My great-grandmother Bella Rubinsky came over here to New York City from Russia. She came here looking for her husband who left her while she was pregnant the year prior. He said the streets in NYC were lined with gold. A local paper in Russia said this, so he packed a bag and bought a ticket on a boat and that was the last she heard of him.
Bella decided to leave Russia to look for him. So she packed up my Grandmother Lillian who was a year old and then they got on a boat and came here. She moved in with a relative on the Lower East Side and her son-in-law hired detectives to find husband. They never found anything!
A part of my family is still convinced he just left her with no intention of ever seeing her again. Bella didn’t agree and kept looking until finally she had to find a way to make a living.
Bella got a push cart. Everyday she would go to the market and buy vegetables at a low-cost and would resell them higher from her cart. She set up her business on Orchard Street right near a chicken store and several other cart sellers. At the end of the day all of these sellers would exchange food and take it home for super. Bella was the first entrepreneur of my family.
Her grand daughter, my mother, became the next entrepreneur. At 14 she had a full-time job in the rag trade. She taught herself shorthand and typing and got a job as a secretary.
She met a salesman in that firm who eventually became her boss. She was 16. She became the manager of his factory and took no prisoners. If someone wasn’t doing their job or behaving badly, she would talk to them directly and gave them a chance to improve. Sylvia was tough but had a velvet glove.
Being tough was in the genes. Her mother had 4 children and her father worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My mother was the eldest and she had to take care of her siblings with anything they needed. As an adult, my mother worked full-time and my father worked two jobs, so she would pay my Great Grandmother to watch us and feed us both lunch and dinner. This wasn’t strange for us because back then someone had to make the money and someone had to cook. You couldn’t do both. My Grandmother cooked for my cousins too!
I liked to work hard, but not when it came to chores. I was a smart ass in those days, so when my Gret Grandmother would ask me to do something I’d basically say no. This didn’t make my Great Grandmother happy and I became very well acquainted with my Grandfather (who lived with her and her daughter) chasing me with a broom. My Great Grandmother hated my Grandfather and thought he wasn’t good enough for her daughter. So I used this to my advantage and I would run him around the house until I could reach my Great Grandmothers bedroom where he wasn’t allowed to go. So he’d stop at the door like a screeching car. Worked every time.
I never thought that women had a hard time in terms of getting into the market place. All of the women in my family did what they wanted and had lots of kids. Bella travelled here from Russia and started her own businesses. Her daughter fed the entire family. My mother was a manager at 16 and brought home extra work for the women in the neighborhood! She also paid for me to go to college with her own money! The women in my family often made more money than the men.
The women in my family have moxie. Lot’s of moxie. And at 78 I still do.I have no intention of retiring until I drop dead, and at this point I can’t promise you that will ever happen.