In 2011, David Brooks, in his New York Times column, asked that 70+ aged readers write their own life report cards. Some months later, I wrote my own as a possible first step toward an autobiography. Now, having turned 80, I’ve updated my report card and graded it by decades.
Life Report Card
Born in 1937, at the height of the depression and on the cusp of war, I’ve been privileged to live a life full of good health, family, friendship, and the all too rare opportunity to fulfill my destiny. How to report on it? From Tolstoi to Jesse Jackson, thinkers have used the book metaphor to describe lives; that’s particularly appropriate for me: books have shaped me in nearly every chapter. So, here, in brief form, is the book report of my life.
We are born on a certain day but the events and people that shape our lives bring long histories. In my life, it was my parents’ immigration from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to hard lives and struggles in New York that prefigured what I would become. They married on March 18, 1932, the day the banks closed, and faced economic troubles from that day to nearly the end of their lives. Yet they believed absolutely in the value of education and saw to it that my brother and I went to college. For me it was the free education at Brooklyn College that set the stage for all my future accomplishments.
Chapter I. 1937 – 1958 Birth Through Marriage
When I was one year old, my parents, borrowed money from relatives to buy a modest four family house on West 1st Street in Brooklyn, New York: this momentous decision enabled them to live in what they saw as a luxury apartment rent free, paid for with the income from three other apartments in a working class immigrant neighborhood. P.S. 177 was where the children of immigrants were sent to learn how to live in this new world. I was (and remained till my thirties) an unmotivated student. I was sent to Hebrew school several afternoons a week and somehow managed not to learn to read a single Hebrew letter. But the foundations of my life and success were built during those years: my love of books and my friendship with the little girl across the street.
So books began to mold me early on. The purchase of a book was a great luxury and I still have most of those given to me by my parents and my aunt. One, in particular, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has my parents’ inscription: “To Phyllis on her 11th birthday…To the best daughter any father can hope to have..Affectionately Daddy…With love…Mother”
My aunt gave me such books as Anderson’s Fairy Tales, most of which terrified me and introduced me to the pleasures of being scared out of my wits. The later discovery of Edgar Allen Poe confirmed me as a lifelong reader and connoisseur of murder mysteries.
When the IQ tests given before junior high entry revealed that mine was so high that I had to be placed in what was then called the Special Progress program for gifted children. We took three years of work in two, which meant that I graduated from high school at sixteen and college at twenty. But I still was not motivated.
At Brooklyn College, I met and was befriended by an English major who gave me my first serious look at literature, in the form of armloads of paperbacks. Here I met and absorbed a large part of the canon, informally and without tutelage.
Near the end of undergraduate school I met my husband of 53 years. And that love of books led me to one of the earliest Masters degrees in Developmental and Remedial Reading, a step on the road to my happy and unconventional career.
What I Did Wrong: Aim too low. When my best friend (the writer Gioia Timpanelli) went to Hunter High School I chose to remain at the local high school because of the boys.
What I Did Right: Marry the right guy
Grade on Birth to Marriage: B-
Chapter II. The Sixties Through Seventies
I taught third, fourth, and fifth grades in elementary schools on Long Island: I loved teaching and found every moment of it fascinating. I can’t understand why people see teaching as a lesser career. But I stopped after six years to have my children. My little boys were born in 1964 and 1966 and books once again played a critical role. First, when it dawned on me that I wasn’t learning any new words I became an early subscriber to The New York Review of Books: the review itself and the books it led me to broadened my interest in history, politics, and literature. And I read the formative work, Between Parent and Child: this book not only enabled me to mother successfully but to rethink every aspect of language in the career that followed.
In 1970, my husband’s job took us from Long Island to a suburb of Rochester, New York, where I finally read The Feminine Mystique. Betty Freiden’s claim for starting the women’s movement is well deserved: her ideas transformed me and sent me to graduate school at the University of Rochester: I no longer saw myself as a school teacher but as a scholar (though still a fiercely independent thinker). With the full support of my husband and two little boys, I earned my Ed.D. just after my 40th birthday. My dissertation was accepted for publication. I decided not to return to teaching but to start my own business, to sing my own song.
My business was born in 1977: I never wanted to sit in an office and send people out to do my work and being my own boss enabled me not only to do my work but to spread my ideas far and wide. I planned every seminar, wrote all the course materials, and trained instructors and helpers. Work brought me all over the US and Canada and, for six years, to Europe to teach advanced communications to educated people. My work. My way. My ideas.
