The Making of a Confident Woman
The Making of a Confident Woman
Knowing the apple does not fall far from its tree, I looked at my parentage.
Both of my parents stopped school at twelve–my father because his father refused to buy him a suit like the other boys wore, my mother because her bankrupt father sent her to New York City to live with her half-sister and cousin and get a job. With no work experience, she was supposed to pretend she was at least sixteen and find herself a job quickly so she could begin sending money home to her family.
Imagine the twelve-year-old girls you know being given such a monumental task and succeeding. She did indeed find an office job, made $8.00 a week, and sent $7.50 home to her father to help pay off his debts. The other $.50 went for mailing, anything she needed, and $.05 went to the delicatessen where she and her cousin would go on Saturday to buy a liverwurst and onion sandwich on rye that came with a pickle.
When Mom was 43 in 1959, my father gave her an equally monumental task. She was to run his four-bay Atlantic Refining Company service station in Philadelphia, PA, that operated double shifts seven days a week from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., while he fought for his life at an Elsmere, Delaware, Veterans’ Administration Hospital. (In France, during World War II, he was hit with shrapnel in his face and leg.
A piece landed in his eye, blinding him. Periodically, the eye would become ulcerated. This time, his eye got ulcerated and infected. Knowing the consequences of leaving his thriving business for an unknowable period of time, he fought hospitalization until it nearly cost him his life.)
How did my father get his business thriving? At 16, he bought two dilapidated Model T Fords and pestered garage owners for guidance and tools, and in the family garage, built himself a fine running car. He knew his trade. He was fearless. In his teens and early 20s, he and his friends would drag race blindfolded through the Jersey pines.
Whoever came out the other side with the least damage won the pot. Did some cheat? Pop didn’t say. But I’d bet all the blood in my veins my father didn’t. He loved a challenge.
To build his business, he took risks, big ones with gutsy creativity. When he put his receipts into buying more inventory instead of paying for sold inventory, so he had tires and accessories to sell, Atlantic Refining demanded he stops.
Of course, he did, but his fully stocked shelves got him over an important hump. He also became a radio advertising king, telling the radio audience: “Dissatisfied with your repairs? Bring your car to Nick Garro at 8th & Spring Garden Streets in Philadelphia, and we’ll fix it right for free.” Customers came from New Jersey, Delaware and all over Pennsylvania.
He was loyal and committed. When he was thirty-two, an Italian citizen living in New Jersey, he enlisted to fight for his adopted country during World War II. Even though the church where he was baptized had burned, they made him an instant citizen to defend his country. Defend it he did through every major campaign on the European Front, including the Battle of the Bulge and the First Wave over Normandy Beach, France.
In France, hit with shrapnel in his face, hand and leg, blinding him in his right eye, he still drove the supply truck to his unit. His thanks, he was left propped up against a tree with no food or water not knowing if anyone would find him before he died. He sucked pebbles to keep his body hydrated and landed in a hospital in France.
His parents were told he had died because he listed them instead of my mother so that if anything happened to him, she would not be alone when she was told. I’m crying my eyes out imagining my Mom, a widow, with me a year old and my half-brother five. Then, she got a letter from my father from the hospital in France.
My father’s thanks for his bravery was a Purple Heart and sent right back to the front lines with only one good eye and no working trigger finger on his right hand. Why? He was a trained Combat Engineer and they needed him. Surprised, he went without bitterness to do what he signed up for.
When he finally told Atlantic Refining Company executives his situation and that his wife would be running the business, they balked, stating, “No woman has ever run one of our service stations, much less our biggest city station. They told my father they would hire a manager to run his business until he recovered. My father said, “My wife runs my business or I walk.”
Likely believing that Mom would quickly fail, Atlantic Refining agreed. Fail she did not. With little education, no experience managing a two-shift, 16-hour crew of men, hiring or firing, no experience keeping the books, and doing the daily administrative work for a large business, she kept the business viable until my father could return.
Now, Mom did not drive. So, she bused it from Maple Shade, New Jersey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania most days. The business was in what they called “The Tenderloin,” a dangerous mixed neighborhood. On the bus, she carried a cash box with large sums of money.
Can you imagine how early she had to get up to be at work at 6 a.m., and after not getting home until after midnight? Mom stood a petite five-foot, five inches tall and by the time my father came home, she weighed eighty-nine pounds.
But she never missed a day, washed cars, paid all the necessary taxes, hired and fired, and did whatever paperwork had to be done. I am crying my eyes out again as I write this, knowing what it had to take to do what she did!
After she saved the business, my father told her, “You didn’t make much money, honey!”
Like my father, I took some big risks. Jobless after a corporate coup that ousted my boss, I refused to work for his arch rival, the coup leader. My boyfriend brought over a bottle of Champaign and asked me, “What would you do if you do if you could do anything you wanted?”
I said I would be a writer and the next day, I went to the major city newspapers in two states and got assignments, and launched my freelance writing career that continues today. At forty-two with one H&R Bloch Business Tax Course and part-time work during one tax season, I became a Corporate Tax Analyst with an international corporation.
My father convinced a member of the board of an international corporation in Pennsylvania that I could be a part-time corporate tax analyst during tax season.
Like Mom may have done, I learned how to do what needed to be done by analyzing what had been done in previous years. When I got puzzled, I called a disabled friend who had made her living as an accounting executive. In frustration, she said to me, “Barbara, I studied to become a C.P.A., worked for years to understand how to do carryforwards and carrybacks.
You’re in way over your head. I don’t know how to help you.” I said, “I have two kids to support and I can’t fail. Just tell me what I need to know.”
My other job was freelance writing for a large city newspaper in New Jersey. I had to input my articles on its computer. Never had I operated a computer, but I had to learn how to operate them at both companies. I learned.
Since I also had experience as a corporate insurance administrator and was going after my Chartered Property & Casualty Underwriter designation, the Pennsylvania corporation asked me to become its full-time Corporate Insurance Manager.
They then had to hire a new part-time tax analyst. One day, he came to my desk and said, “I’ve been doing this for a long time. Every time I go into a company, I find mistakes from last year. I’ve looked and looked, but I’ve not found one mistake you made.” Good to hear, for sure. Still, not naive, I knew full well that the long-tenured Corporate Tax Manager took time to teach me. Surely, he knew what I knew and did not know.
So, I came from parents, my Mom who played well the hands life dealt her, and my Pop who created his own hands. Failure was never an option. That’s where my confidence and whatever power people see comes from.
On my mind, I asked a biker-poet friend about what my friend said about my being an unlikely marriage candidate. He said I came off really sure of myself and that could scare off most men. Then he said I needed a really intelligent man who loves a challenge.
“They’re hard to find as you’ve discovered. But that’s the kind of man who would marry you.”
Interestingly, our church bulletin this Sunday morning contained a blanket invitation to attend a Saturday, December wedding from a senior couple. Both are in their 70s. She has never been married.
My hope is eternal.