What Needs Done: The Love and Burden of a Family Business
Melissa Scholes Young on Three Generations of American Dreaming
On the radio in the 1980s, between the latest hits by Richard Marx and Madonna, my eight-year-old voice told the tri-state area of Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa about our family’s pest control business. Dad thought a commercial would bring in new clients who needed peanut butter glueboards and termite inspections. One night after work he brought home a tape recorder with a plug-in microphone. We stayed up late at the kitchen table rewriting our script. I learned not to breathe too much or my voice was muddled. We taped over my mistakes. I tried again and again to sound the way he wanted me to with my signature line: “When you call, tell ‘em Missy sent you.” My brothers mocked me every time it played on the radio, but the local celebrity was plenty.
While radio success made me a temporary sibling target, my brothers and I were raised to labor. We all wanted to be chosen to one day lead tri-state pest control domination. My liability as a girl threatened my path, but surely I could compete for a place. I answered phone calls on the business line in our house for a dime each. If a caller recognized my voice and asked me to repeat my catchphrase, I performed. I earned 10% commission if I convinced a new client to schedule a service. Every two weeks, I presented my itemized work invoice that added up to $3.70. Dad would round up to a $5 from his wallet. Now I know he was just teaching me math.
In a family business, every affection is laced with questions of succession, and each of us was lured to Dad’s ambitions; Mom fell especially hard. Their mutual patriotism and faith in the commercialized version of the American Dream: a house, a car, money, determined our days.
My parents met when she was washing dishes at the Mark Twain Dinette, a greasy spoon in my hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. The Dinette is famous for its bathtub batch root beer and the enormous frosty mug that spins on its rooftop. Mom was fifteen years old. Her dish money helped keep her family afloat. She slept in a bed with an aunt and a sister. Four brothers shared a room next door and later, each served in the military when their turn came. Her father worked at a gas station and her mother ran a register at JCPenney’s. They were proud Catholics; every family member went to work every day and was grateful for a job. They sought order and purpose and valued time spent together in simple pleasures: growing a garden, paddling a stream, and making quilts and furniture by hand. Their American Dream was about morality rather than material success. At their house, I learned to play marbles, water (and talk to) plants, and do chores with purpose.
My parents flirted a few times in the hallway at Hannibal High School, the only secondary school in town. At the Dinette that afternoon, Dad maneuvered his convertible up to the drive-up call box and ordered a burger, fries, and chocolate milkshake. The kitchen, where Mom scrubbed grease off chili pans was closest to the drive up and the washers took out the orders. She knew his car and he knew where she worked. Dad offered Mom a ride home; he was waiting when her shift ended. It was a six-block ride they’ve made last 55 years so far.
They spent their honeymoon week in Florida hunting insects in trees and bushes for Dad’s Entomology class project. By then, Dad was a sophomore in college. Mom was seventeen and got pregnant quickly after they said, “I do.” He quit school a few months later and returned to his father’s garage for work. The garage had an apartment my parents moved into with their baby, my oldest brother. The bug class project, six display cases of pinned insects with their scientific names, hung proudly in the foyer of our business office downtown, a pest control operation they constructed over four decades from a handful of termite technicians to a tri-state success that changed the direction and economy of our lives.
Dad always says we are working class people because if we want to eat, we work. We make do. In the summer of 1982, the same year as my radio debut, we grew and harvested a mountain of corn so high that the pile’s peak reached the buckles on my overalls. My brothers and I wrestled at the top of the silky cobs to be king. When the corn began to rot, we chopped and sold firewood from a flatbed truck on the side of the highway; we bred AKC German Shepherds that nobody wanted to buy; we traded the eggs from our chickens. Because they took more than they gave, we slaughtered those same chickens. Dad hammered two nails into a tree stump and stretched their necks. The chickens ran—bloody and headless—to line the banks of our pond, spilling their contents into our swimming hole. My brothers and I grabbed them by their spiny claws and dripped guts on each other’s feet. Mom plucked and boiled them for dinner. I learned to be useful.
The summer I turned nine, Dad asked Mom to work for our family business; my brothers, eleven and thirteen, and I were deemed old enough to fend for ourselves alone on country roads. Dad didn’t know how to turn on the new Commodore 64 computer. He needed Mom to input all customers into a database. He knew they were growing and that the computer would help them better keep track of accounts. He just didn’t know how, but he knew Mom could figure it out.
Dad’s father, who had run the business with his father, thought wives shouldn’t work. His American Dream meant women stayed home, raised babies, read gossip magazines by the pool, and had his dinner ready when he walked through the door. He had two daughters of his own but it was only his sons who were considered for succession. He wasn’t mean or rude to Mom, mostly because she behaved herself.
