My Father’s Box

When my father died, I kept the wooden box in which he had stored his tools. Dad worked as a plasterer, so the box is scarred and coated in plaster dust.  But this box reminds me of all that I learned from him about earning a living.  From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.

I was raised in North East England. For the first decade of my life, we lived in a small flat with an outside toilet.  We bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire.  Dad could have earned more working for another employer, but he was loyal to the small family firm he’d apprenticed to.  He took pride in his work and often carried out jobs for family and friends for nothing more than a couple of packs of cigarettes.

We didn’t have much money, but neither did the people we mixed with. My friends were from our street, from my school.  Those who had more money and lived in wealthier areas, those who spoke with less of an accent, were labelled “posh”.

Whether we like it or not, we inherit our parents’ attitude to money. I still carry the values that came from my traditional working class background: the need to work hard, be respectable, not act above your station, respect your elders and “betters”.  My upbringing gave me a sense of fairness and a desire for equality.  But in some ways, I always felt that I didn’t quite “fit”.  I wanted an education and a career but I was the first generation in my family for which that was an option.  When I achieved them, I would often underplay my success so that people wouldn’t think I had gotten above myself.

Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us. I currently work as an area manager, responsible for a group of libraries and community buildings.  My job and my lifestyle now would be categorised as middle class.  Yet I will forever feel working class.  I can afford to do the things my parents never could, but I’m not always comfortable doing them.  I can eat in a fancy restaurant but never quite feel I belong there.  I can be intimidated visiting an expensive shop.  I value something because of its worth to me, not because it has a name that someone tells me I ought to value.  I often feel guilty spending money on myself, because the purchases are things I want but don’t need.  I would be horrified if someone called me “posh”.

I still feel as though I straddle two worlds: the world I was raised in and the one I have forged. Inside, I’ll always be that working class girl who never had much money.  And I’m proud of the woman she has made me.

Andrea Stephenson at Harvesting Hecate

122 thoughts on “My Father’s Box

  1. Reblogged this on Harvesting Hecate and commented:

    I was honoured when Holistic Wayfarer asked me to guest post on A Holistic Journey. I was pleased to accept and write about the impact that money and class had on my upbringing and the way I live now. You’ll find a collection of thought-provoking, passionate and powerful writing on the blog, so please visit and take some time to explore. Thank you Holistic Wayfarer for inviting me.

    • Such a lovely intro, Andrea. I am so glad to be able to showcase your thoughtful writing and point these wonderful readers to your blog.

      I could relate to this story in many ways. I also was the first in my family not only to make it up the academic ladder but go to the best high school in NYC and an Ivy league university, to boot. But as I shared, I grew up quite poor. I felt the sharp contrast in meeting well-to-do Korean-Americans in college. They smelled of money, their dads were doctors, their houses bigger than I could ever dream of. It was intimidating. And yet I was educated and my professional standing put me in the middle class in my working years. I was a walking irony. No matter how well I dressed, I always felt as you did – though it was not a matter of poor self-image. Just something so ingrained in me from my earliest days. The really funny thing is my house now is bigger than the homes of those snobby Koreans I knew LOL. No, I never saw that one coming.

      This is our first home and my husband wondered why I was dragging my feet in the move out of our one-bedrm apartment several years ago. I slept there as long as I could. He urged me to spend our first night as a family in our new house and asked why in the world I was dilly dallying. I confessed, “It’s too…BIG!” I was overwhelmed. All I’d known was my little apartments. My small world had felt safe.

      “Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us.”

      Love it. Thanks for this rich (pun intended) heartwarming post.

      • Thank you Diana, for featuring my writing and for those kind words. I remember at school my English teacher suggesting I might be suitable for “Oxbridge” – I said I’d never heard of it, not realising this is the way Oxford and Cambridge universities are referred to. That was how far from my awareness such things were. In the end, I didn’t pursue that path and chose a university that wasn’t in that league because of the subject that was taught there (though most likely wouldn’t have got in to Oxbridge anyway) – I think if I had gone to one of those more traditional universities I would have felt that sense of being an outsider much more.

