Sharing isn’t always comfortable

Deborah on graduation day at the Felds.

Deborah on graduation day at the Felds.

I serve others by offering them the opportunity via Our Tales UnTold to record their stories for posterity, preserving their voice, memories, and values. I bear witness to pain and joy, hear voices crack with the weight of remembering, and see smiles spread with visions of places and people previously forgotten now recalled. There are many positive aspects to sharing one’s journey. But doing so isn’t always easy.

Tonight I’m honored to share a portion of my story on a live Reinvention Works webcast. I’m used to being the interviewer, not the interviewee, and this experience is causing me to stretch and grow. To be completely transparent, this feeling isn’t comfortable. That’s how I know it’s something I have to do.

It’s also a great reminder to me how others must feel when they consider working with me. There’s a level of courage, trust, and vulnerability when one opens up.

Reinvention Works focuses on people’s journeys to redefine their lives regarding their roles in the community and life’s work. I’ll be talking about how I went from an emancipated 17-year old to an accountant to a novelist and now a personal historian, plus the stops in between. Some people’s journey to adulthood can be drawn in a straight line. Mine would be sketched out as zig-zag with a few curlicues. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Reflecting on a key crossroads point in my life, which acted as a domino to all the actions which followed, has been challenging. What precipitated my mindset and ability to change gears? Where did my chutzpah come from? Why have I been confident enough to say, “Yes, I’ll try that” without fear of failing, time and again?

I chose me at seventeen-years-old because that’s when I became legally responsible for myself. Not to delve too deeply into why, suffice to say that I was escaping a physically violent stepfather and a mother who didn’t stop him. My father had his hands full with a new marriage and his solution of me joining the Navy didn’t suit me. Our compromise was that I’d become emancipated. I left home with $100 to my name and a suitcase full of clothes and rented a room from a high school classmate’s family; an Orthodox Jewish* family called the Felds.

The Felds’ son, Bennett, was the best friend of my senior class co-vice president, Mitchell. Many of my classmates knew of my violent stepfather because he would sometimes show up at school to terrorize me. (Social services had been called when one classmate alerted my guidance counselor of the bruising on my back.) There was, in fact, a conspiracy among teachers, students, and staff at my school to protect me. I’ve always been lucky to have many angels among friends and their families.

A week after graduating from high school, I got a part-time job at Kemner’s Card and Gift Shop in Southampton, PA. Mr. Kemner didn’t believe in hiring anyone under the age of 65, but for some reason, the women in the shop fell in love with me and insisted that he hire me. To my knowledge, I was the singular exception to Mr. Kemner’s ageism rule. I worked there for two years, even after I took a full-time job. I loved working with all my ‘grannies!’

Deborah's first car - a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle.

Deborah’s first car – a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle.

I do know that I would probably never have made it had it not been for the loving support of my high school boyfriend’s family, the Seales, and my best friend’s mother, Faye. They fed me and supported me, treating me as a daughter. Until I earned enough money to purchase for $400 my first car, a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle, they also carted me around wherever I needed to go. I’ve never forgotten their kindness.

It goes without saying that my friends are the best a girl could ever have, those from high school and beyond!

While I worked, I also attended Penn State-Ogontz, matriculating as a special education major. My school loan funds barely covered my school expenses that first year and I recall worrying about money all the time. I was forced to get a full-time job and I left college. With Bennett away at school, I also chose to move to an apartment close to my office, sharing with one of my co-workers. I made so little money that there were times I had to choose between paying the electric bill or purchasing groceries. I was grateful that the company where I worked subsidized lunches for all employees so I could eat for three dollars a day. And, while I’m not proud of this, I sometimes accepted dinner dates to have a decent evening meal. Those were lean times.

But it was this period which served as the foundation for my survival attitude. Not only did I survive, but I also thrived. That first full-time job, where I worked eight years, eventually allowed me to save money to return to Penn State in 1988. I’d been promoted 11 times during my tenure there, and when I set off to college at age 24, I felt ready to pursue my dream of attaining a college education.

Whenever I feel scared about the future, I think about the past and the challenges I’ve overcome. There’s a measure of comfort in knowing that if I lost everything, I have the will and mindset to create a life for myself and my family where we can thrive.

I hope you’ll consider joining Hollis Thomases and me this evening on Reinvention Works to hear more of my journey. (Pre-registration is required.)

*The Felds were the first Jewish family I knew intimately. I had no idea what it meant to be Orthodox or to keep kosher. I’m afraid my ignorance resulted in many buried-in-the-backyard dishes and flatware until I gave up cooking or eating in their home and ate elsewhere! Their son Bennett was killed in a terrible car accident while driving back from the University of Miami the first holiday season after graduation.

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