Friday, 21 May 2010

Work Weekends

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

My mother and her four siblings have regular get-togethers that really work for them.  Each of the five siblings, who are spread over four states in the northeastern part of the US, hosts all the others and their spouses once per year for what they call a work weekend.  This tradition was instituted about twelve years ago, and began as a "sisters' cleaning weekend."  That was just my mom and her sisters, pitching in together to tackle some of the biggest and most tedious house cleaning chores.  But then one of my uncles caught wind of this and wanted to know why he hadn't been included.  Thus the work weekends were launched.

The way it works is that all the siblings and spouses show up at one sibling's home on Friday night.  The host sibling puts everyone up, feeds them for the weekend, and creates a list of projects to be accomplished.  It's very much to the host's benefit to be organized in terms of having on hand whatever tools or materials will be needed for the work weekend, otherwise a run to the hardware store might interrupt work.  Everyone pitches in for a full day on Saturday, and a half day on Sunday, so that everyone can get home at a reasonable hour.  (Some of them have very long drives.)

The thing that's so neat about this family tradition is that it has really brought them all together, five times per year, and the visits are now enjoyable for everyone.  Previous family get-togethers had tended to be contentious if not acrimonious.  Having productive work to do together has really changed the family dynamic in profound ways.  My mother's family are all hard workers too.  So although it is a lot of work for the hosting sibling in terms of organization and accommodation, an amazing amount can be accomplished in a very short time.

The projects that my parents, aunts and uncles have worked on over the years are remarkably diverse: bathroom renovation, staining a deck, window cleaning, kitchen cabinet cleaning, breaking turf for a new garden, planting fruit trees, stripping and painting furniture, building raised beds in a garden, installing a fence, repointing a brick chimney, building a deck or shed, clearing brush, chopping firewood - you name it, they've done it.  After a hard day's work, there's always dinner and dessert, which are usually excellent because most of my mom's family are very good cooks.  Nickel-dime-quarter poker always follows dinner, and there's usually six or seven of us around the table.  Yes, I turn up for the poker whenever I can, even if I miss the work!

Because you see, although my cousins and I turn up at some weekends and pitch in, the generational divide has been made very clear to us. We're on our own for work weekends.  Our parents have their yearly schedule, and they're not going to commit to travel and work for my generation.  Which is fair enough.

Though I've tried a few times to interest my cousins in organizing a work weekend exchange, it just doesn't seem to be the right time.  Most of my cousins now have small children, and traveling the distances that separate us would be burdensome for them.  It's not the same time of life that our parents started their work weekends; they waited until their kids were out of the house.  So instead, I've arranged a work weekend exchange this year with three local friends who are interested.  We've modified my family's arrangement somewhat, because we're all local.  No need to put anyone up for the night, and we've agreed that the host is only responsible for lunch, not breakfast or dinner.  We're also only working for one full day out of each weekend.  While the plan is to work on Saturdays, we decided that everyone would reserve the entire weekend, just in case of rain.  The host can decide to take the rain date, and have everyone work on Sunday, or just organize a list of things that can be done indoors if it rains all weekend.

So far we've had one of the four work weekends, and it mostly involved window cleaning.  My turn is this weekend though.  On my agenda is adding a lot of compost to the garden beds, some weeding, and some lasagna mulching.  The plan for lunch is to set out roast chicken, beans, brown rice, avocados, shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, and warm tortillas so that everyone can roll their own burritos.  A cheap, healthy meal that should keep my workers fueled.  And yes, I know how much it pays to treat your work weekend participants right, so chocolate chip cookies will be on offer too.  There will be beer for the end of the day as well. 

I wanted to mention this tradition that I'm attempting to borrow from my own family, because I know what it's like to have great ambitions for projects and yet feel like it's impossible to find the time to get it all done.  Work weekends require a commitment of organization, as well as the obligation to work as hard for others as we do for ourselves.  But I've seen first hand how much of a difference working together can make - not only how much gets accomplished in very little time, but also how working together knits relationships more densely together as well.  The old saying is that many hands make light work.  I've also seen that many hands working together over years and years have made my family much stronger, closer, more trusting, and more available for each other in bad times.  We still crack jokes at each other's expense.  There's still drama and hurt feelings from time to time.  But we know deep down - for certain - that we're there for each other as an extended family.  And I'm not sure that would be true if not for the work weekends.

So I'm hopeful, going into my own first time hosting a work weekend.  The participants in this case are friends and not family, not even close friends yet if I'm honest.  I'd certainly love it if I could someday have a work weekend arrangement with my cousins.  But I'd rather get started with friends who may someday become as close as family than wait for my cousins' kids to all grow up.  I might end up with chosen family out of the shared work.

Does your family have any similar tradition?  Could you commit to working hard several weekends out of the year if it meant a willing crew of workers were available to you once per year?  What project would you most like to tackle on a work weekend?