On a clear day I am at ease in my skin, content with who I am, what I do, the way things have unfolded. For most of my life however, I’ve felt driven to “improve” upon my build-in inadequacies. An old voice frequently reminds me that I’m not good enough “as is” and that the only way-out is continuous ambition and relentless striving.
Someone has researched the male trunk of our family tree as far back as the early 1600s. It shows a succession of shopkeepers, farm labourers, innkeepers, vintners, soldiers, traders, and a couple of school masters. No-one owned property, went to university, joined a profession, became an officer, was elected to public office, or achieved prominence. I was told that my paternal grandfather owned a millinery shop, and that his son–my father to be–started out as a butcher’s apprenticeship at age 13 and, when it turned out that he couldn’t stand all that blood, was given to a blacksmith for further education. The maternal side of the tree is not as well known to me, except that grandfather (pictured seated, with my mother-to-be on the left in white) was a master carpenter with a shop that made furniture and that a string of uncles laboured as cemetery gardeners, nurserymen, orchardists, and florists.
My own basic schooling ended after grade eight at age 13 whereupon my father, as it was the customer of the day, gave me into a five-years hotel apprenticeship to be trained as cook and innkeeper. The notion that socio-economic status at birth should dictate one’s life path is unfamiliar to most people born in North American: here anything is possible, regardless of parental background.
For as long as I can remember, the mantra sung by teachers, priests, and elders was this: (a) work hard to “make something of ourselves,” (b) always remember your roots (i.e. “know our place,” buckle under), and (c) be grateful for any advancement since [in a bizarre circular twist] you’ll never deserve it, considering where we came from.
As Charles Olson writes:
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, to let them
And the dirt
Just to make clear
where they come from
source: “These days” in: Bly, R. et al. (1992). The rag and bone shop of the heart: poems for men. HarperCollins, p. 184.