In honor of Women’s History Month (#whm2014) and the #womeninspire campaign sponsored by USC’s masters degree in social work program, I’m writing to share why my grandmother, Maria Parrotto, is my shero and how she inspired me throughout my life.
My grandmother was born in Philadelphia in 1921 to an immigrant Italian family and married my grandfather in 1936 at age 15. My grandparents were married for more than 60 years until his death in 1997. Together they raised three children, ran the family photography studio business and, as much as they could, lived the American dream.
While my grandmother in many regards lived a traditional life, she also had a feisty, independent streak and displayed a moxie few people possess. I often admired her style and thought she was ahead of her time. Here are the lessons she inspired.
Be yourself. Her beloved pet ocelot, Kitty, as you can see from the picture here was not a typical house cat. No matter how strange or unusual it seemed to adopt a wild cat, she was determined not to let what anyone else thought get in the way of bringing home this exotic creature. Kitty became a beloved family member and lived happily for 18 years periodically eating leather gloves and scaring off buglers and my mother and aunt’s dates.
Support yourself financially. You never know what the future may hold and earning your own money puts you in control of your destiny. My grandmother worked for years alongside my grandfather at the family’s photography studio but as the business began to wane, in the early 1970s, then in her 50s, she secured a job as a receptionist. In fact, at one time she held two or three jobs at once, determined to build her savings. She didn’t retire until age 79.
Education is important, never stop learning. My grandmother married very young and didn’t finish high school. But she was determined to go back to school and at age 40 she earned her high school diploma from Temple High School. Throughout her life she was always in the public library feeding her inquisitive mind.
Be entrepreneurial. My grandmother was an entrepreneur before the term became fashionable or tossed around so casually. She was smart and could easily discern a good business strategy and was willing to take the risk to make her vision a reality. This entrepreneurial nature was in her blood since her father had owned various properties and a grocery store which was transformed in to the South Philly Bar & Grille. This establishment was well-positioned to sell alcohol as soon as prohibition ended.
She discovered the perfect building and envisioned a rental property. At the time, she had only modest savings and had never owned a property outside of her own home. She also knew my grandfather would disapprove of the purchase, but proceeded with buying the property anyway. She cut a deal with the owner for a loan since she could not secure a bank loan. My grandfather didn’t learn about the purchase for about a year and when he discovered it, he just resigned himself to my grandmother’s will to be a landlord. The income from this investment secured their future and showed me if you want something, go get it!
Love America. Despite all the things wrong in this country and the horrible political climate in Washington today, let’s face it, we hit the lottery by being born here. My grandmother was from a family of immigrants, and my grandparents weren’t wealthy, but she took advantage of all the opportunities afforded to her, appreciated a modest lifestyle and above all worked hard. She paved the way for a better life for her children and grandchildren.
Stand up for yourself. While my grandmother stood no taller than 5ft, she never backed down from a fight. She wasn’t violent but her scrappy style lent itself to being formidable. She once pursued and beat a purse snatcher with her umbrella until bystanders came to her aid. And she easily gave a hostile customer, twice my grandmother’s size, a black eye. She was one tough cookie. And it wasn’t all about defending yourself physically, she expressed her opinions and spoke her mind freely.
Today, my grandmother is 93 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s sad to see she is nothing like her former self but I’ll always remember these stories and that my grandmother was the one person who inspired me most.