It’s #InternationalWomensDay. Who’s a great woman in your life?
No doubt your social media feeds are being filled with reminders of the many women who have shaped the world. Writers, scientists, government leaders, artists, successes in businesses.
But true mentors are women who served as close-up role models. It might have been a teacher, a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, a friend, a neighbor. We all had them, and we’re better for it.
I’m the result of positive influences of many women, including my mother and mother-in-law and various relatives (including my two daughters — who says we can’t learn from those younger than we are?). Certainly there have many teachers who pushed me, female writers and editors who demanded more of me, and friends who supported me when I needed it.
Today I’m going to tell the story of a women I only got to know fully once I was an adult. We lived in different cities, but I always admired her for her advice and for what she did with her life. She was the model of someone who easily could have followed a traditional path but chose to make it on her own.
I had a great-aunt named Nelle Prastalo, for whom my mother was named. She was a Serbian immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager in the early 1920s.
She was the younger sister of my grandmother, who had come to the United States at 16 years old several years earlier to marry my grandfather, another Serbian immigrant. Like Grandma, Teta, as we called her, came to marry another Serb. She had a daughter, Millie (named for my grandmother). But her husband died soon afterward.
What was a young mother with a young toddler to do? She was still learning to speak and read English. What kind of work could she get? Where would she live? Who would take care of her?
The Serbian community found her another husband, but it meant moving across the country from Chicago to San Francisco. So she packed up her few belongings and moved, arriving with young Millie in tow. It was only then that she met her future husband and decided —
I only heard the story secondhand from my mother, but apparently Teta decided that her future wouldn’t include an arranged marriage with a man she didn’t care for. She got a job in a watch-making factory and found a small apartment where she raised Millie on her own. Before long, she saved enough money to buy a small house (we’re talking REALLY small) in South San Francisco, where she lived the rest of her life.
In the days when single mothers were looked down on, Teta decided she didn’t need anyone else’s approval. She loved her house, her daughter, and her life. She made friends with co-workers and others in the community. Millie grew and married, living not far away in San Jose. Frugal Teta saved her money and traveled, going back to Serbia (then still part of Yugoslavia) to reconnect with relatives. She loved going to Hawaii. She enjoyed her evening nightcap of Canadian Club.
As a child, I remember her visits to Chicago when she came to visit her sister. Grandma was in a more traditional role of homemaker (although she didn’t put up with any guff from Grandpa), but the two of them loved the visits, cooking traditional foods and going to the Serbian Orthodox Church. They sipped Slivovitz (a plum brandy that is definitely an acquired taste), toasting each other with shouts of Nazdravlje (I remember the pronunciation as nas-TROV-ya).
I also remember that Teta was one of the first women who ever told me, “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.” It was a lesson that my mother must have learned, too, as she didn’t let anyone stop her from going to college (one of the few in the South Side Serbian community and definitely the first in the family) and finding satisfying jobs.
Teta also stressed that we shouldn’t settle for men we didn’t love; we could get along without them. We should live where we want. We should get jobs that paid us what we were worth. “Make sure they pay you doubletime!” was something she loved to say.
Here was a woman who started out basically illiterate yet raised a daughter on her own and worked her way into a satisfying life. I’ve never met anyone so proud to be a homeowner. When you went to visit, there was no argument: You stayed with Teta, even when you were crowded onto the fold-out couch in the living room.
She loved to drag visitors to places like the John Muir Woods to see the giant redwoods, even when the walking wore her out. She was proud of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and sourdough bread. And she always asked her guests, “Don’t you want a drink?” before she brought out the Canadian Club.
Teta developed breast cancer and died in 1991. We talked on the phone many times that summer and fall before she died. I told her stories of our family, and her own daughter finally moved her into her own house so Teta could see her grandchildren. I think leaving that tiny house was the hardest thing of all for her. But she died surrounded by love.
May we all be as successful as Teta at whatever we make of our lives.