She always wore earrings. Clip-on earrings. They were in perfect rows nestled inside of a velvet-lined box in her top left drawer. In October, she’d pack away her summer wardrobe in a zippered hanging bag that got moved to another closet. In its place, she’d bring out her winter clothes. Jewel-toned tops and thicker wool slacks. Shiny black square heels.
At a very young age, Cheryl Buell became a Grandmother. She was 46 when I was born. Her first granddaughter. As a little girl, not only did I adore her giant bedroom full of dress up clothes with shiny jewelry and perfectly hung sweaters, but I also adored her.
On the weekends, she braided my hair in loops across the top of my head. “Make it like Princess Leia,” I’d beg. She let me sleep in her king-sized bed. Back then, I was a late sleeper and I’d stumble out in the morning toward the kitchen where she’d have a cigarette in one hand and Frank Sinatra on the oldies radio station. While toasting up Eggo waffles, she’d tell me the funny things I’d said in my sleep during the night. “And then you sat up out of nowhere and yelled strawberry, strawberry, strawberry. Then went back to sleep. What could you possibly have been dreaming about, Jessica?” I’d laugh and ask for more syrup.
As I got older, Grandma “Cherie” would take me to the fanciest restaurants I’d ever seen. Higgins on Broadway in Downtown Portland where I had fettucine alfredo for the first time. Another night, we went to the top of the US Bancorp Tower where we had a 360 degree view of the city from the 42nd floor. While sipping Shirley Temples. After dinner, we’d go to operas and plays and musicals. She had season tickets and I was her date. Sometimes I fell asleep. But I knew it was special to her. I knew this was what fancy grownups did for fun. The old buildings with Doric columns and thick burgundy carpeting. Where the sodas cost $5 but they were served by a man wearing a tuxedo. This was a different world.
I learned later that my Grandma was a woman ahead of her time. And, like many others before her, it may have not been by choice. Women often do what they need to do to make it work.
Cherie was a lumber trader. When women didn’t do that. All the men sat in an open floor plan with their feet up on their desks, eating microwave popcorn and yelling into their landline phones. Being a trader seemed stressful but also, powerful.
Later, Cherie would get promoted to run Inventory Management. What we’d now call Supply Chain. She had to fly to Chicago for business trips. No one else I knew flew on planes for work. She had her own secretary, Pam. No one else I knew had their own secretary. I’d go visit her office and punch all the keys on her typewriter, pull out the paper and announce that I was done for the day. I loved it.
I didn’t know it then but she was one of the most pivotal role models I could have had. Even growing up in the 1980s and 90s, most women I knew still worked part-time as teachers or nursing assistants or stayed home to raise children. I never thought about it. It just was. Cherie had people working for her and important late night meetings and lots of credit cards. She was the rare species of woman who was born in the 1930s and had a career. Not a job, a career.
Like most, my Grandma wasn’t perfect. She was a single Mother and smoked too much. She also died young. One of the last things I said to her was that I’d been admitted into graduate school. She gave me the blue sapphire ring she’d worn all my life and smiled.
This woman, two generations before mine, likely didn’t choose this path. But by sheer luck, I was given a model of what it meant to prioritize a career. To find meaning in things outside of being a Mother or a Wife.
In my opinion, International Women’s Day shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t need a day to get angry that women are still not treated equal to men. I hope we won’t need this day when I’m old. Equality needs to just be normal. Equal pay needs to be a non-issue. There should not be a choice between being liked and being successful.
We need a female President. We need more female leaders in corporate America. We need more Malalas.
No one inspired my love of work more than my Grandma Cherie. On her tombstone, it says “I did it my way” and that was just perfect. She was bold when it wasn’t acceptable to be bold. What if we all had that kind of courage? That will.
This fight. It’s not over.