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Rebecca E. Neely, Author ~ Romance. Paranormal. Suspense.

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Hard Work: It’s All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Recently, I was seeking inspiration for dinner, and in leafing through one of my Cooks Illustrated magazines (April 2015), came across an editorial written by the amazing Christopher Kimball. In it he pays homage to his home state of Vermont and its colorful and varied denizens, and sums up by admiring how many of them ‘stand for something.’

In short, it got me thinking about what I stand for. In the course of my life, I’ve assumed many roles. I’m a daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend and aunt. I’m also a single mother and a business woman. I grew up working in my family’s restaurant business. I earned a degree in Accounting and, after quite a few zigs and zags, I’ve been with the same company (well, at least the same location) for twenty years. And I’ve been writing in one form or another for about the same length of time.

One common denominator in all of that, I realized, is good old fashioned hard work. As far as standing for something, I’d be honored to lay claim to that.

My parents passed that on, in DNA, as well as in word and deed. And I believe I’m passing that ethic onto my teenaged daughter, who, at this very moment is washing dishes at a local restaurant.

Hard work is satisfying, comforting. It’s basic, reliable, a cornerstone of my life. It’s sustained, soothed, saved me. I need hard work to feed my soul, survive, and thrive in every way. I want to use everything I’ve been given, physically, intellectually, spiritually. And the experiences, the people I’ve met along my journey of hard work have shaped me, made me who I am. And tell my story.

Interestingly, the people in my life are also hard workers. My cousin, the dedicated social worker with 20+ years of experience. My friend, a court reporter who runs her own business. My boyfriend, the contractor with mad skills. And even his father, who, after a recent fall, insists on planting his own flowers. And is upset he can’t mow his own lawn. They do me proud.

At the age of 12, I would go with my father to our family’s diner style restaurant, doing ‘heavy prep’ – mixing stuffing in Rubbermaid size containers, stirring cauldrons of spaghetti sauce with a wooden paddle long, heavy and wide enough to be considered a weapon. By the time I was 16, I’d done it all–waitressed, washed dishes, bussed tables, mopped, ran the register, assisted with payroll. And I did it alongside my father, mother, brother, aunt, uncle and cousins, and a cast of employee characters that live on, large, in my hallowed memory home.

Sadly, when a downturn in the economy pretty much forced my parents’ hand to sell, I looked for work elsewhere and found myself at a local shoe store. I think my favorite part was unpacking all the new inventory. That, and the 30% discount the employees received.

When the shoe store closed after about a year, I odd jobbed, holding both the title of magazine telemarketer and fast food cashier. Alas, neither took for more than a week. I then started working as a grocery store cashier, and it turned out that would be something I’d do for the next 8 years, during summers, breaks from college and post college when I needed extra money.

There, amongst the aisles of HBA (Health & Beauty Aids), the dairy and produce, you truly do see it all, as everyone has to eat. Rich, poor, mundane, bizarre, friendly, rude—the employees and the customers covered the spectrum. It was there I witnessed store employees chase down a thief, saw a Gypsy for the first time, and rang up more frozen turkeys than I could shake a stick at. I learned the names of myriad vegetables, fruits and herbs, and their codes in the system, some of which I still remember to this day. (Bananas were 242, watermelons 393). I was introduced to the art and science of couponing. And became a master in making change.

While attending college, I took part in the work-study program in the school’s computer center. It was there I had a fellow employee stab me in the back, repeating what I’d said about the boss to her. Oh yeah, I remember him. But I learned the value of keeping my mouth shut. And about who to trust. And not to trust.

When I transferred to finish my four year degree, it was back to food for me, working in the dining hall. And on the weekends, I made omelettes to order on a flat top, honing my egg skills to perfection.

After I graduated from college, I began working as an accounting clerk. The three ladies I worked with took me under their wing, and Linda, my favorite, taught me about more than receivables and payables. One of the smartest and wisest women I had the privilege to know, Linda worked part time, choosing to give up her career to raise her daughter. When I left there to move up the corporate ladder, she made me Jello letters spelling out ‘GOOD LUCK’. Yeah, she rocked.

