Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"...but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments."

There's an anecdote I like to tell about my grandpa, to demonstrate how hardworking my family is: "We Novaks are roofers," I say, "It's one of the hardest jobs there is. You're up on the roof working all day, tearing off the shingles, cleaning up the roof, preparing it with ice guard and tar paper, laying down a new layer of shingles, and then picking up the ground below. It's hard work. My grandpa was a roofer. All his sons were roofers, at least for a while. And at some point nearly every single one of his grandkids helped shingle a house, and some of them have taken up the profession too. It's a lot of work, and it's hot up on the roof, with the sun beating down on you. Growing up, I always thought my grandpa might be black, or some other minority (though I never gave much thought to which); he was just so dark-skinned that it never even crossed my mind that he was white. And then one day I saw him at the beach. He peeled back his shirt and his chest was the palest thing you've ever seen. It was like looking at an Oreo. Turns out his skin was just really really tan from working so hard out in the sun every day."

I shingled houses with my grandpa for three summers. I can tell you, I never got nearly as dark as he did. That's because his was a lifetime of exposure, not just a few summer breaks. His entire life was spent working hard. Honest work. Difficult work. Hot, dirty, grimy work. Real work.

I write about this now because the other day I was cleaning my garage. It had gone too long without being cleaned, and putting things in shape took a bit of work, using tools to hang things, moving things around and into the right places, cleaning things up. I don't do enough of that kind of real work. Sure, I work hard at my job, but I'm an attorney and the work I do is, for the most part, intellectual. My job is to persuade people. There are days when that can be the most difficult task in the world. But there's never a day where I think my hard work can hold a candle to the work my grandpa did. Cleaning my garage is about as close as I get these days, and that's like comparing a puddle to the Pacific.

It's always struck me funny when people imply that the hedge fund managers and investment bankers making millions of dollars have earned that money because they work hard. Sure, they put in long hours, but you'll never convince me that they're working harder than the guy on a construction site. If you're going to rationalize the pay disparity, come up with something else, because "they work hard" doesn't fly here. I've been on both sides of the line. I've got an intellectual job and yes, it can be tough. But I've also seen what hard work really looks like: it looks like my grandpa.

I wonder sometimes about the way they show grandfathers in the movies. More often than not they seem to be gentle, with glasses, maybe a bit absentminded, usually intellectual, always loving and kind. That's not how I see grandfathers. My grandpa was loving alright, but that meant being firm. When I worked with my grandpa I worked. When I made a mistake, he made me fix it. When I was fooling around on the job I got in trouble. When things needed to get done he let me know it. Perhaps this sounds harsh next to the doting movie grandfather, but removed from the Disney-machine, it seems to me that this is what grandfatherly love is really all about. It's about example and direction, constancy and character.

I know I wasn't alone in my experiences. I've seen the work ethic in every single one of my grandfather's children (and to give credit where credit is due here, my grandmother is probably the only person I know with greater character than my grandfather. There's a reason she's the head of the family.). I know it's in my cousins and my siblings. I'm giving my grandfather credit here, but every single one of these things could be said about my dad too; he is also a steadfast, efficient, hard worker, unparalleled but for his flesh and blood.

And for all their hard work - my grandpa, my dad, everyone else - they never want for time to give to others. Growing up I always heard stories about how my grandpa would wake in the morning, handle chores on the farm, drive to the job site (sometimes an hour or more), work a full day or more, drive home, finish more chores, and then play ball with his kids. I know I'll be telling the same stories to my kids with my dad. To be perfectly honest, I don't know where they found the time, much less the energy. I hope I figure it out, because I want my kids to pass on the same stories about me.

That's what it is to be a Novak. You work harder than anyone reasonably should and then you play with your kids. That's how my grandpa was. That's how my dad was. That's how I want to be. It's what I hope I pass on to my kids. It makes me wonder, how far back does the chain go? How was my grandpa's dad? How was his? Where did it all begin? How far will it go?

