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Lessons from Odd Jobs

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, April 10, 2008

Members of the community are writing on lessons learned from odd jobs. The questions are: What is the strangest job you’ve ever had? And what did you learn from it? As a member of that blogging community, I’m weighing in today. You can find links to other entries at There’s more info at Middle Zone At any rate, with no further ado, here’s my entry.

What is the strangest job I’ve ever had? And what did I learn from it? I’ve been plumbing the depths of my memory, trying to remember strange jobs I’ve done. For a while I was a coin dealer, a numismatist to be precise. That was a little unusual. In college I cleaned bathrooms in the dorms. I did it for three years, to be exact, by choice! It wasn’t the most pleasant of jobs, but it paid very well and the hours were flexible. But neither of these was my strangest job.

During a couple of summers while I was in grad school, I worked as the junior high intern at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. In this role I took kids to the beach, counseled them at camp, rode down grass hills on ice blocks, and tried to help a bunch of hormone-driven junior high girls and wiggly junior high boys listen to my Bible lessons. That was an odd job, but it still wasn’t the strangest.

Probably the strangest job for which I ever received pay came as a part of a gardening gig I held while I was in high school. My employer was Mrs. Bivans, a gregarious, assertive, older woman who lived on a giant piece of property in Glendale, California. I spent a dozen hours each week mowing, edging, trimming, sweeping, and, well, you name it. Mrs. Bivans was always very business-like with me. She had high expectations and wasn’t above letting me know when I didn’t meet them. I’ll never forget one time when she was displeased with my sweeping. She told me I was doing it wrong, and proceeded to demonstrate the right technique with great zeal and speed. For a woman of about seventy years, she was a fast sweeper! (Last Sunday as I swept leaves in my yard, I did so exactly in the way Mrs. Bivans taught me some thirty-five years ago.)

One day as I was toiling away, Mrs. Bivans said to me: “We’re going on an errand together. Grab some clippers and meet me at your car.” Obediently, I hurried to do just as she said. I had no idea where we were going. I didn’t ask, and she didn’t tell.

Mrs. Bivans directed me down her tree-lined street. We made a couple of turns, and in a couple of minutes we entered a small cemetery. I parked the car where she directed, and we hopped out. Mrs. Bivans walked decisively in a direction I surmised she had trod many times before. At about twenty-five yards from my car, we stopped in front of an inconspicuous grave stone that was flush with the ground. There I saw the name of Mrs. Bivans deceased husband, someone she had never mentioned previously.gravestones grass overgrown

“The grass has overgrown my husband’s grave marker,” Mrs. Bivans said in a voice that was just a bit softer than usual. “Please trim the grass around the stone, Mark.” And so I did as she watched closely. I felt awkward, as if I had intruded into an intimate moment between wife and husband.

“I wish they’d do a better job keeping the grass trimmed,” Mrs. Bivans finally said, in what was a sad, tender tone. “They’re really letting things go around here.” I didn’t respond, other than to make sure my trimming was picture perfect.

“Thank you, Mark,” she said, finally. “That looks fine.” High praise from Mrs. Bivans.

After a moment’s hesitation, Mrs. Bivans turned and headed back to my car, with me in tow. We climbed in and started back to her house.

“My husband died two years ago,” Mrs. Bivans said without preamble. “He was a fine man, an inventor, a businessman, and a loving husband.” I wanted to say, “I bet you miss him,” but somehow that seemed to be too personal for our professional relationship. I simply drove along in silence.

When we returned to Mrs. Bivans’s home, she said, “You’re probably thirsty. It’s a hot day. Come on in for some lemonade. I made it fresh from the lemons in the yard.” Indeed, her lemonade was delicious and wonderfully icy.

After I finished my blass, Mrs. Bivans had decovered her professional, polite demeanor. “Time to get back to work, Mark. Why don’t you sweep the tennis court before you finish for the day.” And so I did.

