I come from a long line of strong women although they probably wouldn’t have thought so. One of the women I still get my own strength from is my mother’s mother, Marge. Although she passed away in 1980 at 76, I still think about her as one of the most inspirational women in my life. And I loved her so very much.
Marge spent a lot of her childhood in Hackensack, N.J., before moving back and forth to Brooklyn. She played in the County Court House dome while it was under construction and went sleigh riding down Essex Street when horse-drawn carriages ruled the road. On one treacherous ride as a 6-year-old, she got hit in the head by a horse, was rushed to a row house called Hackensack Hospital, and left with a metal plate in her head.
My grandmother had a hard life in those early years. She grew up without her mom, who died at the hands of a back-room abortionist because her parents could not afford a sixth child. Marge's family split up, and she stayed behind with her father and youngest brother. When her dad remarried, she still didn't get the mom — and the motherly guidance — she yearned for.
Marge had to quit high school at a very young age to go to work. Although she never got her diploma, she was one of the smartest — and strongest — women I have known. She worked hard for everything she got in life.
Marge always treasured her family. She married my grandfather when she was 19. By age 20, she gave birth to a 13-pound baby boy. Three days later, she had to bury him after a painful delivery. My mom, Adrienne, came along a few years later, and then finally her youngest son, John, was born. Years later, she buried my grandfather at 63, then watched her youngest son die a slow death from pancreatic cancer when he was 45 and a father of four.
Marge lived through the Great Depression and World War II rationing and was considered quite thrifty, well O.K., cheap. My cousins, brother and I never could understand why she kept her tea bag on the windowsill to use one more time before throwing it away. She used to say she "squeezed the nickel until the eagle screamed." I guess it was from all those years of doing without. Marge also was a betting gal. She liked to "decorate the mahogany" with a few coins (prounounced kerns if you came from Brooklyn) for a good hand of poker. She also liked to play the horses and taught her grandchildren how to read the racing tip sheets.
When Marge picked me up from grammar school each Monday afternoon, she wore red lipstick, a fancy hair do, and pop-it beads. Channel No 5 was her favorite perfume. She was very glamorous as seen through my young eyes. At 6 years old, I thought she looked like a movie star and felt so proud when she picked me up to spend the rest of the day with her.
As a senior citizen and widow, Marge read the Wall Street Journal and talked stocks with her broker almost every day. She also had a penchant for real estate. I guess that's why years before she talked my grandfather into buying a run-down summer house and 160 acres in the middle of the Adirondack parkland.
Marge became a businesswoman at a time when women didn’t think much about careers, yet alone start a business after 40. Although it might be a regular occurrence in this day and age, in the late 1950s, it was unheard of.
After raising her family, Marge decided to fulfill a dream and go to beauty school. I never found out why she had a liking for hair, but maybe she wanted to do something feminine after growing up without a mom.
Whatever the case, Marge was the oldest student in the school. After graduation, she bought her own salon, right on Anderson Street in Hackensack.
Marge ran Helen's Beauty Salon single-handedly for a number of years before selling the shop in the early ‘60s. The sale of her store front helped my grandparents buy their summer house in Brant Lake, N.Y., which has been enjoyed by all of us for almost three generations.
In her later years, Marge tended a garden and employed a have-a-heart trap to get rid of the woodchuck that was eating her vegetables. She also used a shotgun for that very same purpose. On these days, we'd find her in blue jeans and college sweatshirts she bought from thrift shops. My grandmother never got rich from her business dreams, but she was one of the richest women I've known. So most likely, she’d be the first one to say, “Go for it!” when I decide to fulfill mine.