      • This is great. Love what you say, D about reluctance to sleep in your bigger home. Abundance is as much in the mind as it is in our wallets. Until we embrace ourselves, it matters little what we own, or owe.

        Love,
        E

      • WoHOaH, niiiice, Elizabeth. As much in the mind…This is a tangent but you bring to mind how we can carry ourself even in humble conditions. Or stay humble and sober in material abundance. Thanks.

  2. Really identified with this post as I was also raised in a poor “council estate” among solid working class people. I was the first to gain a degree in the whole area and was ostracized because of it (just for the fact I did it). I’ve ever since dwelt in two worlds. My children take a middle class background for granted not understanding their real roots. Like you my father’s honesty and integrity stay with me always.

    • Thanks Claire. Those attitudes are so strange aren’t they? I think it all goes back to that thing about not getting above your station. I’d be interested to know what those readers from the US and other cultures think (particularly after Diana’s recent posts about achievement and success) – from the outside it appears that in other cultures achievement is celebrated and that you aren’t expected to see limits to what you can do.

  3. Lovely post, thank you for sharing. Although not raised working class I have friends with similar experiences & they are important stories to be shared.

  4. I too am from a working class background and share some of the experiences and many of the values you describe, though I’ve been economically middle class for a long time now. The greatest value my parents gave me were self-respect and a sense of equality — neither better nor worse than others. Not a bad place to live your life from.

  5. I was raised by my grandparents and all four of them taught me the value of hard work and loyalty (a quality I feel many people lack nowadays). One of my grandfathers was a carpenter and the other like yours a plasterer (he went on to own and run his own small construction company). So this post Andrea really resonated with me and brought back wonderful memories of helping my granddad wash his tools and pack them away. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

  6. Even here in the Us class is a strong influence on folks. Although I have been successful and am very well educated, I am very much working class in my values. Then again, I am also seen by others as upper middle class. I often see all this as very odd indeed.

    • That’s interesting to hear Michael, as I think we don’t necessarily think it does have such a strong influence there, though I guess everywhere in the world there’s a class system of one kind or another.

    • I agree that is so interesting, Michael, the disparity between how you perceive yourself and how others do. I’ll be mulling that one over, the class for values as opposed to our socioeconomic status. A good distillation of Andrea’s post. I suppose that is where we feel the friction within, where the two meet.

  7. I can relate very well to imprints our fathers can make upon us. I kept my Dads shaving kit to remind me of him. I don’t open it often but when I do a flood of familiar morning smells brings back warm memories and small wisdoms.

  8. Thank you sharing your touching story of your Dad and your childhood. My Mom grew up in the time of the Great Depression. She struggled with this fence you speak of all her life. She could be very thrifty but also would splurge every once in awhile for something pretty for herself or my sister and I. I’ve grown up the same way and I’m a savvy shopper and coupon clipper as the result. 😉

  9. Beautiful post, Andrea. I felt like I was transported right back to your childhood flat! I’m realizing that as much as we can create our own reality, we inherit our parents’ attitudes toward money (as you say), and it is such a powerful force that even when we find ourselves in circumstances we prefer, it can still be uncomfortable. That feeling that we just don’t fit. Thank you for this powerful piece…your father sounds like a good man. Aleya

  10. Andrea, many thanks for this fascinating insight into YOU and how you think. I had a little chuckle about the ‘posh’ bit as so many people aspire to just that.
    I love the way you draw us into your life through your father’s box. He comes across as being very ‘sound,’ a glowing tribute in Irish terms.

    • Thanks Jean, yes, he was definitely what you’d call “sound”. Interesting that not being posh some of us aspire to that and others don’t – it was never something I wanted to be. I’m happy to be comfortable, but still happy not to be posh 🙂

  11. A heartfelt story to be sure. ❤
    Don't worry, you have lots of company. There's lots of us brought up in a similar fashion who still straddle two worlds. Hard work and the value of a dollar never go out of style but later generations miss that point.