As a junior accountant, I found myself in the unenviable position of working for a difficult boss. Still young, still green in the ways of Corporate America, I went against the grain, and we parted ways several years later. Feeling beat up, disillusioned, I quit my job without having another one. I didn’t work for a month. And I never regretted it. I still believe, years later, leaving there, and taking time off, was one of the best things I ever did, because it was then I truly learned how to stand up for myself.

From there, I worked on and off in accounting as a temp, did a year long stint as a real estate agent, part timed at a house wares store (still fold my towels the way they taught us) and worked as a customer service rep for a national hardware wholesale company. It was there I applied for, and got the job of working as a computer operator in the company’s data center. For the first time in my life, I worked shifts, and with an all male staff. A singular experience, I have fond memories of that crew. They were kind, but they treated me like one of them. Suffice to say, no one worried about filtering their conversation. My skin thickened – but in a good way.

Fast forward a few years. I was once again working as an accountant, married, pregnant, and unhappy with my work. It was then I really started to think about what kind of work I wanted to do. Not for the next year. But for a lifetime. And accounting wasn’t it. Oh, I was good at it. But going to school for business, I realized, had been a knee jerk reaction to my parents’ sale of the business and the resulting financial difficulties, when I’d been at a crossroads in my life. Don’t get me wrong – that degree served me well. But it was never my passion.

But writing was, and is.

Being a woman of action, I read, I researched, and discovered a small magazine accepting submissions. Though I wouldn’t get paid for the articles, I could build my clips, gain experience. I wrote three articles for them, and one of them I know I’m blessed to have written – I interviewed my father about hunting deer, one of his lifelong loves. From there, I went on to write for other local magazines, bid on jobs at a freelancing website, and had the privilege of working with people all over the country.

I discovered I really enjoyed the vagabond nature of freelancing work. Never knowing what I might work on next. No responsibility except to my client and myself for a short period of time. And it was my choice. What I wanted to work on. Who I wanted to work with. LOL – there’s little doubt, in hindsight, that that ‘vagabond nature’ is reflected in my travels through the job market.
And I liked being my own boss. I got a high from creating something from a mere idea on paper, or in my head, for readers to enjoy. And that ultimately earned me payment. And my name in print. But more than that, much more than that, was the bone deep feeling I was coming into my own. This is what I was meant to do. Write.

One of my favorite things to do as a freelancer is to interview people who are passionate about what they do. There’s a fire that comes into their eyes, their voice, their body language. An intensity that ignites interest in me. I’ve written articles on subjects, at the outset, I didn’t think I wanted to know anything about. And certainly didn’t know anything about. (Harvesting cedar, insurance, soccer, to name a few.) Yet, after talking to the expert, they got me excited about it. And I wrote an article showcasing that. When a reader tells me they were moved, or that I brought to life a moment for them in something I wrote, I take that as high praise. Perhaps the highest praise.

I’ve interviewed dozens of people over the years, including a vintner, a team of paranormal investigators, and a tattoo artist. I’ve interviewed the CEO of a casino, and the sole proprietor of a local book store. Those people, their stories, have become part of my story. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to have known these people, if only for a short time. They’ve enriched me, broadened my horizons and excited me with their passion. And incidentally, they all had something in common—they worked hard at what they did.

I’d been freelancing for some years when I became interested in writing novels. I love to read, and romantic suspense is my groove. Once again, being a woman of action, I read, I researched, I joined writing groups, I took online classes. I wrote two really, really bad novels that never saw the light of day. Eventually, after trial and error, I penned my first book. And sold it. Then another. And another. Each one, I felt, was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. And I can’t wait to do it again.

As I said before, the path to get here hasn’t been straight by any means. But I believe everything happens for a reason. And I’m pretty damn happy about the way things turned out. Because right now, here, today, I get to write this for you. It’s hard work. And I’m loving every minute of it.

