had four men to help me dig a cellar for the Adam house and we got it finished and hauled quite a lot of stone for the wall. This afternoon . . .”

See what I mean?

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be up at 5:45, as usual, and will spend my day splitting infinitives and dangling participles. I should be home by 6:30. What a slacker.

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