    • It’ll be interesting to see how that works itself out in terms of the culture today where celebrity is all important – I wonder if it’s a different kind of aspiration – whereas once to have money and a good lifestyle you might have aspired to those who were born in a different class, now it’s not so much about that as about fame and the rewards it can bring you.

      • I worry about the young today. We have made it so much easier for them. They have grown up with instant gratification and forget hard work, even chores. I shake my head as to what will come of them.

  12. I would have to say I was raised ‘middle class’ but we never had much money. I was good at school but never made it to university. My attitudes to money are similar to your dad’s and to yours. You say: “Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us.” This sounds very true to me.

  13. Andrea,
    I was the first one in my family line to go to university. My grandfather was born in England. His family were farmers. I’m not certain that they were literate. My grandmother came from Northern England. She could read and write. I sensed my paternal grandparents were proud of me yet I was humble about my opportunities; like you I never wanted to be viewed as “posh.” Hardwork, perseverance and keen frugality summed up their lives. Money wasn’t that important to me while growing up; education was.
    Your sentence, “Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us” rings “true.”
    I have seen money or the pursuit of more and more, destroy a family. I have seen it exclude me.
    Loyalty, hard work, integrity and family mean more to me than all of the money in the world. I can say this from experience.
    Thanks for sharing this lovely post. I always knew why I “liked” you and your posts!
    x

    • Thank you 🙂 I think in some ways the fact that I went to university and got a good job did put a barrier between me and my parents – partly because of me downplaying things but also because to an extent they didn’t realise where I was. My mother still always tried to give me money for things she thought I might need, though I think she would have been shocked if she’d known exactly how much I earned.

  14. “Youth like pristine glass takes the imprint of its handler”

    I love how you’ve always remembered the person you were, and embrace who it has made you become. It’s a beautiful story you’ve told here Andrea, but I also hope you allow yourself enjoy the benefits of your current station. You’ve paid your dues, there’s no wrong in letting your feet dangle in the water of ‘affluence’ once in a while.

  15. Hi Andrea! I think what really struck me reading your story here is how much our British psyche is engrained with an inherent discomfort, indeed embarrassment, to speak of our successes no matter what kind of background we come from. Oh how we talk ourselves down! I hated it when we moved to Suffolk and the kids teased my brother and I for being ‘posh’ because we had been brought up in Surrey, but we are just ‘normal’ so far as I was concerned. I was brought up with the mindset of ‘waste not want not’ left over from the war austerity years: of recycling milk bottle caps for the blind, never leaving lights on, keeping doors close, not running water when brushing our teeth and that before we didn’t know what being ‘green’ even meant. These and many others were drummed into me, always mindful of the cost of electricity and of money being tight and not enough to spare. Always a struggle. Our early relationship with and attitude to money and class continues to run with us as we go through life, most certainly. Your dad reminds me so much of the men in my husband’s family and I am particularly reminded of their stoicism and loyalty to hard work and graft as Remembrance Day is upon us. Your opener about keeping your father’s ‘scarred and coated in plaster dust’ wooden tool box says so much about the kind of man he was and the values he imparted to you as his beloved daughter, Then your beautiful ending, proud of your roots, of the girl you were and the woman you are today. As so you should be. Beautiful post Andrea, thank you for sharing this part of your life with us.

    (Hi Diana! Thank you for this, a lovely surprise to read Andrea’s guest post here today! )

    • Now you see Sherri, you’re automatically posh because you’re from down South 🙂 My dad really was from a different generation – he was born in 1927 and the changes he would have experienced between then and 1971 when I was born would have been much greater than in the same time period today. I think and I hope that I took on the values that gave me a good grounding, like these ones, but I could also take the best values of the more questioning generation I grew up in. I did tell Diana that I found the box recently when we cleared out the shed and considered whether it was time to get rid of it, but I ended up in tears at the thought of that, so it’s been brought into the house now to be brought back to life 🙂

      • Haha…okay, okay Andrea, I’ll take that on the chin 😉 Yes, the changes were vast no doubt about it. I’m so glad you took back your dad’s box. Some things are just too precious to throw way 🙂

    • Ha ha HI SHERRi. =) Guess whom I thought of while reviewing Andrea’s draft (when I came across the ‘posh’?) =) So I’m glad you caught this. I knew it would speak to you.

