Liza, who runs the online store Better Dresses Vintage, sends this remembrance of her grandmother, Bessie.
My grandmother was the 2nd eldest of the 12 children. She and her older sister, Anna, were born in Vinitsa, Russia (part of the Pale of Settlement, outside of Odessa.). She came over as a babe in arms, in the late 1800s — her exact birthday remains a mystery. “The cherry blossoms were in bloom” is the response she got when she asked her mother when she’d been born. The best estimate is that she was probably born in 1897.
The 10 other siblings were born in the U.S. — in New York’s lower east side. All but 2 of the 6 boys died. My grandmother denies having lived in real poverty, but her sisters told my mother a different story — of a crowded, cold-water tenement.
The most interesting thing about my grandmother is that her mother, an illiterate peasant who spoke no English, was a proto-feminist. She had 6 daughters, and advised them to “have their own careers” and to not rush into marriage. All married, but only one before age 30! This was unheard of at the time, and the sisters were known as their mother’s “old maids.”
My grandmother designed Edwardian ladies’ neckwear — the jabots and other lace accoutrements popular at the time. We still have a large box of the lace she used. She married my grandfather, at least a couple years her junior (again, unusual), in 1928, and did not continue her career.
She inherited quite a bit of her mother’s gumption, and despite not even being a U.S. citizen at the time, took a train to see the governor when her father was arrested for bootlegging. She explained that her family would be left destitute were her father to be incarcerated, and the governor granted a pardon!
She looks dour and serious in the photo above, but she was actually quite upbeat and prone to telling off-color jokes (in my ear, never out loud). The little girl is my mother, who was born in 1936 in NYC.
She was always dressed like a lady (she did not own a pair of trousers, and I only saw her waist-length hair down twice in my life). You can see this in her polka dress from the 1940s and in this photo from my mother’s wedding in 1961, where she has on an elegant three quarter length sleeved sheath dress. In this photo, she was at least 63 years old. She wore 1960s-style dress suits until she died in 1984. Along with the Jackie O. suits she’d wear gloves, a veil or other cocktail style hat, and a frame purse. The most amusing part is that inside her purse were always the same three items — no more, no less, and it never varied: a roll of Certs mints, a handkerchief, and a rotating plastic packet of hearing-aid batteries.
Thank you Liza for this wonderful remembrance.