Rebecca E. Neely is a blogger, storyteller, writer & author. Visit her at www.rebeccaneely.com

Romance. Paranormal. Suspense.
All books available on Amazon

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The Stone Soup of My Soul

At 47, I’m hovering somewhere between early onset of menopause and the rest of my life, spending more time at funeral homes than I’d like as of late, and realizing that retirement is nary two decades away. And realizing that two decades ain’t such a long time.

Bringing that into sharp, and downright painful focus is the passing of my favorite uncle earlier this year to damnable cancer. As his niece, as a writer, and I think, as a human being, I find myself suddenly and predictably desperate to hold onto the stories that are so much a part of my clan’s history, and that rich, intricate and convoluted fabric of family.

For precious moments, those stories of yore bring my loved ones a little closer, and give me the singular opportunity to revel in the undiluted, childish joy they’ve brought me time and again throughout my life. But I also feel a need to honor, in my humble way, the great line of storytellers from which I hail. To remember the gatherings where they were told and retold, by whom, and the embellishments, versions and tweaks that have been added along the way because these stories—something to which everyone has contributed—have become the stone soup of my soul.

Both my uncle and my father (brothers) played off one another at family gatherings like stage professionals, flawless in their timing, their delivery of tales making us all laugh until we cried and our stomachs ached. Where do I begin? Gems such as the time my father and his boyhood friends’ attempt at becoming trappers went sideways comes easily to mind. On one ill-fated day, they snared a skunk, and upon arriving at home with their spoils (which, at this point my uncle would chime in and relate the progression of the smell, in direct correlation with his ride home from work), my grandfather proclaimed with conviction that the only way the skunk hide would be worth the fifty cents my father had visions of earning from it would be to stick two quarters up its ass.

Indeed. Words of wisdom from a man (who I never had the pleasure of meeting), who, if he felt his daughters’ beaus were cozying up in the parlor too late or too long, wouldn’t think twice about strolling through the house in his underwear.

Ah, it’s gems like these that warm me all the way through, and come to mind at odd times, or precisely the right moment – I’m not sure which, for me to regale my daughter with when she needs a lift, or insight.

The storytelling in my family isn’t without its more serious side. In an attempt to record some more of that history, I recently asked my mother to tell me all she could remember about her grandparents, while I recorded it on my phone. Here’s one of my favorites:

In search of a better life, my great grandmother, Susan Jevin (pronounced with a ‘Y’, not a ‘J’, left Czechoslovakia, making the trip to America by herself at the age of sixteen, never to return, and never to see her family again, save for her sister who’d moved to Michigan, years later. Wow. True grit at its grittiest. It honors and humbles me to know that kind of blood runs through my veins. Susan would meet and marry Paul Semes, a skinny but wiry man who, after coming home from working at the local steel mill—he worked in the store room, managing all of the parts, and my grandfather (my dad’s dad) remembered him, said he was your man if you needed to find something, anything)–could, and often did, eat a whole pie, and remained as skinny as the string beans they grew in their garden.

See what I just did? Gave you a story within a story. It seems the stories I hold so dear are more often than not, just that. And to my way of thinking, a gift.

In this same vein of laughter, storytelling and friendship, I’m blessed to have a group of friends, the majority of whom I’ve known over half my life, some all my life. These friends are my family. My people. While we don’t see each other all the time, when we do, we don’t miss a beat, picking up where we left off, telling new stories, recounting old ones, and catching up on all the beginnings, middles and ends we might have missed.

Speaking of beginnings, it occurred to me on a recent trip to the Heinz History Center there are always new stories emerging, all around us. I see this blessed phenomena every day in my daughter, as she prepares for college and embraces her passions, one of which is photography. I found it serendipitous she wanted to see the ‘Eyes of Pittsburgh’ exhibit, featuring the Post Gazette’s photo archives spanning 100 years of the city’s history, while I was working on this blog. Coincidence? Kizmet? Either way, I’ll take it.