      I have to say I’ve been a bit puzzled to learn from my Brit friends in recent months that you (plural) are more understated than Americans and that the gen’l population (that is, allowing for exceptions) isn’t so hungry for fame or the trophy that asks you to spill your blood or forgo sleep. (The way Asians will sacrifice health for degrees and wealth.) I’m confused from the readings on American and European history. England was such the world power a few hundred yrs back with the biggest navy anyone could boast. She was colonizing nations left and right. And so I’m curious as to how the psychology in English culture evolved as it has – when it comes to achievement. Esp because you guys are so intelligent. My Korean-Amer friend came back from a semester abroad in Oxford years ago, back to our Univ of PA campus not only with her newfound accent but a nose turned up at her Ivy League schoolmates that we weren’t as smart as the English.

      You also bring to mind a man my husband knew. He hailed from the days of the Great Depression and lived to his death as though he were still in it. Not only was he a pack rat but I was shocked to see how warm he kept his fridge to save energy; I knew his food wasn’t good in there. He didn’t like to turn the hot water on for my husband to shower as the owner of the house he rented out. He was over the top, obviously, and was completely controlled by his fear of need and money.

      And I love the way you reflected back that dusty tool box to Andrea. Rereading her post last night, I was really moved by the opening. So precious.

      Diana

      • Haha…hi Diana, yes, you knew I would be all over ‘posh’ lol 😉 I don’t know where our British attitude comes from, I really don’t. It just isn’t done to flout our successes, in fact we are very good at playing them down, embarrassed by them in fact. You ask a fascinating question D and as usual, you have me thinking a great deal about it. Your husband’s friend…so sad to be locked in by his money fears, something he never shook off his entire life.
        Yes, Andrea’s opening was beautifully written, as was her entire post 🙂

  16. I love your story about keeping your father’s tool box and the values it represents for you. I understand your values, yet come at this from a different perspective. I come from a middle class US southern family who was financially OK but not rich. Everybody in my family was college educated. This was a basic value. I went to a college where wealthy girls went and felt out of place. I’ve never wanted to seem or act like I am above anyone else. I also inherited being thrifty , truthful, loyal, and a strong work ethic. Recently someone observed that I am a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant). I wrote a poem about that in my post “Read the Label Carefully”.
    .

  17. What you’re saying here about being between two worlds, reminds me of one of my boyfriends back in my youth. He came from a coal-mining family in Yorkshire and was the first of them to go to university, achieving a double-first honours degree in electronics. This meant he was head-hunted for a brilliant research job, but sometimes things got too much for him and he’d say, “I think I’m going to go to Wales and work as a road-sweeper”. I’ve no idea if he ever carried out his threat as he didn’t cope well with dating me, as I was too “posh” for his likes. …Me, posh? I like to think I’m classless and can mix with anybody, but never mind. To him, that wasn’t the case.

  18. Andrea, what a beautiful and valuable story you have shared! Thank you!

    There isn’t much I can add, except that your story struck a chord and I felt my eyes moisten. I grew up without much money and yes, the thrifty attitude still remains with me. My father was not well educated but was a man who realised the value of education- which has made me what I am today.

    (You may smile, but in India, when I was a child, we automatically assumed that any person with white skin is a RICH person.)

