When I was little, my mom used to hold dinner for my dad. Most days, she knew it was the only time my brother and I would see him, as he'd gone into the office before the sun was up, and would come home at what was almost our bedtime. So we would whine that we were hungry, that we were tired, why wasn't Dad home yet, he said he'd be home twenty minutes ago, an hour ago. Sometimes, I think the hungry little boy of my brother's memories is still waiting for dinner with Dad.
On nights he was able to get home in time, we'd eat dinner after dark, get tucked into bed, and then hear Dad getting ready to drag himself back to work. It was the late 1980s, and he was computerizing the business. He was never home. It took a toll on my parents' marriage. It was hard. We missed him. We didn't understand. We were approaching 4 and 6 and our whole world was wrapped up fully in the love and attention of our parents. Their whole world was so much bigger, as is always the case with parents, and more complicated.
This picture is of my grandfather, Gil Mathews, in 1973, shortly after he and my father, Chuck, opened Zee Medical Service in the Twin Cities. It's one of my favorite pictures of him. It so thoroughly encapsulates the lore of this time in our family's history. In it, I see the exhaustion, the fear, and yet somehow, with my aunt setting a tidy table in the background, the hopefulness that it took for them to take such a risk. Dad has often said that, had he known what it would take to start a business, he would have been too intimidated to do it. Nana hates it when he says that.
In 1972, at a college in Oregon, my father was desperately wondering how he could tell his parents that he wanted to drop out. It was important to Nana that her children get an education, not having had the opportunity herself. He didn't feel like he had a direction--college felt like 13th grade, and while he was a good student and a clear thinker, he wasn't getting anything out of it that was making it worthwhile.
Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, Grandpa had reached military retirement. He'd been in the service since he'd illegally enlisted at 16, had been stationed all over the world in Air Force communications. He'd seen the birth of his 7 children across 3 continents. He'd been deployed to Vietnam. Without the structure of the military, the world was nearly foreign. He had mouths to feed. There was pressure.
The magical phone call that let Dad off the hook wasn't hardly magical at all. How do you feel about taking a year off and helping me start a business? Dad thought, Why not? The family moved to Minnesota, sight unseen. My grandparents bought a house in Burnsville on Brookview Drive. Their four daughters enrolled in school, and my father lived at home. The business was run out of the house for the first eight months.
Grandpa and Dad worked like dogs, meeting other business owners, learning to make sales. Some owners were perplexed. You're going to sell me some bandaids and then... what? You're going to come back and sell them to me again? Yeah, that's pretty much the gist.
They were always exhausted. They worked from early in the morning until late into the night. The pressure was still there. Grandpa and Dad stepped up their game. Nana and Dad's sisters pitched in where they could. It was fully family run. Dad's older brother came on in 1975. The company grew. They bought a building with an attached warehouse in 1981. Eventually, people with no blood relation were hired. Things were getting real.
Dad had no life. He was the bookkeeper, the inventory manager, the hiring manager, the tax man, the detail guy. He was on the road in a van during the day, hunched over ledgers and adding machines at night. He never dated. His sisters and brothers started their families. He wasn't anywhere close to that. His wife and children were this company. I think sometimes, in his mid-twenties, a time when he thought he'd be married, getting ready for the advent of children, that broke his heart. He soldiered on.
I used to joke as a kid that Zee was my father's firstborn. It's not really untrue. When you build something as personal as a family business, something that you and your parents and your siblings and then your wife and your own children depend on, it matters. It's a deep connection. Every policy, every change, every sale, every employee, is meaningful. Even when a door seems to close, something meaningful might sneak back in a window, and a forged connection is reinforced.
Grandpa met my mother, a customer of Zee, in the early 1980s. He was smitten with her--thought she'd be a great match for his single son. She was skeptical--not interested in someone who had to be "set up by his daddy." He told her he would love to hire her at Zee. She said No, thank you, and moved to Kansas City to manage another restaurant.
She changed her mind. She moved back. Grandpa informed her that she needed to interview with his son, Chuck. What. She wasn't pleased. She drove up to the office in a canary yellow Camaro. Dad thought people who drove sports cars were pretentious. He wasn't interested.
Four months later, they eloped. Two years later, my brother was born. Almost two years after that, there I was. They are still together today, and best friends. This is where I come from.
These days, walking into the office, it's a bustling place. My aunts keep an eclectic collection of music on the Bose, and someone is always walking around, chattering away on an earpiece while getting two and sometimes three other things done simultaneously. There are three computer consoles, each with two screens, where my mother and aunts busily assist customers, sales reps on the road, and reconcile daily, monthly, and quarterly tasks. The warehouse I used to play hide-and-seek in as a kid is also run by these women, filling orders, loading vans, and tracking inventory. Two uncles manage sales and operations, my brother manages marketing, and cousins are here, too. And through it all, there is my father, overseeing and guiding. He is a constant. He loves this business. In many ways, it's as much a part of his heart as we are.
This is my family, so to me, this story is special, it's unique. But it's just one story about a family who worked together to put food on the table in our community. There are countless others. Part of being a local business means that we value the other local companies who provide services to our community. We work with you. We prefer to buy from you. We are thrilled when you succeed, we are sad when you go, for whatever reason.
Most of all, we understand you. We understand the sacrifices it took for you to be what you are. We understand the tremendous pride you take in providing quality products and services. We get it. And we are grateful for you.