How I Learned Creative Resilience From My Mother

Courtesy Rhona BronsonThe author's mom at age 2 in 1917 Berlin.

I grew up in a family of mostly men. The women in my family were few and far between ranging from one female cousin who worked in New York City as a CEO's executive assistant, to another female cousin who was a traditional homemaker, my mother, and me. I was the youngest girl in the family and because I did well in school, I was told by everyone that I was destined to be a teacher or nurse – the obvious jobs for any smart girl in the 20th century.

As I look back on my career that now spans several decades it would be easy to assume that the businessmen, academics, or even my career-minded administrative cousin were my inspiration for pursuing a then non-traditional career for a woman, but they weren't. My inspiration was my mother.​Early on, based on her own admiration for her periodontist, my mother suggested I become a dentist. In her practical way, she was looking for a well-paying career with flexible hours that would allow me to also pursue having a family. Unfortunately, I had no proclivity for medicine, blood, drilling, or teeth, which I learned while holding down a part-time job as a dental office assistant while in high school. She was right, however, that I would flourish in a well-paying career with flexible hours that let me work from home during maternity leaves, or leave work early to pick up sick kids and stray family dogs when needed.

My mother never had the opportunities I did. She never went to college, was a WWII immigrant to the U.S., and was rarely taken seriously in her financial astuteness by the men in the family who frequently took unnecessary risks in seeking and losing their fortunes in the magical, mysterious U.S. stock market. In contrast, my mother died with enough savings and income to pay for all her own medical care during her final years as an Alzheimer's patient, have her condo paid off, and leave a little to each of her three kids.

But, the real lessons I learned from my mother came from hearing stories and watching her incessantly and creatively reinvent herself. Life threw her as many curves as any of us have experienced in the myriad recessions since the 1980s. Worse than a recession, she had to flee Nazis and arrive in a foreign country with few possessions, little documentation, and a lot of paranoia. My challenges in being laid off twice in middle age with college bills looming for two kids pale in comparison to the challenges she faced. Here's just a sampling.
  • As a teenager, she helped her Anglican mother run a boarding house in London while her Jewish father struggled to keep his banker's income functioning in Berlin, Germany. (Of course, that's where she inherited her financial savvy!)
  • At age 17, she took the overflow work from her mother in helping displaced and traveling Germans learn English. She soon met my father as she helped him master English for use in his own exporting business.
  • At 18, she took a slow boat to Shanghai, China by herself and without her mother's blessings to marry my dad. For a few years, she led a life of leisure, and put time in learning French, the official international language of that era.
  • By age 25 she fled Shanghai to escape both the Japanese and Germans and crossed Canada to enter the U.S. on a passport the Germans had nullified in hopes the U.S. would deport her and my dad back to a death camp rather than allow them entry.
  • With renewed British credentials, she became the family emissary, leaving the U.S. by herself in her late 20s for Cuba to check on my dad's Romanian siblings who couldn't gain entry into the U.S. on the existing quotas after fleeing Europe.
  • Throughout her 30s and 40s, she was a shopkeeper and bookkeeper, holding down the fort in our family store while also bringing up her own brood of kids. She brought her children up Jewish while suffering reverse discrimination as the Jewish community refused to believe the blond, green-eyed beauty who was fluent in German wasn't more Aryan than Semitic.
  • She fought for her sons to go to college, again studied French with her daughter, and got rip roaring drunk when each son earned a Ph.D.
  • In her 50s, she became a young widow. She refused to let her sons take over the family business, sold it, and retrained herself as a typist. Still fluent in German, she became an office assistant for a German company based in New Jersey, and sat quietly while hearing rampant anti-Semitism spewed in German during normal business hours so the Americans wouldn't hear. She never revealed that this still blond beauty was in fact Jewish herself.
  • Then, she encouraged her only daughter – me – to leave home and study at a U.S. university in communications. She single-handedly drove the car for hours each way to drop me off as a new freshman, and although crying, I'm told, all the way home, never let me feel awkward about setting out on my own.

Yes, she was an amazing, brave, resilient person. She was also warm, loving, funny, and joyous. When needed, she pretended to be older than she was – when fostering cousins who arrived in the U.S. before their own parents could gain entry. When required, she stayed silent about her own beliefs – both when faced with Jews not trusting Germans and Germans not trusting Jews. When challenged, she retrained herself to earn her own living and ultimately succeeded in buying the condo she always wanted on a high floor in Miami, Florida.

My mother taught me by example. She taught me to accept challenges, not to fear adventure, strike out on my own, defeat depression, mourn the dead but live for the living, handle my own finances, admire other successful women as positive examples, never stop learning new things, and reinvent myself whenever and however I'd need to in order to take care of myself and those I love. She also taught me how to be a loving mother and put children first. Without being a feminist – that was my generation – she stood on her own two feet as a woman who could hold her own in a man's world without losing her own identity. She was all of 5' 2" tall and still, to this day, casts a long shadow. I could have had no better mentor, or mother. She has always been the voice in my head, and continues to be my secret weapon in navigating the world. In the way only a mother can, she is always with me and yet also always missed.

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