While shoveling snow from my driveway today, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect. The drive is long and wide and, even though I get it plowed by a service, getting it right can take me an extra hour.
When I was about eight years old, I started shoveling snow for neighbors. By that point my older brother was out of that business; at 19, he was working at an auto parts shop and getting ready to go into his career of retail sales and wholesale marketing. With him out of the house, I was poised for the job. Having shoveled snow for my family for some years, I was prepared for the exacting expectations from my Polish and German neighbors.
For our home, a snow fall like last night’s would have required three rounds of shoveling. The first, when the snow was perhaps three of four inches deep, would set the perimeter of the job. I would make sure that I would get the blade close enough to the edge of the walkway so that I could see blades of grass from the lawn poking through the snow. The second shoveling, when the snow had stopped, involved keeping to the guidelines of the first shoveling, but even if only another inch had fallen, it required a lot of lifting. I needed to hoist the new snow high enough so that it did roll back down onto the walkway. Finally, later in the day, the third shoveling cleaned up the edges, addressed any blowing, and provided time to chip away at any ice that had formed during the snow.
Why this particular attention to detail? You had to get it right. Someone could slip and kill themselves, and it would be your fault. My own dad could come home late from the corner bar and we wouldn’t notice he had slipped and died in the cold until it was too late. Mrs. Kawszynski down the street already had a hard time walking without having to deal with my laziness. Besides, my own dad’s heart disease prevented him from shoveling. Did I want him to clean up after me and die?
Oh, and getting it right meant that you didn’t just perfect the look of your own walkways. No, you needed to shovel your half the alley and at least 10 feet into your neighbor’s sidewalk. One didn’t want to look ungenerous or stingy with labor. People could tell what kind of person you were by how much you shoveled for others.
That’s why shoveling snow for neighbors was not so much a money-maker as it was an emblem of the kind of person you are. When grown-ups talked about children, they mentioned shoveling for widows. Parents who otherwise thought me useless would suddenly beam at the news that I was a wizard at chopping ice from a deadly concrete stairway. Later, they might slip me a quarter, knowing that the public praise I had gotten was likely my only payment. Even my grandfather, who alternated between Polish, Russian, and Yiddish, produced a shiny half-dollar when he heard from a babushka that I had saved her life with a shovel.
I think that this need to get it right was tied to our poverty and working class roots, too. The work ethic so visible in that shoveling extended to ironing table cloths and pillow cases, washing woodwork, mowing lawns, painting walls, and being prompt for religious services. The number of sentences my mother could start with, “We might be poor, but we’re not so poor that…” were legion. My father was more likely to express his demands for getting it right by reminding us, “Not under my roof.”
Decades have eroded my need for that precision in general, though I suspect that some of my friends and people sacking groceries might at times disagree. I know I have relaxed a lot, but confess that at times getting it right is the best I can do to address my fears.
Several years ago, a neighbor was also shoveling his drive after it had been plowed. He came over to chat and announced he and his wife were expecting their first. He was terrified she might slip on her way to the car, so he was taking extra time. I listened and congratulated them on their good fortune to be having a child. I offered to do errands and made a mental note to send a gift when the baby arrived.
When I went back to my own drive, I admitted to myself that I was shoveling and chopping remnants of ice for a similar reason. My husband was using a wheelchair. Emergency Medical Techs stopped at our place every four to six weeks. I was shoveling to show respect. To gain some sense of agency. To get it right.