Rebecca’s Story

REBECCA: The life I had, good and bad, I gave it to myself.”

I empathise with Rebecca about the hardships and benefits for women who choose to be different. Her story, and Russell’s, whose differentness was no choice of his and bitterly resented, are poignant examples of how difficult it can be to live outside prescribed gender roles and social norms.

Standing Up, Rebecca’s Story

It’s late fall and Rebecca wears an elegantly casual black coat, a touch of red in scarf and gloves. Almost black eyes and cropped, dark brown hair curling a little around aquiline features speak of Sephardic origins. Settling in with coffee in the lounge of the senior’s centre where I had taught a course in memory strategies Rebecca begins by telling me that her early life “was tough from the beginning.” The second oldest in a European Jewish immigrant family of six — three daughters and three sons — she started taking care of her younger brothers when she was very young. She was 15 when the third one was born, and her mother, knowing that she was crazy about the kids, “gave him to me: ‘Here,’ she said, ‘this one is yours.’ To this day he feels like I am his Mom.”

It was then that Rebecca realized that to “stay where she was” meant either a life of unrewarded domestic drudgery, of “grief and strife” in marriage and motherhood, or a dead-end job working in her uncle’s factory. Or both.

“I said to myself: ‘This whole thing is no good, I’m getting lost in this shuffle. My older sister—she refused to look after our brothers, married and moved to Detroit. She asked me to come and help with her boys when her husband was away during the war. My poor mother, she had no help after I was gone.

“I loved those kids but it was just like what I’d left. I had to let them go, to live their own lives or I wouldn’t have any life at all. I moved to New York and got a job doing piecework in a millinery factory. It was all I could get, I had no education: any money for education went to the boys; my parents saw no use in education for girls who would marry and have kids. But it was low pay for long hours and making me sick – I was so tired I couldn’t spend what I had. I got a job selling hats at Peck and Peck. I worked my way up, knew my customers and eventually became manager of the department. From then on nobody bothered me and life was easier.”

“That was pretty daring in those days, wasn’t it, for a woman to go to a big city on her own?” I asked

“Yes, it was. I didn’t have a lot of approval. But I had some good times.”

“Many memories.”

“Oh, yes,” she laughs softly. “With my sister’s children, when they got old enough to visit. And on my own. I went out with a lot of men, some wanted to marry me, but it was my choice not to marry.”

Rebecca tries not to think about the bad times, she pushes them away, or they get her down in the dumps. And for the sake of family relationships it’s important to try to forget the injustices done to you in your family, to forgive and move on with your own life. “In time they don’t seem so important,” she says, “which makes it easier to remember the good times.

She’s had to learn that it was all right to care for herself, as well as for other people. She “works on forgiveness,” and it’s still important for her to care for other people — to keep connected. But she tries to make looking after herself a priority. “This is one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn, and I’m still learning.

“It may look as if I’ve been selfish because I’m alone, but I never used to care too much for myself, just for others, until, like I said, I decided I had to care for myself.”

“Made a big difference in your life?”

“Oh, yes. Now that I can think of myself, I feel better, I look after myself better. I can say no, which I never used to. I still care a lot, but I had to learn to stand up for my rights, for myself.”

“Sounds like you have.”

She wants to remember what has meant a lot to her — and, although she’d like them to be, the meaningful times weren’t always the happy ones. I ask her what she thinks someone means if they tell her they have a “good memory:”

“That their life was good — that’s a good memory. About someone you loved, your family.”

“An easy life … and so easy to remember?” I said.

“Yes. The bad experiences — what most people have — if you have a little bit of brains … you think more … about things that are deeper and hard to forget …the disappointments, the times when you felt sick and couldn’t pull yourself up…”

“And when you think more?” I asked.

“Gives you a better insight on life … doesn’t it?” Long pause. “Sometimes I think I didn’t have such a good life.”


“No. But I try to make it what I can. I think about the good things, and I’m grateful for what I have. When my memory is good I feel more alive, more at peace with myself, so that I can take things as they came and accept that my life, overall, has been good.  But it makes me feel sad to talk about it … Talking brings it out.”

Rebecca didn’t talk about remembering names or dates or appointments as good or bad; she used common strategies such as lists or a daily diary. Or she could “call them up” by not worrying and taking the time to visualize and think it through.

