How Hardship Shapes Financial Values: Lessons From My Mother and Grandmother
My grandmother, Josephine Smola (left) and her daughters, Edwina (center) and Ruth (my mother, right).
As a woman and as a mother myself, I enjoy a myriad of freedoms. This week, I balanced my work schedule with watching one of my daughters in a stage play. I also chose what I wanted for dinner. This isn’t just freedom. It’s economic liberation that many people of our generation take for granted.
I am a businesswoman and a champion of girls’ education. I pursue both with a sense of urgency. This stems from a collection of memories that I have today from both my grandmother and my mom (now 84).
My Grandmother’s Story: Facing Hardship From a Young Age
My grandmother, the late Josephine Smola, was an immigrant from Poland. She was 2 years old when she came to the U.S. in 1905.
Josephine studied until 6th grade, when she was old enough to embrace fine-sewing and weaving skills. Just right to work at a sweatshop in the Bronx, with long hours and a handful of coins at the end of the week. It was necessary, as my grandfather had a job at the Horn & Hardart automat, and they were raising two daughters together.
In the height of the Depression, my grandparents had the opportunity to become superintendents for an eight-unit apartment building in the South Bronx, which would allow them to live rent-free.
They took the job, which paid them nothing and required them to become their building’s plumbers, electricians, and more.
However, it guaranteed them a place to live. Meanwhile, they also worked multiple jobs elsewhere whenever they could. Greatly exploited, but without options, they had to do so in order to make ends meet. Anything less than a 16-hour workday was a luxury.
These sacrifices and a myriad of others allowed my mother, Ruth, and later her sister, Edwina, to attend school. Despite navigating daily hardships like war rations and long lines for simple staples like milk, sugar, butter, and meat, she was academically gifted. And she didn’t recognize these things as tough because they were all she knew.
My memories of the late Josephine are limited, but vivid. Occasionally, she would send me a letter, a warm note written in cursive handwriting, in a neatly folded paper, along with a couple of dollars tucked inside. She and my mom nurtured a sense of giving and gratitude in me. As I entered adulthood, these values translated into self-belief.
My Mother’s Story
While my grandmother had to battle poverty, my mother’s struggles were somewhat different. The New York City public schools offered its students three choices after completing 8th grade: pursue academics in high school to prepare to attend college, enter a commercial school where they’d learn typing and stenography, or go to a trade school.
Despite being surrounded by students who either had no choice or no desire, my mother was one of the few students in her class to travel one hour each way to an academic high school called Walton.
She was determined to do so. After all, she grew up in the Depression Era and during World War II — a period defined by a scarcity of material goods. Economic prosperity did not exist.
Job scarcity, exploitation, and fear were stark realities. Survival, an undiscerning equalizer.
Today, economic prosperity has given us the luxury of a variety of intellectual debates. Patriotism vs. nationalism, right vs. left, or left vs. center. My mother speaks of a patriotism defined by neighbors tracking one another’s stars on their windows, representing a son fighting the war.
A blue star symbolized a son still serving, a gold star meant a lost life. Bomb drills; community drives to recycle steel, rubber, glass, aluminum, and the like for the Armed Forces; and “liberty bonds,” for which my grandparents somehow would find the 10 cents per stamp needed to eventually come to $18, as a way to fund the war effort.
Other Challenges My Mother Faced
Those were different days. Yes. But powerfully relevant to me. It is not just the economic struggles and the small wins, but the mental fortitude to deal with situations that were women-centric.
Like many of us in the #MeToo era, my mother endured sexual harassment, as well. Once even in the classroom at Baruch College — a male student said in front of the class to a teacher, “Of course, you agree with her. We all know why she is your favorite.” Surely my mom, one of two female students in a room of 30, had to be sleeping with the married professor to receive his accolades.
After two years of college (throughout her life, she went on to earn an MBA, become a CPA, and earn a second master’s in taxation), she decided to work full time as a bookkeeper at Naomi’s Undergarments on Astor Place, to be followed by some stints at advertising firms. She eventually ended up as a bookkeeper-slash-secretary for my father’s fledgling business on 42nd Street.
Aware that most women of her generation got married and became teachers, secretaries or nurses, my mom says she continued to do what she needed to survive, not to set an example for other women.
Changing Times and Financial Values
Indeed, many women of her generation were bogged down in getting things done, less on spending time making a point about women’s rights in the workplace. A far cry from the 23-year-old woman who this week, while negotiating a job at CentSai, said she would work only if she could do so on her terms from home. How times have changed.
My mom sees the “complaining” as being an ineffective tool in what is still a man’s world.
She points to many times in her career when men supported her, but she had to learn how to listen and speak their language.
I look at my daughters, and while I certainly don’t want them to suffer, I do wonder if their generation has become soft, inculcated with “sensitivity training,” being taught about injustices such as microaggressions, and a self-entitlement in the form of “participation trophies” that have little to do with skills, but are handed out just for showing up.
Looking to the Future: How Do We Teach Financial Values and Life Lessons?
I suppose my girls and their peers will have their own struggles, including the $1.6 trillion student loan debt their generation is inheriting and record-high consumer debt, with no guarantee that the money they spend on college will result in a job, to name just a few. I also worry about the emphasis on individuality over country, social media isolation over meaningful sharing, and the result of information at their fingertips while they don’t learn how to spell properly or memorize times tables.
Today, on Mother’s Day, I know I have a task to accomplish: ferret out the values that I learned from the late Josephine’s and my mom’s lives, and selectively bestow them on my own children, who, make no mistake, are teaching me a variety of new life lessons every day.
They are always thanking me, but this Mother’s Day, I want them to appreciate me for teaching them what I learned from my foremothers. The oral history — from mother to mother — is a priceless inheritance.