I loved dolls but never had much interest in being a mommy. Because of my Aunt Ednamae’s influence, I learned early that there were possibilities for women beyond motherhood.
My father was the youngest of six children. The fifth child, Ednamae, was three years his senior. They were childhood playmates, and my father was closer to her than to any of his other siblings. He came to consider her the epitome of female achievement in many ways.
Blonde with blue eyes and an hourglass figure, Ednamae attracted male attention well into her 50s. She was also very intelligent, curious, and capable.
As a youngster, she had been a serious student, and my father, a lazy young scholar, was always lurking in her shadow. Ednamae was in the clerical curriculum, winning awards statewide in typing and shorthand. Upon graduation from high school in 1929, she was offered a scholarship to the University of Indiana, but family finances could not support this venture. She followed the family tradition by working at H.C. Fry Glass in Rochester.
Times were hard in 1929, and the onset of the Depression was the beginning of the end for Fry Glass. It seemed that layoffs were eminent. So when Ednamae received another offer to work at Freedom Oil, her boss told her to take it.
That was the beginning of a 45-year career there.
Freedom Oil was a tough university for a young girl. The 1929 world of business belonged to men, and women were the ornamentation that did the menial tasks. The pattern in that world was that a single girl took a job right out of high school and worked until she could find a man to marry her and carry her away. After that, she was housewife and mother, dependent upon her husband in every way. This was what tradition dictated.
Sharing with me the mentality of those times, Ednamae reported, “My friend’s mother told her: ‘Don’t you dare die without a Mrs. on your tombstone.’”
The very fact that a young girl had to work after high school was in itself a servile act: Well-bred girls went to the university or to finishing school. For a woman to have to work for a living was a sign that her parents could do no more for her. It was expected that the girl would work in a dead-end and routine job waiting until her knight would come to rescue her and put her in a place where he would determine her destiny.
Few women tore themselves out of this pattern; Ednamae was one of them.
To be an 18-year old girl working for the oil industry in 1929 was to be subjected to an eye-opening experience where harassment was the order of the day. On her first day of work, the office manager pulled her onto his lap in front of the staff and showed her a bra made of paper clips.
“This is what we make girls wear if they don’t wear enough clothes to the office,” he told her, relishing her embarrassment as the others snickered. She had to learn how to deal with men who came up behind her when she was filing, laying hands on her when she was taking dictation. There was no one to whom a woman could turn to save herself from the abuse. A single working girl had no protector, no legal recourse. She had to learn to take care of herself.
As the economy limped through the Depression, there were pink-slip Fridays where bad news accompanied the paychecks enclosed in the envelopes distributed to the typists. Ednamae was worried; she was a junior employee. She might soon get her own pink slip.
Returning from the mimeograph machine one day, still smudged with ink, she had a notion to slip to the boss’ office and ask for a minute of his time.
Graciously, the boss consented and listened to her as she explained how hard she was trying to learn her job and be a good employee.
He replied, “We were going to let you go at the end of the week, but I like your attitude.”
There was no pink slip in her pay envelope that Friday or on any other Friday.
As she promised her boss, she learned quickly and impressed everyone with her intelligence, prudence, and personality, eventually becoming the head of the Stenographic Department. She was the only female department head and the only woman attending the staff meetings as a peer.
Now herself a boss with women working under her, she wisely managed her staff, giving them 15 minutes to share their weekends on Monday mornings before setting them to work, and taking an interest in their personal lives as well as in their work.
The women who worked for Ednamae were single; once a woman got married, it was traditional for her to give up work, as she now had a husband to support her. Upon one occasion, a particularly unpleasant employee was getting married. No one liked the woman, but Ednamae sponsored an office party for her nonetheless and encouraged the others to participate. They had a cake for her and showered her with gifts. Then Ednamae shut the door to the office and let the others give the bride some last-minute thoughts on how they really felt about her. Ednamae was affable, reasonable, and compassionate, but she was not a woman to cross and quite capable of ruthlessness when it was necessary.
At the zenith of her career, she was an executive secretary to a company officer, with whom she developed a friendship as well as a close working relationship.
In 1950, the year I was born, Ednamae’s life was at its richest and most glamorous.
In 1944, she had married Lawrence in a Christmas Day candlelight ceremony at home. Lawrence had been Ednamae’s lifelong romance. He was the best friend of her older brother Ed, and she had been in love with him since six years old. Wrapped in an old shower curtain playing dress-up on the sidewalk outside her home, she was mortified to see him walk past her with a girl his own age.
Burning with jealousy, she silently begged him to wait until she was grown. She needn’t have worried; by the time Ednamae was 14, Lawrence was treating her like something more than just the little sister of his best friend.
Lawrence and Ed enrolled in Carnegie-Mellon University’s art curriculum. Ed dropped out and continued his art. Lawrence decided that engineering held a better future and obtained a degree. As an engineer responsible for the furnaces at the steel mill during World War II, Lawrence was more valuable to the war effort at home than overseas.
Lawrence was a large man, over 6’4”. He was affable, placid, jovial, and easy-going. He liked to chew tobacco and gnaw on a cigar, and he enjoyed his beer, which Ednamae, always a status-seeker, disliked. Still, they were a well-matched couple.
After their marriage, Ednamae and Lawrence lived with my grandmother, who was otherwise alone since my father was fighting the war in Europe and his older siblings had their own homes and families.
Ednamae continued to work, breaking free from another convention. Neither wanted children, so they had the income and freedom to live affluent, unfettered lives, saving for a home of their own.
In 1950, they took a road trip across the United States, despite the disapproval of Ednamae’s boss’ boss, who declared that no “working girl” should have a three-week vacation. He expressed the same class consciousness upon learning that Ednamae had bought a mink coat (which was very desirable and not socially objectionable at that time). Some people didn’t know their place!
Besides traveling, entertaining, and socializing with a better set, due to their professional connections, they experimented with photography. At this time, Ednamae and Lawrence posed for portraits from Graule Studios, a Rochester icon. They were respectively thirty-nine and forty-seven years old.
Ednamae at 39 was a stunningly beautiful blonde. Her hair was always immaculately coifed. At 5’7”, she had enough height to carry off an elegance that made her very attractive to both sexes, particularly because of a naturally pleasant personality. That notwithstanding, she was somewhat of a flirt and enjoyed male company. Always having Lawrence in her heart, she wasn’t interested in making conquests, so women likewise experienced her charm and wit and considered her an engaging companion.
Even-tempered and cerebral, she enjoyed banter, capable of razor-sharp jibes when goaded. Compassionate and generous, knowledgeable, and articulate, and, best of all, a close guardian of secrets, she was a good friend. On the other hand, she was very proud and not one to apologize or make up to someone when she thought she was in the right.
Ednamae had an eager and curious mind and was always looking for ways to bring more elegance into her life, whether through learning about gardening, flower arranging, or napkin folding, exquisite furnishings, wardrobe, the theatre, music, or travel. She and Lawrence loved socializing with those who shared their upward mobility, or those whose families or influence had already put them at the top.
She was a role model in my life and most likely a role model for many other young women.