The sweet satisfaction of labor

Arthur Belforti late 1920sAt this time of year, my family and I have two special reasons to contemplate the memory of my maternal grandfather, Arthur David (born Achille Alessio Riccardo) Belforti (1902-1996). First of all, his birthday is September 3 – a date that never passes unnoticed in my family. Second, there is no person we associate more with Labor Day than Grampy, not just because he worked so exceptionally hard and long, but because of the immense value he placed on work and the personal satisfaction and pride it brought him.

To complain about working is something that never would have occurred to my grandfather. He was always grateful to have a job, both for the income it provided as he and my grandmother struggled to raise a family during and after the Great Depression, and for the purpose it gave to his daily life. Simply put, work made him happy. Over the course of his life, he was employed as an auto-factory worker, landscaper, box-factory worker, butcher, sausage-factory cleaner, clock maker (for over 30 years), and church caretaker, among other occupations. He usually held down two or three jobs at a time and worked weekends. For many years he had no car and would walk miles to his jobs, or take a bus, or get a ride from a friend or employer. He would come home from one job to have supper and give a smile to his family, and then head out to the next one.

Arthur Belforti picking apples in Southborough Mass 1984 Picking apples in Southborough, Massachusetts, in 1984.

While I was in elementary school, I spent the afternoons with my grandparents, who lived across the street from the school, while my parents were at work. I was recently thinking about how fortunate I was as a child to get to follow my grandfather around at his church caretaker job and in his work around the house. Thank goodness there were no electronic devices to distract me, the way there are for today's children, because having these opportunities to observe him left me with a rich supply of visual memories of this man, and it exposed me to the pleasure and pride a person might take in labor. He would bring me with him to the church, and I can still see him polishing pews until they gleamed and climbing up a tall ladder to replace bulbs in the lights that ran along the ceiling beams. This was no mere job to him. It was personal. If something had looked less than perfect in that church, my grandfather would have seen it as a reflection of him. When he had to give up the caretaker job in his eighties, it was, after the early death of his mother, the most unhappy event of his life.

While he enjoyed his moments of stillness – watching baseball on TV (a rare New Englander who was an avid and unapologetic Yankees fan), sitting in the shade of the trees reading the newspaper, playing cards with me, or bent over the dining-room table listening to news and talk shows on the radio he held like a precious object in his hands – I remember him primarily as a man of near-constant motion. I see him down on his hands and knees weeding flower beds; in the driveway scrubbing and shining his treasured, though never fancy, car; and going in and out through the basement bulkhead to retrieve tools from his workshop for repair jobs. The house was large and it was old, so he never suffered from a shortage of tasks.

I trust that most people have a similar story – someone in their family who worked especially hard, and perhaps even loved that work. At least I hope they do. If you have such a story, please share it with us in the Comments area. How many different occupations did your ancestor have?

I carry my grandfather's love of labor with me as I go about my job, most of which is carried out on a computer and which involves more mental than physical activity. (The many flights of stairs here at NEHGS are a welcome source of exercise!) However, that feeling is especially palpable, and my grandfather is closest, when I'm down on my hands and knees weeding the garden. I imagine the same is true for my mother and her brother, and for my siblings. Thank you, Grampy, and a well deserved happy Labor Day to you!

Jean Maguire

About Jean Maguire

Jean Maguire was the Library Director at NEHGS until 2020, responsible for overseeing the Society’s library and special collections, including patron services; collection development, access, and preservation; and the Society’s volunteer program. Jean joined the NEHGS staff in 1999 after receiving her Master’s in Library and Information Science from Simmons College.View all posts by Jean Maguire