  19. I’ve heard of the British class system but this is the first time I’ve learned how it affected someone deep into their bones. I had the impression that the whole thing was dreamed up by someone in the “upper class” to keep people in what they perceived to be their place. I’ve read that being a shop keeper was something looked down upon. This must have all been dreamed up to raise themselves above others. I think that some of the values passed down in your family (and mine) are really remnants of Victorian etiquette. That era lasted a long time! I know in my family it was considered impolite to blow your own horn, boast, or brag about success. Your dad was born in 1927, the same year my mother was born. Their parents grew up in and were raised by Victorian and Edwardian people with those values and manners. It was really not so terribly long ago. I think this story is very interesting and I enjoyed it. I love it when I can learn something from reading.
    P.S. I miss my dad, too.
    Ginene

    • Andrea’s reply may not have attached itself to your comment, Ginene. You actually shed light on a question on the British psyche I’ve had the last month. I brought it up in response to Sherri on this board and that’s right…the residual Victorian memes well may have habituated the English to modesty. This takes me to a tangential thought on the paradox I know as Korean culture. It is unbecoming to blow our own horn; the older generations talk themselves down:

      “Oh, your son is such a good boy and so smart.”
      “Well, thanks goes to the one who chooses to see him that way.”

      And yet, Koreans can be flashy and as a culture on the whole idolizes image and achievement.

      Back to the post, I love that Andrea’s story warmed you. And it is bittersweet to me that you thought of your father.

      Love,
      Diana

  20. Thanks Ginene for your comments. Ultimately I think you’re right that those who had economic power were able to exert that influence on those that were poorer until the values became ingrained within each section of society. I imagine it still exists to an extent, but there definitely doesn’t seem to be the same respect or fear in young people now that there was then.

  21. This is beautiful, Andrea, such a lovely tribute to your father and the values he instilled in your life. I was raised, I suppose, upper middle class, but my father came from a tough childhood. His mother died when he was two years old and he was left with an alcoholic father who was often out running around, so his grandmother stepped in to help raise him. I think my father wanted to be the complete opposite of his own father and worked hard to escape that environment. Like your father, my father taught me to be loyal to my employer and always take pride in my work…money wouldn’t bring me happiness. My father, like yours was a fountain of knowledge.

  22. “From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.” What a beautiful philosophy! My Father had the same attitude in life and I treasure this and other noble concepts he modelled in front of his children.

  23. Your story is so profound.

    Yes, so rightly put, our upbringing and the values we get from our parents what builds our character. Strong character is the bedrock of sustainable success and acquiring positive attitude towards life and living.

    It is quite common, we get swayed away by the power of money and the materialistic greed, we miss out the essence of life…the feelings, the emotions, the relationships, the beauty of nature and the life itself.

    In fact the greater the person in his/her thinking, the bigger is his/her humility and humbleness towards people and surrounding. Money is not the measure of one’s success or happiness, it has it’s need and there should be a limit to it. It should never be allowed to be the driver of our life.

    As we grow, we get caught in multiple paradox of situations and surroundings, and it becomes our litmus test which side of the world we get inclined and pursue. Balancing this paradox is the ultimate challenge in living a good and purposeful life…wonderful post!!!

  24. very beautiful, write up, at least we ought to embrace what we have, but dignity should be our stepping stone. Even from my parents I learnt to be loyal.

  25. Andrea, that’s so beautiful. I can so relate too. I was born in the North East too, and I got a good education because I wanted to be able to see others (particularly children) see their own value. But I still feel very rooted in my past.

    • I think the North East has a particularly strong identity, as well as the traditional values passed on as part of being working class. It’s hard to shake off those regional roots – not that I’d want to 🙂

  26. The idea of “My Father’s Box” brings swelling memories to my heart–memories of my own daddy going to work day after day. His “box” would be a black metal lunch box with a sandwich and a thermos of coffee inside. Mother packed that box day after day and had it ready for him as he came in from plowing in the field. If there were sweets too, you could guarantee they would either be oatmeal cookies or gelatin orange slices–nothing fancy. Yes, he rose as early as 4:00 AM some days to plow a few hours before he left to go into town to work for a steady income. Then after 5:30 or so in the evening, he would roar up to our back door in his pick-up truck, jump into his working clothes again and head back to the field to work way past dark. His field was his love. As I grew older he actually had lights on his tractor to enable him to work as long as his body could move.