Because the other kind of good or bad memory that concerns her is the memory that allows her to remember information, to be able to “probe, to teach” herself. To make up for her lifelong regret about not having had the education that would have given her a better life she is determined to be a lifelong learner. Any threat to this is enough to make her feel sick all over.

Rebecca knew she had made the right choice for herself, she was fiercely proud of her independence and of the career she achieved while maintaining the family relationships that were so important to her. For example, even though it “put a dent” in her career she returned home for a year to care for her mother when she was dying, and she always welcomed family visits to New York, proudly and happily showing them the sights.

But there is a pervasive, underlying sadness in her voice as she talks about her life. She has lived the loneliness – and sometimes shame – of an independent, single, working woman, frowned upon in her community: “You know”, she said, “The Jewish religion, to the community it’s the wrong choice — if you’re not married, it’s shameful … not to have children … to carry on”.

“You feel embarrassed?”

“No, not any more. I never did. Why should I? I know it’s my own choice. I had a lot of men that wanted me. I guess I was afraid. When I saw someone getting serious I got rid of them. To me, marriage, what I saw, it was a lot of grief and strife. I’m not sorry about that, but … ”

“Not the right choice in your community, but the right choice for you, and it’s been hard living it.”

“Mmm. Yes, it has.”

She never made a lot of money, but at 62 Rebecca had saved enough to quit her job while she was still young enough to enjoy living in New York and do all the things she didn’t have time for while she was working. “I really lived, had my “fill of lectures, concerts, plays and art galleries, nice dinners, and trips here and there.” Then, when she turned 70, she moved back to Toronto, where her brothers and their families live. She was sad to leave her friends in NY and the life they had, but she knows that as she ages she cannot be alone

“Friends cannot look after you when you are sick” she said. “To be poor and sick makes you forget everything else. To be alone and not to be able to tell your story is to forget your life. You have to have someone in back of you.”

Now that she is retired, she finds that it’s wonderful not to have to get up — she has “been standing up for a long time.” There has been so much turmoil in her life; now she can slow down and take it easy. She manages, has no children to leave money to, is not a big spender, has her nest egg put by—“I made sure I had that before I started to live–I still love it, every day to do what I want.”

“Sounds like a good place to be … ”

Not bad. Could have been better but … ” Laughs. “I don’t regret not being married, I regret not being educated…see, those feelings still keep coming up!”

And that was no choice of hers. She is glad that she “stood up for herself.” But she did it for a long time and is grateful that she doesn’t have to do it any longer.

We talked about what she has learned as she has lived her life, is still learning, and I mention that if she wanted something more formal, there’s Elderhostel and University of the Third Age.

“It’s too late now, I’m too old, need a special diet, besides I don’t want to be with sick old people who have the wrong attitude. Like the ones I met at the workshop — these people scare me, make me sad – not just because they are forgetful in the usual way, but because they remind me of the parts of my life that weren’t so good –they give me a bad memory.”

I tell her about Beatrice, disabled and in pain a lot of the time, who is still going to as many of the adult education seminars as she can. She finds the accommodations comfortable and the staff has to pay attention to people’s diets – there are so many with special needs.

Rebecca looks at me quizzically – perhaps thinking that I am trying to talk her into something? — and then asks: “This education, is it in the summer?” As I tell her more about the variety of programs — everything from history and astronomy to the arts — her eyes brighten, and she looks thoughtful. “Well, it wasn’t so bad, my life, I don’t dwell on the bad parts so much; I forget, I have to. I had a lot of laughs … and I have a good memory.”

“You’ve learned a lot from your life that has made you … ”

“What I am! Me.”

” … and that you made a good life for yourself. And for other people too. You made a difference in other people’s lives, not just your own: your family, friends, your colleagues. And you learned from them too.”

“Yes, I did.”

“In a sense you forget, in a sense … ”

“It’s there.”

“You created the life you wanted?”

“Yes, I did. You take what you get and learn to live with it, and that’s life. It’s been okay.”

My learning: I empathise with Rebecca about the hardships and benefits for women who choose to be different. Her story, and Russell’s, whose differentness was no choice of his and bitterly resented, are poignant examples of how difficult it can be to live outside prescribed gender roles and social norms.