On International Women’s Day, a friend got me thinking about balance and women (see yesterday’s post). Because I wrote about balance yesterday, I decided to send International Women’s Day into overtime – a well-deserved bonus as there should be more than just one day for women!
Connecting International Women’s Day with balance immediately made me think about my grandmother – my dad’s mom, Anna Zak Pliszka Weinstock (aka Grandma, or Grandma Weinstock). Thanks to my uncle George (dad’s brother), I have some details. Grandma’s parents, Mary and Stanley immigrated separately from Poland to the United States in the late 1800’s. They met in New York and were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1898. On October 14, 1902 Grandma Weinstock was born. She was the first of seven children.
It’s not clear how the family ended up in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin and it doesn’t really matter for this story. When she was 14 years-old, grandma left school to work in the Appleton Electric foundry. (Sixty years later, I would also work there to put myself through college). At 19 years-old, grandma married Walter Edward Pliszka and they had four children, one of whom died at age six.
Shortly after getting married, my grandparents started Pliszka Variety Store which eventually became Pliszka Hardware. After 14 years of marriage, Walter died from pneumonia, leaving grandma a widow with three young children, the oldest of which was 10 years-old. The year was 1935 and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression.
Times were tough, but grandma somehow found her balance and kept the store going while she worked other jobs to make ends meet and keep her family together. For fourteen years, she supported her family on her own until she married grandpa Ray Weinstock in 1949. Together they kept the store going while Ray worked for the Milwaukee County Parks Department.
When I was in seventh grade, I began working in grandma’s store on a regular basis and job shared with a cousin who was a year older than me. This helped free grandma up to be in her home which was connected to the store. There, she could be found cooking, cleaning, or doing the books.
Working in her store was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I quickly learned the responsibility of being on time to work, how to be courteous to customers, how to count change back to customers, and how to wrap presents (well, sort of). I learned how to mix paint and cut glass to size. When something became too complicated, or a customer insisted, there was a buzzer connected to the house that we would use to summon adult help.
For a seventh grader, working all day on a Saturday was grueling and it was my first taste of what it might be like to work full-time. It made me value free time and is perhaps the impetus for balance as my second most important value. Secondarily, there were the awesome lunches which grandma fixed. Be it a hot melty grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, or fried bologna and onions, lunch was always a treat and somehow an incentive to help out at the store.
Sometimes I would accompany grandma to the wholesalers to buy stock for the store. It was my first foray into business. Sure, it was fun to see what things we would be stocking in the store, but most of all, the trip usually resulted in a luncheon stop at The Buttered Bun. There, the long-gone restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee served up the best cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shakes money could buy. Believe me, it wasn’t just about the food, but it did teach me how to motivate others with food!
Grandma was strong and kind. Once I had bullied a neighborhood kid and broke his baseball bat. The kid told my grandmother what I had done and of course, her store sold baseball bats too. She replaced his bat and afterward gave me a pretty stern talking to — thankfully she did not tell my parents. Grandma taught me a life lesson and I’m still a bit embarrassed about what I did. In fact, I still cringe a little thinking about her admonishment. I’m sorry I let her down.
I’m a better person because of my grandmother. She finally retired at 73 years-old when they sold the store in 1975. She died on May 2, 1997 at 94 years-old. She was a strong woman with good balance. Rest in peace grandma.