Isn't it amazing, the difference a couple of generations can make? Post WWII, author Boris Fishman's grandfather did his level best to ensure his family would work white collar, 'clean smock' professions. Skip a generation and we find Boris getting his hands (and apron) decidedly dirty on a dairy farm in New Jersey. Much to his grandfather's disgust...
By the end of World War II, Minsk, my hometown and the capital of Soviet Belarus, lay in ruins. War nourishes what it doesn't destroy: electricians were in demand, and that is what my maternal great-grandparents, looking for stability in a shattered world, insisted their son, my grandfather, become.
He refused. "I'm going to work in a clean smock, not a dirty one," he said, and became a barber instead (barbers in the Soviet Union wore smocks). The future he imagined for me when my family immigrated to the United States in 1988 was in keeping with his regard for clean fingernails: a suit and tie, a high-floor office, an impressive bi-weekly haul. This was why I had been brought to America.
So when I told him that I was going to spend part of a summer volunteering on a dairy farm in northwestern New Jersey, his face fell. "What are they paying you?" he said, assuming that I was signing up for this humiliation only because some billionaire farmer had offered me a wheelbarrow of cash.
Every harvest season in the Soviet Union, young city people had been rounded up for "volunteer" stints picking beets and potatoes in villages that had been abandoned by other young people. My grandfather spent not a little money making sure his only daughter would be "excused".
At the end of a day at the tech start-up where I worked, I said, my mind was listless with fatigue but my body felt like a limp wire that hadn't received electricity.
"They're not paying me at all," I said. "They're making clean food and they can barely make ends meet. I want to help."
What was disappointment turned to mild disgust. "So your work isn't worth anything?", he said.
Because I was idealistic and obtuse, I tried another way. At the end of a day at the tech start-up where I worked, I said, my mind was listless with fatigue but my body felt like a limp wire that hadn't received electricity. It felt unnatural.
It was just a summer; I was trying it out. Grandfather only shrugged, too polite to say what he really thought.
On my first day at the dairy farm, I worked a pickaxe, breaking the earth for a big summer garden. It was mid-June, close to a hundred degrees. The pickaxe tore at my palms even through thick work gloves. But I found it easier to persevere here than at my work desk in New York, where each moment required the same mental exertion.
At the farm, the ache eventually subsided into a dull burn, the strain in my stomach eased, and the temperature quit climbing. I swung, sunk, and pulled, the repetition coming to feel hypnotic. I experienced the singular sensation of being simultaneously alert and detached. At the end of that day, I could barely move, but my mind felt as still as the water in a jug.
Two and a half months later, on one of my last days at the farm, I shovelled mounds of cow manure, turned soupy by urine, out of the milking barn. My coveralls flecked with grime, my feet sloshing around in mud boots, I was one misstep from ending up in the mess.
When it was time for a break, I pulled out my cell phone and dialled my grandfather. After hello, he asked his usual question: "How long before that's-"
"My last day," I said.
He grunted. "Let's just pretend this never happened," the grunt said.
He could not bring himself to lay into me openly. So I decided not to break his heart any further. I asked about his health and hung up. But what I was thinking all along was: "Someday, I'll tell this story to my grandkids. And I'll tell them I wanted a dirty apron, not a clean one."
Boris's novel A Replacement Life is published by ONE (released on 11 September) and will be available from Amazon. We'll have 10 copies up for grabs for those who add their thoughts below.