My sister was 4’8” tall. She had bright, red curly hair and a face full of freckles. At first look she appeared mild, meek and timid. But looks are deceiving. She was the most thoughtful, kind and caring person I have ever known. She saw only the positive in people and circumstances, had both common sense and a brilliant intellect as well as an indomitable strength and willingness to work hard to achieve all her goals. She participated in law review, graduated top of her class, at a time when only a few women were accepted, and went on to become the judge she was born to be.
Growing up no one was a fairer arbiter of contentious issues. Even though I was ten years younger, I never felt diminished or patronized, just loved, valued and honored. She listened to all my crazy ideas and aspirations with patience. Never choosing to alter or mold, instead acting as a bumper when I started to skid too far off while embracing and nurturing my youthful excitement. Her small stature never once entered my mind, so much so that it wasn’t until decades later I even thought that wearing the 4 inch clogs, which were the fashion of the day, and towering almost a foot over her might have been insensitive. Her comfort and confidence in herself was always apparent, immediately putting others at ease. What she required to accommodate her size, like multiple pillows stacked on a chair so see could see over the bench, was no different than wearing heels or glasses for others. She died at 48 due to a congenital heart abnormality.
My grandmother was the first generation born in the U.S., her family emigrating from Lithuania after a particularly brutal pogrom at the end of the 19th century. She lived through two World Wars, the Depression and Suffragette era that finally gave women the vote and right to own property. She was a husky 5’2” handsome lady who didn’t tolerate anyone acting as a victim- “No one owes us anything, hard work brings results.” But she was raised in a day and age where a woman’s place was behind her man, not beside him. My grandfather died when I was little, leaving her alone for two decades.
Not one to bemoan her fate, she blossomed into the business woman she had always been, no longer shackled by societal boundaries. She took my grandfather’s land investment company to great heights while also leading the charge to find better ways to treat the heart disease that took her husband at 52. He had the first coronary artery bypass surgery performed in this country.
My mother was born in the 1920’s. A tumultuous decade filled with incredible changes for women, devastating wars, and an economic depression were to come. It would leave an indelible stamp on her psyche how fragile life can be. She too was raised to be the woman behind the man and the caretaker of the children and home. She was flawless at both. But I believe it took a toll when her own aspirations and brilliance couldn’t be pursued. Instead, she threw all her ambitions and drive behind those she loved, pushing them to greater heights.
By the time I was born, the fourth of five kids, she was 35 and staunchly entrenched in her role. In me she saw all the possibilities she could never attain- education and a career. She encouraged me to graduate high school at 16 and college at 19. I was constantly told anything was possible if I worked hard to achieve it. But being a mother and wife were still so ingrained in her soul, no matter how much I flourished, those were always supposed to be my priority. Once I graduated medical school, along with my soon to become husband, all the encouragement to fly were in the past. My career was now relegated to second and ultimately third place after my wifely and motherly duties. Balancing all three was unheard of. I had gone as far as she could envision. And even though that incredible vision had gotten me so much further than she had imagined was possible, there were still limits.
I am here, talking to you today, because of her.The sudden change in support was painful and hard to understand back then. But decades of societal norms can’t be ignored or wished away. They take generations to assimilate and become routine. Each one growing and building on the last ones hard earned gains.
We aren’t our parents. We have seen possibilities they never knew existed. And once acquired, can be nurtured so they thrive when families enter the picture, not throttled back or destroyed.
Role models showed us the way, now it’s up to us to maintain that path so future generations can have a smoother passage while forging new paths for those to come. It may seem alien and even go against everything we were taught, but that doesn’t alter the fact that having more options, following multiple roads or creating unique routes is how we’ve come so far.
My grandmother, mother and sister never had the choices I had. My daughter has even more. That’s the way it should be. We fly to new heights on the backs of those who came before us. But they can only take us so high. We must then take others higher.
Sir Isaac Newton wrote,“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
We owe those giants a great debt. It can only be repaid by paying it forward.