Labor Day is one of America’s oldest holidays, having been celebrated longer than Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, according to The New York Times. Those of you who enjoyed the day off today should thank the American Federation of Labor, who in 1884 claimed the first Monday in September as a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” That lovely quote comes from Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the AFL.
As the Times editorial notes, “There is not so much delving and carving these days, and nature doesn’t seem quite as rude as it once did. Labor Day has expanded well beyond the realms of organized labor, and what was once a “workingmen’s” holiday is now a respite for nearly everyone with a Monday job.” Parents, of course, often have two jobs – one outside the home, and what can seem like a million unending tasks inside the home. And while Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be nice, promising Mom breakfast in bed prepared by the kids or a day out on the golf course for Dad, Labor Day is “a holiday that needs no preparation, which is a true holiday indeed.”
Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, and many families enjoy their last outdoor adventures over the long weekend, or attend their State Fair. I took my daughter to The Great New York State Fair yesterday and had the time of my life. We watched an amazing high-dive show and explored historical train cars. We picked our favorites at the horse show and I helped her make her very own tie-dyed scarf. Watching her try to drive the bumper cars had me imagining her as a driver in 12 years (if only 16-year-olds came with carnies who could help them steer) and seeing her ear-to-ear grin on the kiddie coaster made my face beam, too. But my favorite part of the day came as a surprise at the very end, when we strolled through the children’s games.
“Ooooh! A dolphin!,” my daughter squealed. I had no idea she was into dolphins, but then again, things don’t have to be very exciting for my kid to get jazzed over them. She likes to collect rocks and leaves and gets upset when she has to throw away the bits of wrapper that have been ripped off her crayons, so that giant blow-up Flipper must have blown her mind.
We’d had a busy day already, and I’d just spent my last ten bucks buying ride tickets. But when I saw how excited she was at the prospect of winning such a big prize, I thought to myself, “Take some money out. It’ll only cost you five bucks, and you’ll be a hero for the rest of her life.” I went to the nearest ATM and withdrew funds I knew I didn’t really have to spend, but I figured I’d work it out somehow. We ran over to the pleasant and plump woman in charge of the Pick-a-Duck pool, who greeted us with a hearty, “Hi, Mom!”
“We’ve got a special running,” she bellowed. “Five dollars gets you any prize you want.” I thought to myself, “Way to be discreet, lady. Why even make the kid pick-a-duck then?” But I handed her a 20 dollar bill, she gave me my change, and my kid reached down and grabbed an armful of ducks. Laughing, I said, “Let’s see what you won!” and turned the ducks over. They all said the same thing on the bottom, just a giant S for “SUCKER!”
“Look, you won the dolphin!,” I cried. She jumped up and down and gave the shiny vinyl blow-up a huge hug. We walked over to a nearby bench, and suddenly I just started crying. I couldn’t help myself. She’d been such a good girl all day and we enjoyed a totally stress-free time. I was weeping with relief, knowing that I could never have enjoyed such a simple but wonderful moment if I was still married to my ex-husband, who had a nasty habit of radiating anger every time he opened his wallet. Watching my daughter wave her cherished prize through the air like an animal at sea, I thought about my Dad, and all of the good times he showed me as a kid. The fact that he couldn’t resist his children’s whims, and that he would have spent his last dollar trying to win us a prize. I thought about how hard he worked, about how much he loved coming to the fair, because the farmers there spoke his language. Yes, my Dad treated us to time on the midway, but first we had to walk through all of the animal barns and have a glass of freshly squeezed milk. Before we could have fun, we had to examine the goods for sale in the Center of Progress building and admire the handiwork of the 4H kids.
No matter how dorky they seemed to us, my father understood just how proud the 4H kids were because he, too, was a laborer. He was a carpenter, like Peter J. McGuire. My father built my childhood home with just the help of his brothers, and he prided himself on his ability to work hard. The fruits of his labor have sheltered so many families, and though he was reticent to ever take a day off, when he did, he played as passionately as he worked. He loved to visit local areas of interest or attend whatever festival might be happening and he was sure to greet whoever he’d meet in his signature boisterous style.
So sitting there under the stars, with the sounds of the tractor pull roaring in the distance, watching my daughter float by me infected with delight, I felt my father’s presence encouraging me to appreciate this work of parenting, to enjoy the fruits of my labor and to be thankful for all the hard work that led me to that place in time. I was overcome with a sense of happy responsibility, realizing for the 1000th time that my daughter is the most important thing in the world to me, and that I’m so lucky to have such an inspiring little muse, pushing me to work harder and do better every day. As we exited the grounds, my daughter looked up at the sign above the gate and said, “I know what that says! Thank you for coming.” The pleasure was ours.
Photo: NYS Dept. of Agriculture