On her first day on the job, Mom scoured the toilet. Seven men had been sharing the one bathroom for years. No one had cleaned it, and she wasn’t going to be around filth. After bleaching the toilet and adding an air freshener, she started reading the computer’s instruction manual. From cover to cover. She understood they needed a bookkeeping program to manage income and expenses so she started calling accountants in the phone book. She explored the pile of cardboard boxes used to keep records. Weeks later, she suggested a file cabinet. She and Dad discussed at length how to purchase one, what it would be used for, and whether they could afford it.
Grandpa resisted change at every step. Cardboard boxes were cheaper than a filing cabinet. Hand-written sales tickets worked. It was the secretary’s job to read them, not the technician’s job to write clearly. Index cards held enough information for each account. Grandpa wanted to play poker, drink beer, and drive nice cars. His work day ended at 4 p.m. whether the work was done or not.
Once Mom figured out how to make the daily bank deposit, she realized there wasn’t a single cent in the account to spare. She started saving 5 percent of each deposit for future taxes. She started seeing a profitable future. She wanted a plan. “We learned to save for emergencies,” she said. “Trucks always need repaired, replaced, rebuilt. So do people.”
On Sunday afternoons, after mass at Holy Family, we each picked our favorite donut at the grocery store across from church. Dad alternated between raspberry jelly filled and Boston crème. Mom’s was a plain glazed or with almonds. My brothers just wanted chocolate anything, anything they could fight over. I chose crème horns, which only came in a four pack, another thing for my brothers to protest.
We drove our sleepy town’s streets licking sugar from our fingers and staking out local businesses that did not yet patronize ours. Dad always wanted more, more business, more work, more for us. On a chalkboard in his office, he kept track of his monthly sales, set personal goals, and raised the bar with every success. Mom’s job was to caution him about the unintended consequences of his wanting. “Be careful what you wish for,” she warned. And she was almost always right. Dad thrived on risks, though, and more confident than his pocketbook. He peacocked at challenges. He said yes and left Mom to make it happen. And she almost always did.
As we pulled into the lots of factories and hotels that hadn’t called our business for their pest control needs, Dad would park and explain how big this next job would be, how much he’d charge, how it would open doors to other business opportunities. He preached prevention rather than acute responses to pest infestations. He taught us to point through the car windows at his next conquest, again and again like we were rabid sports fans taunting the other team. Dad said our geographic closeness and intentions brought good luck and gave him the courage to put on his technician’s uniform on Monday and knock on more doors.
My parents must have always hoped that business would keep the family together, but the stakes of succession cost too much. Their love story is a rags to riches one; the business of bugs was built on Midwestern grit and guts that cemented them to each other.My deepest desire is for an examined life, and I understand both the necessity and privilege of this longing.
On the day of my college graduation, Dad made his final offer. “It ain’t a bad life. There’s room for you,” he said. He promised an apartment, salary, and respectable office employment suitable for a girl who would never sit in the lead chair. I was dating a hometown boy who was managing the databases and computers in our office. Everything was falling into place, except me.
My older brothers were already scuttling into crawlspaces in search of termites and baiting thousands of rodent stations at the corporate clients whose parking lots we once stalked. They were each carving out territories and arguing over seating arrangements in the board room.
I was always leaving, though, and my belonging was never as reliable as my parent’s marriage. I wanted to tell stories and majored in history in college. I listened too hard, poked too many things, and exhausted my family with my questions. My own American Dream is a struggle between my parent’s striving and the moments where I learned to be still and to listen. My deepest desire is for an examined life, and I understand both the necessity and privilege of this longing. When I catch myself leaning too far forward, I settle into what I know best: the rigor of revision and the desperation of getting a sentence right. Publishing is the potential trap. There can be a relentlessness in the quest for writing success; too many targets are mobile. None of my own pursuits would have been possible without the foundation my family built. I’d return throughout my education to our family business, when I was called, to cover office maternity leaves and stock supply closets, but I never unpacked my bags again.
Decades later when I flew home from the life I’ve made as an academic and an author for my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, I organized a family dinner. We had a table at the nicest restaurant in town. It was a noticeable distance from the dirt road where we were raised. My parents had just retired or rather, they’d sold the family business to my middle brother. It is both a burden and a bequest. The passing on of generational knowledge and skill is not a step up but a leap toward wealth. When your boss is disappointed, though, it’s your Dad’s love on the line. When you make a mistake, it costs your family most. When you do good, Mom can only offer tepid praise for fear of favoritism. An employee problem is more important that yours. The work is never done and it seeps into every dinner conversation, every day off, and all your wishes. A family business gives and it takes. It’s another sibling at the table and there is nothing you can do to compete with it. My parents’ love and teamwork made our family’s business a success but it cost plenty too. Their greatest hope was that we’d have choices they didn’t and that we’d never stay out of obligation.
Driving away from that celebratory family dinner I had the same painful ambiguity that I felt sitting in the front of Dad’s truck, with the contents of four years of dorm life in the back. All I could see was the view out his front window and how much he’d taught me to want.