As long as man has gathered around fire, stories have been told—to educate and entertain, sustain and soothe, amuse and fascinate. As the self appointed scribe of my clan, I will always treasure the stories of the past. But I’ve also a sneaking suspicion that the best stories are the ones yet to unfold. And often, there’s joy, and a delicious wonder to be had in the not knowing.

For example, to this day, I have no idea how two of my father’s and my uncle’s boyhood friends came to be eloquently, and lovingly referred to as Stump and Pickle. I like to think it might have had something to do with their late night sampling, shall we say, of a neighbor’s apple cider stash.

But that’s a story for another day.

Rebecca E. Neely is a blogger, storyteller, writer & author. Visit her at www.rebeccaneely.com 

Romance. Paranormal. Suspense.

All books available on Amazon

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This is the Reason I Return to My Roots

As a writer, I’m often asked about my journey – how I got started, what kind of writing I do, what influenced me, etc. Truth be told, I find it both valuable, and enjoyable to revisit those beginnings. Not only does it remind me why I started doing what I do, it allows me to reflect on where I’ve been, and to focus on where I’m going.

I grew up in a small town, working, cooking and eating in Ricardo’s, my family’s restaurant. It was in that one level, no frills, terrazzo tiled kitchen where I developed my enterprising spirit, working side by side with my family. A memory home, that hallowed ground has been a driving force in my life, and one I revisit often.

Fuel for my imagination, it’s warm, comforting, and takes me back to my roots, especially when I’m running low on entrepreneurial gas, something an author like me needs in abundance.

Ricardo’s was a cool, Mom and Pop retro-style diner. Only at the time, it wasn’t yet retro! In true 1970s fashion, it sported lots of brown and Crayola orange, from the countertops to the paneled walls, to the vinyl covered booths. Design crimes and all, it’s a place that’s part of my soul, and though long gone, lives on graciously in my memory, and now, I’m thrilled to say, in my first romantic suspense novel, A Mighty Good Man.

What a privilege to grow up in such a place! We worked hard, and that ethic stays with me to this day. From the time I was about ten, my brother and I worked alongside my parents, aunt and uncle, cousins and the help, making, on a large scale, tantalizing, from scratch fare, such as spaghetti sauce, (you have to use pork bones), wedding soup, and bread stuffing. Lots of Saturdays, starting at 7am, we did heavy prep, mixing up ingredients in Rubbermaid tubs; pounds of butter, ground meat, celery, onions. We cooked in cast iron and stainless steel cauldrons half my height, stirred with wooden paddles that could’ve doubled as oars. I learned how to work the grill, make salads, and turn last night’s chicken special into today’s soup du jour.

And that was just the food.

The people who worked there were larger than life too, and also live on fondly in my memory. Cooks, waitresses, busboys, dishwashers; men, women, young, old, and in between—they ran the gamut from high school student to retiree, from vagabond to workhorse. Some came and never left, some worked one shift and never bothered to return—characters, all of them.

I remember hanging out at the counter with my Dad for hours, while he drank coffee and talked with customers. I would sit, fascinated by the adult conversation and the things I heard, and shouldn’t have heard. A unique and well-rounded education was mine for the taking on topics as varied as the economy, the local steel mill, sports, hunting, the president, politics, family, and religion.

Regulars inhabited the space, claiming it as their own; they made it a hub in the community, not just as a place to eat great food, but as a place to connect, to complain, to celebrate, and to come together.

The food, the people, the work, the experience—it was delicious, joyous, exhilarating, exhausting, crazy, colorful, strange, and maddening, but above all, unique; so much so, we would often laugh and say we could write a book.

Well, I did.

Rebecca E. Neely is a blogger, storyteller, writer & author. Visit her at www.rebeccaneely.com 

Romance. Paranormal. Suspense.

All books available on Amazon

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