I never returned to Mr. Bivans’s grave because I stopped working for Mrs. Bivans before the grave needed another trim. The demands of my high school life didn’t allow me to work as much as Mrs. Bivans needed. When I quit, Mrs. Bivans was complementary and encouraged me in my academics. “School matters most,” she said. “But I’ll miss you and your work.”

What did I learn from that strange episode in the cemetery? That my boss had a life. Beneath her professional exterior there was a grieving widow who missed her husband. For a brief moment I saw just a bit of Mrs. Bivans’s heart.

In a work environment, even in a church or Christian ministry such as Laity Lodge, it’s easy to look upon those with whom we work as merely workers. They fulfill functions. They give or receive instructions. They sit in meetings. Yet I first learned from Mrs. Bivans a lesson I keep on learning: that our colleagues, bosses, and subordinates are also real human beings, people with emotions, histories, loves, and losses. Even as we maintain appropriate professional boundaries and demeanor in our work relationships, it’s helpful to see the people with whom we work. . . not just the workers, but the people.

Thus endeth my story. Tomorrow I’ll add a P.S. on the wonders of the Internet.

Added Note:

Check out this fun piece on odd jobs by Robert Hruzek of Middle Zone Musings. Also, learn how Marcus was a guinea pig.

Topics: Lessons from Life |

9 Responses to “Lessons from Odd Jobs”

  1. Robert Hruzek Says:
    April 10th, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Very good story, Mark - great illustration, too. I completely agree that we should be aware of the people around us as, well, people! I must admit it’s very easy to “hide” behind the veil of everyday professionalism. But keeping that “human” touch can sometimes make the difference in our work relationships as well, yielding rewards far beyond just a “good job”. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Mark Goodyear Says:
    April 10th, 2008 at 8:21 am

    That is a powerful image, Mark. I’m especially struck by the intimacy of your work in the graveyard. And it makes me wonder if all of our work could be this intimate–only we don’t recognize it. Thanks for participating.

  3. Black Jack! Lessons from Odd Jobs Hits 21 — Goodword Editing Says:
    April 11th, 2008 at 10:10 am

    […] Lessons from Odd Jobs by Mark D. Roberts, another heavy hitter in the blogosphere who was gracious enough to participate. Mark tells a moving story of helping his employer trim the grass around her husband’s grave. Powerful stuff. […]

  4. gl hoffman Says:
    April 11th, 2008 at 11:15 am

    What a great little story, thanks!! That made my day a bit brighter.
    best, GL HOFFMAN, Minneapolis, MN

  5. Lessons from Odd Jobs » article » What Would Dad Say Says:
    April 12th, 2008 at 11:10 am

    […] 18. Lessons from Odd Jobs by Mark D. Roberts, another heavy hitter in the blogosphere who was gracious enough to participate. Mark tells a moving story of helping his employer trim the grass around her husband’s grave. Powerful stuff. […]

  6. Middle Zone Musings » All Entries: What I Learned From Odd Jobs Says:
    April 14th, 2008 at 6:01 am

    […] Lessons from Odd Jobs, by Mark D. Roberts at […]

  7. The Original “Odd Jobs” Master: Nancy Rica Schiff » article » What Would Dad Say Says:
    April 16th, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    […] Lessons from Odd Jobs by Mark D. Roberts, another heavy hitter in the blogosphere who was gracious enough to participate. Mark tells a moving story of helping his employer trim the grass around her husband’s grave. Powerful stuff. Also, Mark has been writing our Daily Reflections at for a several months now. […]

  8. Real Clear Truth » Blog Archive » LIFE: What is the strangest job I’ve ever had? Says:
    April 21st, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    […] read Mark D. Roberts (Lessons From Odd Jobs) on his lawn work for a gregarious and  assertive employer named Mrs. Bivans who taught him that […]

  9. Results from the What I Learned From Odd Jobs Group Writing Project } Group Writing Projects Says:
    April 22nd, 2008 at 5:06 am

    […] Lessons from Odd Jobs, by Mark D. Roberts at […]


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