Note: One of my favorite black & white classic movies is I Remember Mama with Irene Dunne and Barbara Bel Geddes, probably because Bel Geddes’ part was that of an aspiring writer. The title of my story is a nod to that movie. (Actually, another title I just thought of based on the play Thoroughly Modern Millie could be Thoroughly Modern MeMe. Both fit!)
I Remember MeMe
Sidebar: At the turn of the century, restrictive Victorian ideas prevailed and women were viewed as too timid and fragile to deal with public affairs, participate in strenuous activity, or operate complex machinery (such as automobiles). These same arguments were used to deny women a higher education and the right to vote. However, some bold and courageous women refused to fit into the mold that society dictated for them. For other women, the automobile provided opportunities for work, inventions, and independence. (Excerpt quoted from http://www.aacamuseum.org/Pdf/WomensHistory.pdf. I underlined the phrase on machinery for emphasis.)
MeMe on her wedding day with her first husband Harry Louis Safir. (late 1890s or early 1900s.)
Before the word was coined, my maternal grandmother, Ethel Spicer Safir, was a feminist— also a store owner, landlady, and automobile owner. Born in the late 1880s in what was then Austria-Hungary, Ethel came to America at age 21, speaking no English and having no high school education. (She spoke Hungarian, Yiddish, and perhaps Russian.) She learned to speak English with no trace of an accent. When I would visit her in Brooklyn, she would ask me how to spell words and mark them down in a notebook to study. Thinking back, I am impressed with her eagerness to learn as much as she could. Despite no formal education, she kept learning. (I like to think I inherited that desire to keep learning from MeMe.)
All her grandchildren called her MeMe, though she asked us not to pass along her nickname to our children, which of course we did. She was petite and well-dressed, with grey hair perpetually “permed” and tinted a strange shade of purple. My mother’s older sister, Gladys, told me that MeMe was the first woman driver in New Jersey. I could not find proof of that on the Internet, but it sounds like something my grandmother could aspire to and achieve. (See quote above on women’s history.)
MeMe and her first husband, the grandfather I have no memory of because he died when I was two, had a corner grocery in a working class neighborhood not too far from where I grew up. MeMe kept track of credit customers’ purchases and entered them into small notebooks, one of which I salvaged from my mother’s belongings. One page might read: eggs – 5 cents; bread – 8 cents; milk – 6 cents. (Don’t forget, this was the late 1930s.) When she had too many credit purchases, she would load the customers into her car and drive to social services, demanding to know when the welfare checks would be coming, because she needed cash to purchase new inventory.
My grandmother also owned property and apartments that she rented. Occasionally, my mother would take one of us with her to an apartment house to collect the monthly rents. Unfortunately, at times my mother would pocket some of the money herself and tell MeMe she would owe it to her. With five growing children, money must have been tight, even though my father owned his own gas station/garage and worked seven days each week. My mother was resourceful, perhaps a trait she learned from her modern mother.
Trips to the Catskills or Florida in the summer with MeMe were an adventure. This gave my mom a break from the 24/7 job of raising five children, close in age (7 1/2 years between the oldest and the youngest) basically alone, because my father was rarely home ‘til very late. I remember driving down to Florida one summer in MeMe’s Austin-Healy. (Again, she was driving compact cars before there was a category called Compacts.) She drove rather crazily and I was frightened whenever she was behind the wheel. Thankfully, we made it safely. It was in Florida that I watched her date again after the death of two husbands. I was in the apartment when her “date” saw her in her underwear and she rushed into the bedroom screaming. (See Second Chance at Silver Romance, Dec. 29th, 2012 in Women’s Voices For Change (www.women’svoicesforchange.org).
Definitely, MeMe would be defined as a feminist. She had no rules that girls could not do something “masculine.” She never made me feel that being a girl was a lesser status. She was an entrepreneur who drove her own car. And she passed those beliefs onto my Aunt Gladys and my mother. So, in effect, all three women are my personal role models. My older daughter, who was born about two years after MeMe’s death, is named Eileen, after MeMe’s given name, Ethel. I see some of the same traits in Eileen that I admire in her namesake—a strong sense of herself, no feelings of being “less than” because she is a woman, and even her petite figure.
So, when I celebrate Mother’s Day this month, I will be reminded not only of the well-known historical role models in art, music, writing, business, etc., but also, or perhaps especially of MeMe, who will always be my inspiration, because of her ability to create a life that allowed her to be the woman she wanted. She was not held back by any mores of the time, and passed along this strong sense of self to her two daughters and her grandchildren, especially the girls. She is my personal role model. I don’t need to look her up in a book or on the Internet, just leaf through old photo albums and flip back a few pages in my own memory to be inspired.