Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, after the notorious Pullman Strike. The idea was to show the strength and spirit of U.S. workers, and not incidentally also to appease them after 6 were killed and 17 wounded by U.S. Marshals and soldiers during the labor conflict.
My own best memory of Labor Day is of a factory picnic some seventy years later that my parents attended, at a large municipal park in Milwaukee. Hundreds of families gathered to grill bratwursts, drink Schlitz beer, and socialize all day and into the warm evening, while “us kids” explored the park. We ate at any table whether or not we knew the people, played with children we might never see again, and generally had a fine time. I remember being amazed at this manicured wilderness with paved sidewalks in it!
What I remember most, though, is the feeling of security all around me. No one was wealthy. Few of the adults had attended college. Not many of their cars were new. But everyone at the factory’s big Labor Day picnic had a job. Everyone could feed a family, keep a roof over their heads. The war was over, and so was the depression those people had lived through. No one there was scared, or at least not of the things that similar people are scared of today.
When I think of Labor Day, I think of that. It makes me feel sad, because so much of it doesn’t exist now, but happy and hopeful, too, because I know it did exist, once – so it is possible! – and I hope it can, again.
What’s your favorite Labor Day memory or tradition?
Kate:I confess, it’s of a guilty pleasure. My wonderful sister-in-law, Emily Cohen, and I like to say we’re
twins, because although she has a September birthday, while mine is in July, I was supposed to be born in September. And for Labor Day weekend, she comes to Maine and we have a special dinner to celebrate our joint birthdays. To celebrate entering our sixties, we went to Clementine in Brunswick–far and away my favorite restaurant anywhere. Perhaps I’m conflating a couple of memorable Clementine dinners, because their food hovers on the culinary horizon like a golden morning mist, but what I remember is beginning with a wonderful, succulent, perfect oyster. A special appetizer of sauteed fois gras and lobster tail. Some scallops so perfect eating each was a reverent act. I don’t recall dessert, even though I’m a confirmed dessert lover, but I do know that later we watched a sunset over South Harpswell. And the next day, we ate blueberry pie for breakfast.
There’s a trip to Popham Beach, which, while ever-changing, never fails to take my breath away, and the fun of taking a long beach walk over to the fort and photographing all the flotsam on the beach.
Labor Day straddles that divide between the heat of summer and the cool of September, offering both warm days for playing and cool nights for sleeping. And it ends, because the rhythm of the seasons is set during our twelve to sixteen years (or more) of school, with a sense that we will wake on the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend, ready to tackle postponed tasks, learn something new, and face the adventures of fall.
Lea: For me, as a child who summered in Maine but went to school in New Jersey, Labor Day was the time when we said good bye to Maine and packed up (my mother, grandparents, 3 sisters, and a cage of parakeets) in one car and headed south. School started the Tuesday after Labor Day, so we would leave Maine on Sunday, to avoid the worst of the traffic, and have time to unpack, air out the Jersey house, get groceries in, and basically accept the fact that, despite temperatures much higher than those in Maine, our winter had begun.
Before we left Maine I would quietly walk through our house and over our property, breathing in the salt air and the smell of mud flats (which I still feel is the most beautiful smell of all) and consciously collect memories and store them up for the winter. I’d say, over and over to myself, “Remember the smell. Remember the feel of the sun. Remember the feel of the grass. Remember the smell of old books in the attic.” I’d then choose a special stone, or shell, or piece of sea glass, to take with me to New Jersey to represent the summer, and pack it in a special place in the one suitcase I was allowed. (That full car!) (I’d also learned that books could be hidden under the car’s seats, and by 7th grade I’d convinced my mother that my portable typewriter was an essential part of my summer gear.)
And then we headed south. Labor Day was the saddest weekend of the year.
Vicki: We have a terrific tradition here in Camden, that we started with four other families at least fifteen years ago. (None of us can remember…) We have a big lobster bake at Walker Park on Rockport Harbor on the Sunday of the weekend, with several generations — kids, grandparents, and probably soon — grandkids, more families than we originally started with, and tons of food. Early on, we decided we needed a special holiday song to sing around the fire, and came up with several verses to the tune of “Eidelweiss.” (Labor Day, Labor Day, this marks the end of the summer…) Two years ago we added “I Can Eat Lobster Now” to the tune of “I Can See Clearly Now.” (I can eat lobster now it’s Labor Day; I can see old friends gathered one and all; Gone are the humid days of summertime; Gonna be a bright, bright, bright New England Fall.) As you may have guessed, there is some alcohol involved in this annual party, and food choices other than seafood for those of us with allergies, but mostly it is a way to mark the end of one season with good friends and welcome another.
Barb: Until recent years, Labor Day wasn’t Maine time for us. It was a prime money-making weekend for my mother-in-law when she had the inn, so no beds for family. I am a Labor Day lingerer. I always want to milk the last bits out of the summer. I hate that packing up and heading home takes away from those last precious days. When my kids were growing up, we had a cottage on a lake in Marlboro, MA. We could move there for the whole summer since it was in commuting distance. To prolong the summer, we stayed out there until the weekend after Labor Day and commuted the kids to school in Newton. Now as I look at old “first day of school” photos, I see we only did this two or three times, but to hear my kids talk about it, you’d think we did it every year. Clearly it made a huge impression.
Julia: I don’t have distinct memories of Labor Day celebrations from my childhood. Maybe it’s not that big a deal among active-duty military? As a teen, the two things that most stand out for me are sailing and shopping. My parents had a lovely 38 foot boot that we practically lived on in the summer months, and of course, Labor Day weekend was always the last chance at long, sunny days on the water. The sailing season on Lake Onondaga, NY doesn’t last very far into the fall.
However, I didn’t have much of a chance to look sighing back at the summer, because my mother would hit the back-to-school sales starting that weekend. (I realize this dates me. Nowadays, the back-to-school sales start right after Independence Day. I was in the grocery store today, and they already had a whole aisle of Hallowe’en decorations and candy!) At any rate, my sister and I would spend hours trying outfits on, and despite my mother’s strict budget, we always dragged home enormous bags of clothing. (My mom has amazing frugal-fashion-fu. She can walk into a store with $20 and walk out looking like Kate Middleton’s mother on her way to the palace.)
This year, with my own kids, we’re going to fit in the one must-do summer activity we didn’t make time for in June, July or August. We’re taking our folding chairs and our flip flops and spending the day at Old Orchard Beach. Mmm… suntan lotion and fried dough. Now, that’s the way to say goodbye to summer.