These years, of course, were also the years of rearing our two boys, a greater challenge than that of building a little company. We spent many hours thinking about how to do it right: should we free the child to do something scary (like taking flying lessons); should we permit him to hang by his arms on the monkey bars; should we encourage him to go to college summer school rather than be the camp waterfront counselor? We had no idea until much later what good choices we’d made.
Grade for 60’s and 70’s: A+
Chapter III. The 80’s and 90’s Hardship and Triumph
When my husband’s company was sold, we chose not to leave our home in Pittsford, NY. He was fifty years old and we suddenly faced what seemed an impossibility: a rocky and uncertain economic situation just as our first born started college. We were too poor to pay for private school but too rich to receive aid. As he sought consulting work, I sought to build my tiny company: ultimately it needed his skills and he came to work with me. This proved a happy decision because we had the pleasure of traveling together for our various work assignments.
My first book was published after my 50th birthday: it proved a critical but not a commercial success but it spread my vision of reading beyond local contacts.
My successful book emerged from my women’s language seminars. In its second version it has been translated into German, Chinese, and Arabic and is read and used by individual women and in women’s programs in many countries. It remained high on Amazon’s book list for years. Its premise that women can speak powerfully without compromising their integrity or femininity stands as a counterweight to the influences that say women must act like men to succeed.
But the triumph went beyond work: our boys now emerged as exceptional students. They attended an ivy league school we hadn’t even dreamed about and met accolades wherever they went. One went on to earn an MD/PhD and now runs a lab at NIH. The younger one earned degrees in literature and engineering and was awarded a named professorship at the university where he now has tenure and a world reputation.
Grade for the 80’s and 90’s: A+
Chapter IV. The Twenty-first Century: Tragedy, Endurance, Serenity
Our charmed life came to a screeching halt in 2004 when my husband was diagnosed with a Stage IV colon cancer that had metastasized into his liver. The marvelous medical care he received in Rochester not only saved him at that time but saved him on several recurrences of the cancer for seven years. During the last two years we was on permanent chemotherapy which drained him of much of his energy but did not drain away his zest for or enjoyment of life. He proved a hero to all who know him – he and we as a family determined to make the most of every moment. In some ways we were happier then than ever before, enjoying every day we saw our four wonderful grandchildren, one of whom was only three months old when my husband died in December 2011. We spent whatever time we could with family and friends between treatments, and never missed a party.
Our family comprises our greatest creation. Both our sons married fine, accomplished women, wives, and mothers. In the seven years after my husband’s illness was diagnosed, we married off a child, watched our grandsons grow into fine young men, and celebrated the births of two lovely little girls. We cherished each moment and rested easy with the sense that our work was done.
After my husband died (the nearest one can get to a good death), I found myself not only bereft but with nothing to do. Two years later I moved to the apartment we’d bought in 2004 but never lived in full time; now I struggle with life alone in a new city, trying to build a meaningful volunteer career and possibly writing another book.
What I Learned
- We need love and health, not money or things.
- Books help us live.
- Never choose work because of its pay scale: choose work because you love it.
- Wisdom can be found in the least educated; advanced degrees never made a person smart.
- Family matters; friends and community matter too.
- Never lie – it hurts you more than the one to whom you lied.
- The last few pages are still to be written…
As woman: A
As wife: B+ (with hills and valleys)
As mother: A+
In career: A
As friend: A+
In living up to potential: A+
With technical skills: F+ (I try)
Afterword: The Ninth Decade Begins
The last years of my eighth decade brought health and illness. My gradual healing from Marvin’s death and the falls that followed culminated in a triumphant trip to Sicily in 2015 with a group formed around my best friend/sister by choice, Gioia Timpanelli. Within a month of returning, I found a lump on my breast, which was the first cancer with the second to follow in 2016. Although I refused treatment the first time, the aggressiveness of the second led me to choose radiation. Two days after my 8th birthday celebration (January 29, 2017), a week of medical tests and specialist appointments revealed that I had pneumonia, radiation pneumonitis, diabetes, and a spot on the liver that hadn’t been there on the previous test (not a third cancer!). It’s three and half months later and I’m just fine again with renewed vigor and an ever greater appreciation of life’s joys.
No grade yet, only gratitude to have reached this day…
May 23, 2017