There's something to be said for taking a generational view. In the Bible, God sometimes rewards or punishes people generations after the fact, making a child suffer or rejoice for the sins or faithfulness of the parent. It's a view that I can't help but be acutely aware of, as the attorney son of generations of laborers. I went to good schools, built my reputation, earned my position, not on the sweat of my own effort, but on that of the generations that preceded me. Sometimes it seems like the American dream is to work hard so that your kids don't have to. And sometimes I wonder if maybe that's not where I am today. My grandpa did real, hard work. My dad does real, hard work. Me? I just sit around thinking all day, doing my best to persuade others to see things my way.

So I try to be aware, because I'm one of the lucky ones. I try to realize that most people don't have the opportunities that I have, and that's because most people don't have the relatives that I have. I try to work hard, because of my good fortune, cognizant all the time that it's not as hard as the work that came in the generations before me. I stand on their shoulders.

I am my father's son. I am my grandfather's grandson. Because of them, I am blessed.

And he'd sit in the shade and watch the chickens peck
And his teeth were gone, but what the heck


Lorraine C Novak said...

I read this and cried. Grandpa read it and smiled.He only knows hard work. It was a beautiful tribute.Thank You.

Nate said...

You need to stand on someone's shoulders...Shorty.

Just kidding! This was a beautiful tribute to your family work ethic and is, frankly, a sentiment I can relate to. The Lewandowski's were no slouches either, and my own father is a prime example of that dedication to working hard that you so aptly described.

Beau said...


I don't get paid a ton of money to do social work, but I try to remember my parents when someone congratulates me for what I do. "That must be so hard doing that kind of work. I could never do that!" My work is challenging. But it's what I want to do, and that makes it easy. Both my parents have worked jobs their whole lives that wasn't their first or second choice and worked many long hours in doing so. That is hard.

Anonymous said...

I am not an "official" facebooker.. is unusual for me to ever comment on anything, but my brother Bryan who is Matts dad forwarded this on to me..I appreciate that because there are some things that EVERYONE should read and there are certainly things that we should not forget! And I think none of us will EVER forget how hard dad has worked all his life. Thank you Matt for putting in words what we all know but do not talk about. We truly are a very blessed family, and you Matt will be able to share with your grandchildren the work ethic of their grandpa Novak as I don't think anyone can hold a candle to him not only in how hard he works but also in how easily he gives of his time to anyone who needs it, much like his dad did.
Thank you for reminding me today to give thanks for the strong family ties that God has blessed us with. Now that my eyes haved dried and I have bored you to near death I am off to finish mowing!!! Aunt Barb

Anonymous said...

Wow. I gotta be honest, Matt -- I typically wouldn't read your blog, assuming it would be all about your political views, but this one was definitely worth reading!! A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man and his family. Nice work and thank you for the reminder. I have no doubt that your own children will tell the same stories about you someday. :) Amanda

AGJ said...

I am sorry that I have finally read this post. As I read it I was caught up in memories.

It is amazing what one can do for one's family. When you start to figure in all the Novak's, marry-ins, and grandchildren, we have all in someway or another cut our teeth roofing.

Here I am (along with my eldest uncle, my cousin, and my two brothers) still shingling in our summers off. Now a new generation has indeed cropped up - Alvin's Great Grandchildren are now spending their summers on the roof.

Almost all of us grandchildren have worked the summer roofing to help pay for college in one way or another.

It is a source of pride when someone comes up to us and states 'I think your grandpa shingled our roof'. In fact, we were shingling a house in Sartell and a neighbor kept badgering us about how his house was done better. After he found out that Brad was Grandpa's son, he just laughed and said "who am I to tell you how things are done - you learned from the best!"

I will take this from my experiences handed down from Grandpa and Grandma:

With hard work you will persevere,
Education will make your work easier,
Family is always family,
Faith will get you through.