LIFE 101-102: Lena Jacobson (Part I)

Below is a recent photo of my mother-in-law, taken on the day my daughter Eileen and I interviewed her over the July 4th week-end. She looks great at nearly 102 and her mind is still sharp. At times, she started to cry as she remembered the difficult times of her youth, events that are etched permanently into her mind. When I asked her what gets her up in the morning, she said “Accepting Life” (as it is and making the best of it.) What a simple, yet profound, philosophy! Also, in Health Flashes I posted a companion essay on aging with another photo of Lena and me, as well as the wonderful “defying old age” poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph.


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Lena Levin was born on September 5, 1906, the seventh child of nine children. She had four sisters and four brothers, five of whom were born in Vitebsk, Bellaruss, Russia. Her father Edward had come to America before his wife, escaping (25 years) conscription* in the Russian Army. So young Bess (Basha) came by boat with five young children, losing her youngest along the way, only to find her again before the end of the trip. (The way Lena described the crossing made me wonder her mother didn’t lose her mind as well as her child!)

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(Red and purple are the colors used in the poem in Health Flashes, so I am continuing with that color scheme in this article.)

At first, the family lived outside of Philadelphia and ran a dairy farm, but that was not profitable enough to raise nine children. So the family relocated to “the city” and Edward Levin built a public garage to park cars and pump gas. He also had a livery stable and rented out horses and buggies. This is in the early 1900s, when cars were scarce and horses and buggies were still used.

Lena attended public school and loved it. She graduated from high school in 1925 and planned to go to college, but the Depression hit and she could not go. Instead, she took over her older sister’s job of keeping the books for her father’s businesses. She met her future husband, Bernard Jacobson, a fraternity brother of one of her own brothers. Bernie was going to night school to obtain an education. They married in 1928, while there were bread lines, soup lines, and apples for one penny. Lena said that everyone around you was in the same situation, so you weren’t aware of anyone living differently. (No TV to show you Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.)

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Her mother gave Lena $500 as a wedding present, which she had planned to use for living expenses. But her father-in-law insisted on a “real wedding,” not just a ceremony in the rabbi’s study as planned, so, as Lena told us, “They scared up a wedding,” using all of Lena’s gift money. A cousin offered Lena her veil and her sister Sadie’s wedding dress became Lena’s wedding dress. They honeymooned in Washington, DC for four days and returned to live with Bernie’s bother and his wife. However, that did not work out, so they found an apartment in Philadelphia and lived, as Lena said, “from-hand-to-mouth.”

Her husband and his older bother Ben went into business together selling window shades and putting their money in the bank. Then, when the banks closed during the Depression, they lost all their money. Lena and Bernie moved in with her parents, who had relocated to Atlantic City. The family pooled their resources and bought a jitney for $3,000, which Bernie (and his brother) used to take people back and forth on Pacific Avenue, eeking out a living and working round the clock.

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BY 1933, Bernie was still working hard. Lena gave birth to a little boy named Alan (my husband). Lena stayed with her parents while Bern moved back to Philadelphia and opened up a business where he sold merchandise for people who paid on the installment plan (one dollar down). When Alan was three or four, Lena moved back to Philadelphia, joining her husband. Alan had developed asthma (which he outgrew) and the doctor advised Alan’s parents to take him away from the damp air of the shore. They spent summers in a cottage enclave in the country, called Rockydale, where Alan’s health was restored.

Lena was now near some of her sisters and stayed in the Philadelphia area. When the women played mah jongg and they were short a hand, they taught young Alan how to play. They moved a few times and finally, Bernie opened up his own small retail business (furniture, lamps, shades, etc.) in the Germantown section, with Lena his right hand and left hand. (Some time ago, in an earlier conversation with my mother-in-law, Lena told me that when her husband’s business was faltering, he needed money to pay bills. Lena had been saving from the household money and she presented him with $2,000 she had saved, which then saved his business!)

End of Part I; Part II soon.

* (My book, A Tale from Tarpiluvka, is about my great-great-grandparents sending their children away to avoid this harsh conscription.)

Below is my daughter Eileen, the “instigator” for this interview. She is an archivist at Penn State University, so “capturing” Lena’s words were important to her and made me realize their importance, as well. Thanks, Eileen!

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