Of First Jobs, Lent, Identity. And Writing, Too.

One of my college daughters is working on an identity project. In order to complete her yearlong study she has been meeting with high school students in an underserved small town in Central California. The goal is to help the kids to understand how the circumstances of their life don’t have to determine who they are and who they want to be without having to deny their heritage.

This project fascinates me because I believe that anyone (except under extremely harsh conditions) has the power to shape the course of his or her life.

But I believe equally in the impact of early life experiences, whether good or bad, and of the importance of remembering where we come from.

This week I read two very different posts that echo these points.

Both reminded me of my first job and of my upbringing in a French catholic family. Both experiences had a lasting impact on me.

On his excellent blog, Dan Antion describes his very first job experience, talks of his very first boss who was his father, and on the mark they left on his life.

The summer that followed my last year in high school would be the longest of my life.

Out of school late June, my classes at the university would not start until early October. At the age of seventeen I had of course no experience and no specific talents. But my best friend was fearless. Together we hitchhiked our way from Normandy to Ardèche where we would pick grapes for a small wine maker.

Work was hard. Sun beat on our heads. Our boss was strict. We had to verify the ripeness of the grapes before cutting the clusters a certain way. We weren’t allowed to eat a single grape during our shift.

Now that I live in California where lots of fruits, vegetables, and nuts grow, I pass regularly men and women who work in the fields.

When I watch their gait, slowed by the baskets they carry, their long sleeved shirts and pants, the bandana and hat that protect their faces and heads, I make a trip back to my own farming summer.

That summer I learned a lot about work, people, and myself.

When I entered the university, I met boys and girls who had spent more glorious summers than mine. Some had worked in offices, others in stores. None spoke of farming summers. And so I kept to myself the fact that I had worked in the fields. This experience had not been glamorous.

And yet, I could not deny its impact.

After two months of picking up grapes I had been convinced that going to the university was a good idea. I had planned to attend anyway, but the tiring work for a small salary proved to me that farming, even to make wine, was hard if you weren’t the boss/owner. Hours of physical labor didn’t get you any personal recognition, despite the fact that the product of your work would allow others to enjoy a glass of wine.

Mostly I learned to respect the people who made their lives in this small village. Unlike me, most would never leave. Their attachment to the land was visceral. I was, in contrast, a nomad, attracted by foreign landscapes. With confusion, I envied them a little, too, without knowing how to describe the feeling.

The importance of early life experiences isn’t always immediate. For me, it took my moving to the heart of California to understand the resonance of this very first job.

When I catch a glimpse of the field workers, bent through the rows of vines, I know their physical hardship. And I can finally understand the profound bond that tied the people from this tiny Ardèche village to their land.

As for Mary she posted about Lent and how her childhood’s experiences related to this specific time of the year for catholic people still impact her adult life.

Lent used to be an important time in my life, too, when I was growing up in France.

I don’t fast anymore, although I eat more fish than I did back then but less cookies and candies.

Yet, Mary’s writing brought instant memories of my own heritage and of the impact of our childhood experiences on our adult life.

Including our writing.

And my daughter’s identity workshops fascinate me even more.



  1. This is interesting. I never really thought about the effect my first job had on the person that I am today. But as I am reading this, it truly did. My immediate boss, a female, who was sleeping with the boss, who was also sleeping with someone else that was very much younger than her, made her surly and curt. Before I spoke to her about anything, I had to go over it in my mind and made sure our encounter was short and to the point. She had no patience for anything else. I learned to be brief while making sure my statements carried the full impact. Every now and then I wonder what became of her. Nice post.

  2. Thanks for calling out my blog post. I am glad you enjoyed it. I also had a farming summer (which I haven’t gotten to yet) and I had a couple of summers where I was the nomad you describe. As you say, all of these things shape our adult lives, our perspectives and ultimately, the way we treat other people. I can’t imagine picking grapes all day without being able to eat any.

    • Nice to see you again. Working during the summer is not always fun but like you write, these jobs make us think about what we want to do with our lives. Over my students years I worked a variety of jobs and what has left its mark is definitely the people I met more than the job itself. As for the grapes, the boss was strict. Each grape had to make it to the bin and not into our stomachs. But at the end of the season we had a party and I saw the more relaxed aspect of this man, which was good.

  3. Thanks for linking to my post, Evelyn. And thanks for steering me to Dan’s blog. I worked on a farm one summer, picking strawberries. Unlike your experience, we were able to sneak a strawberry or two without reprimand. I seem to remember the boss being pretty nice! 🙂

  4. I like your blog and this post brought back so many memories that I had to write about it.
    Your were lucky to eat the strawberries. But as I wrote above, we had a party at the end of the season and the boss showed us that he could be a friendly guy. I learned then that he was the owner’s son and his father must have been on his back, which explained his seriousness and the fact that he wanted us to work and not eat!

  5. This is a very thought-provoking post Evelyne and lovely to read a little something of what has influenced you in your life.

  6. Thank you, Andrea. See you soon on your blog, which I always find inspiring.

  7. I enjoy this very much, Evelyne!!

    ♬♬♬ Happy Saint Patrick’s Day ♬♬♬

  8. This delightful post resonated with me in many ways Evelyne. I remember the field workers so well from my life in California. At one point we lived in a tiny, rural town for two years. Population 500. The migrant field workers left early in the morning to their work and returned in the afternoon to sit in the park with their beers and listen to their music unwinding after a long haul in the hot sun. I grew up in rural Suffolk in England, surrounded by woods and fields and farm workers who worked in the fields and barns nearby. Very different but all doing the same thing – bringing in the crops!

    I love how you describe your younger life and your experience with grape picking that hit home when you moved to California, and then understanding the meaning of what you experienced.

    I am a great believer in remembering where you are from. I instilled in my children their British heritage when they lived and grew up in America because I wanted them to have ties to both.

    Your daughter sounds like a very talented young lady and what a wonderful project she is embarking upon, very inspiring, you must be very proud.

    And one more thing, I have to ask, is the photograph taken in Yosemite by any chance?

  9. Thank you so much, Sherri for your thoughtful comment. I’m glad you found something for you in my post because of your California background. I understand what you did with your children since I try to do the same with mine. Thank you for the nice words about my daughter. She’s a great young person!
    And yes, the photo has been taken in Yosemite. Most of my photos are from the park or from the vicinities.
    See you soon on your blog.

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