    We kids were always told we were poor, and indeed we had few luxuries–only one old family car that was more than 20 years old, no TV, not even a telephone, but after my daddy passed away I learned he had nearly 750 acres of farm land. He was one of those who never felt above his peers. He had grown up an orphan and knew what being poor really meant. He never ever gave us the idea that we were “as good as” or “better than” anyone. For that I have to admire him. Of course I admire him for many other reasons too, but this post gave me that certain remembrance I needed to see my daddy in yet another light.

    Maybe you would like to read more about Daddy here: http://pilgrimstranger.com/2014/05/24/10-things-that-might-shock-my-father-about-my-family/

    • Thanks for sharing those wonderful memories of your dad. They bring back more memories for me too. My dad would always start the day with a cup of tea and one and a half biscuits (digestives, that is, graham crackers). He would put on his dusty overalls and sit on a sheet of newspaper so he wouldn’t mess up the couch while he was waiting to be picked up for work. He would also have his bait (lunch) box made up by my mother to take to work 🙂

  27. Great story which makes a great point.

    I heard a friend say that class these days (at least in Australia?) is less about what you earn that what you spend it on. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs in a way, because what you spend it on should be up to you, or at least it shouldn’t be up to your friends. Then again, it’s nice in a way to think people value personal connections above fancy dinners.

  28. Awesome piece, Andrea! I love hearing your personal stories as we—your adoring fans—get to hear so little. I think many of us can relate to what you said here. My parents were both hard-working middle class people who always had a love for arts and entertainment on the side. I definitely inherited those qualities.

    • Thanks Britt, well that reticence is probably a part of those same values of not giving away too much in case it sounds as though you’re getting above yourself 🙂 Dad wasn’t really one for the arts, so I probably got that from my mother, who loved music and movies. I never saw Dad read a book, though my mother did read a little.

  29. Andrea I am loving this series that Diana is sharing. Your story is powerful, I see you and understand that feeling of not fitting in when you have earned the right to. We definitely take things from our parents and childhood experiences with money and this makes us who we are. We are lucky we had the opportunities to study and change our lives and we can pass that forward to the next generation.

  30. My two gold cents: a lovely glimpse of your life and your father’s, Andrea. I am a little bit at a loss over the class issue as you experienced it. My ancestors came out to New Zealand from the UK mostly on assisted passages to begin a new life/lifestyle. To be ‘assisted’ they had to be farmers, labourers, servants, tradesmen etc and of good character, so working class people, I guess. They came here and they did indeed work hard; they worked for people but they also set up their own businesses and bought land and houses as soon as they could. For the most part they ‘bettered’ themselves but I think that ‘class’ may have been something they left in the old country. I certainly didn’t hear much about it, though there was certainly disapproval of people who thought too much of themselves. The desire to better oneself in a modest hard working way was passed on to my parents and on to us, their children. To be educated, to be comfortable, to have enough; that was the goal. Not to be rich or famous or extravagant in lifestyle and material possessions. Is NZ a classless society then? Not really but I still don’t know which class I belong to. I would like to think none and all but I doubt the super-rich would want me as a member of their class. 😀

    • Thanks Gallivanta. It’s interesting to see how the class system did or didn’t translate when people emigrated from the UK. I guess it was a clean slate on which they could write their own values. Those values certainly seem to have been good ones, aspiring, but not aspiring to extravagance. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      • I suppose there were some who aspired to extravagance and get rich quick plans but my lot held true to their Methodist and Presbyterian plainness. And they were not alone.

  31. A humble and sensitive share Andrea. This story really struck a chord. Although, both my parents were hard working people we didn’t have that much money. I went to one of the best schools in the country but at times I know it saddened them they couldn’t always keep up with my teenage desires. They gave everything they had and did the best they could. I’ve had a good education, there was always healthy wholesome food on my plate (my mom was very creative) but most importantly I was raised in a warm nest and for that I’m forever grateful to them.

    • Thanks Karin. I love that ‘warm nest’. I recognise that wanting to give you what you wanted without always being able to, but as with my parents, they did their best and it’s great that we can appreciate that.

My Two Gold Cents in the Holistic Treasury

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