On February 12th, I lost my mother, Helen. She was 85 and had fought the ravages of COPD for several years. I share this in tribute to her, for whom I owe profound gratitude.
The other day, as I was watching my mother struggle for breath and fight to stay with us, I remembered these words. They were told to me by a salesman who used to call on mom and dad at their store. His words are, in many respects, an important legacy for her children and grand-children.
Mom was, like her mother before her, honest. Sometimes brutally honest. One almost always knew what she was thinking. She said her peace, but never with malice. She was kind, warm, fun-loving and, behind a curtain that might be perceived as fear, my mother was actually a pillar of strength.
Mom wanted her children to learn from her life, but rarely inserted herself into ours in any direct way. She was the kind of mother who was always the voice of reason. Like so many other mothers, she led with fear…the, “make sure you’re wearing clean underwear just in case you have to go to the hospital” kind of fear. But behind her very conservative, somewhat stoic exterior, were the heart of a nurse and the strength of a warrior.
As I’ve thought about her life over the past several months, I’ve realized that my own has very closely patterned hers. Mom didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur…she probably didn’t even realize she was one. But an exploration of her life clearly shows of what she was really made.
- At 15, bored with high school, she quit to attend a business college and work as a telephone operator.
- She married her first love, my father, at 16 and had her first child at 18…with four more arriving over the next 18 years.
- She and dad purchased one of the first homes in the first “planned suburb”…Levittown, NY, before her 20th birthday.
- At 25, following her sister before her, she and my father left the burbs and purchased “The Farm.” The farm’s house had burned down, so they converted a small out-building and built the house to which I was born.By 30, she figured out that farming wasn’t for them and we moved to Gilbertsville. There she began working in the grocery store that would soon be theirs.
- At 33, she opened the Sweet Shop and at 35 she and dad purchased the grocery store from her former employer. Over the ensuing 30 years, mom led the development of a unique brand…one that still exists in the memories of many.
- At 35, together with her sister and with the loving assistance of their mother…your and my beloved Oma, they opened Valley View Antiques in a converted chicken house behind our home.
- In the early 1970s, they expanded the grocery store to consume the space formerly occupied by the sweetshop and moved the antique shop. As a result, their enterprises occupied the entire Gilbert Block.
- Not to rest on laurels, in 1985, they purchased the Little Store…their competitor, and consolidated that business into the Value Way. They hired staff and expanded their offerings.
- And, after the death of my father in 1987, mom, just 59, continued to steward the store she so dearly loved.
- In 1988, while attending a family reunion in Philadelphia, a spontaneous late night excursion to Atlantic City introduced to her next career, that of professional gambler. Yes, behind her conservative persona, mother liked nothing more than to play the odds. And she was very good at it. And this last profession occupied her almost weekly for many years.
Reality is that mom was an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word. The child of German immigrants who arrived in this country just two years before her birth, she learned English in elementary school. She and my father started with nothing. They worked tirelessly to do right by their family and community, to build their enterprise and leave their legacy. We were economically poor, but they had great personal riches and made up for a lack of assets with hard work and perseverance. She did much for her community. Mom made and delivered sunshine baskets to the sick and baked hundreds of pies to raise the early seed money for the Major’s Inn Foundation, a project which I started in 1981 to restore a historic, 57 room hotel in the center of our village. She crocheted Christmas ornaments and doilies to help with causes. She supported bake sales and Bar-B-Ques. She built businesses and turned lemons into lemonade. She spoke with pride of the tiny village she called home and she dearly loved her customers and friends. Along the way, she raised 5 children, each of whom has made their mark on this planet in their own way. She cared for my father during his invalid years and did so again for her second love, Jim Maerz, who was her companion for fifteen years before his passing in 2005.
And although she tirelessly cared for others, she generally suffered her own very serious afflictions in silence. Mom waged war on cancer twice and battled lung disease for a decade, always with courage and poise. And could she now speak, she’d say, in her direct and honest way, that she’d still be with us were it not for the error of smoking. Mother was courageous to the end.
As I address audiences around the country, I often refer to my mother and my upbringing with a story that epitomizes the quiet servitude that was her hallmark. I learned customer service from mom. The phone would ring at 11pm. “Helen, its Ruth. I don’t have any milk for the kids for breakfast. Would you open the store?” And that’s precisely what she would do. She’d get re-dressed and head out into the cold to provide something for someone in need. She did so not for the 10 cents in profit that she made on that gallon of milk, but because, first and foremost, mom lived to serve others. She did so for her family and she did so for her community. She never asked for anything in return and, in many ways, had few expectations from life.
Mom lived a good life, and an interesting one; a life from which we can all take some inspiration. Words cannot adequately express my gratitude for the love and support that she provided to me as I experienced my own entrepreneurial adventures. She was always there for me through thick and thin. And she will forever be whispering her cautionary yet supportive words in my ear.
Thank you, Mom. You will be sorely missed, but your legacy lives on.