They Way They Worked: A Celebration of Grandparents and Their Hard Work

Since we're about to celebrate these holidays in the same week, I wanted to take a look back at the jobs my grandparents held over the years and what their hard work meant to me.
08/27/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

Every Labor Day, I urge my friends and family to remember the true meaning of the holiday. In the rush to enjoy the last moments of summer, get ready for school season to begin, and battle more traffic, it's easy to forget and take for granted the struggles and sacrifices of the people who came before us. Labor Day is still such an important day for us to pause to honor what the labor movement fought for and what it continues to achieve -- and to appreciate and value the work of those all around us.

Let's face it. Work is a huge part of our lives. Jobs can develop our skills, shape our identity, and connect us to so many people. While the world of work has changed dramatically from one generation to the next, what hasn't changed is why we work -- to earn a decent living, to take care of our loved ones, and to retire with dignity.

I'm looking forward to spending time with my family both on Labor Day and Grandparents Day. And since we're about to celebrate these holidays in the same week, I wanted to take a look back at the jobs my grandparents held over the years and what their hard work meant to me. Without a doubt, my grandparents inspire me to do the work I do today at Jobs With Justice and Caring Across Generations.

My story begins with my maternal grandfather, S.N. Gupta, who was a longshoreman in the Port of Kolkata in India. He began working on the docks in 1929 when he was 19 years old. When my grandfather was still quite young, his father became ill and passed away, so my grandfather had to work incredibly hard to provide economic stability for his whole family.

He worked his way up through the shipping company, eventually becoming a co-owner. Because of my grandfather's hard work and generosity, countless members of my family were able to access education and achieve a level of success that would have otherwise been impossible. My grandparents built a home that became the gathering place for everyone and the site of many happy occasions. They were truly the patriarch and matriarch of the extended family.

Because he lived in India, I only got to spend time with my grandfather for a few weeks every five years or so, but what I remember was his warmth, his great sense of humor, and his worldliness from years of exposure to other lands through his business. He was very encouraging of my parents when they moved to England and then to the United States in an effort to better pursue their dreams. His work and approach to life played a huge role in my immediate family's ability to be economically mobile and to live in "new lands" well beyond anything they had imagined as kids. He died, having lived a very full life, when he was 82.

I never got to meet my paternal grandfather, Dr. Prasad Kumar Gupta, because he died well before I was born. But I grew up hearing stories about his life from my parents and my grandmother. He was a doctor for more than 32 years, practicing medicine in Delhi. He was fortunate to have the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Edinburgh and in Lahore (present-day Pakistan). The stories I remember best are of his activism during the independence movement in India: he joined with hundreds of thousands of others who refused to wear "Western" clothing, a powerful form of resistance during that time period.

About 15 years ago, I went foraging through my grandmother's house looking for things that I could keep as memories of my grandparents and great grandparents. I found a book titled, "The Intellectual Women's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism," by George Bernard Shaw. It was one of many books that my grandfather had read and that had shaped his progressive values.

I learned that he really believed that women should be economically independent -- an uncommon belief for that time. As a doctor, he was very committed to the notion of caring for others and the need for everyone to have access to health care regardless of their economic status. His belief in equality and self-determination were part of a broader set of his progressive values that not only shaped my dad's life, but has certainly contributed to the life choices that his grandchildren -- myself included -- have made.

The jobs that our parents and grandparents held play a huge role in our family history, setting us on a path to who we've each become. I'm eager to pass down these stories to my daughter to honor the important legacy of work that my grandparents left for our family. I invite others to also share how their grandparents shaped their work lives at TheyWayTheyWorked.com.

Whether you're hoping to document family history, connect with friends about defining personal memories, or post family photos, exploring the work history of our grandparents is an incredible way to celebrate both Labor Day and Grandparents Day.