I worked alongside Esther. She worked for the father, I for the son. Almost 20 years older than me, she was my mentor and confidante. I was a fledgling in commercial insurance with two young daughters and the tug of pulling my load as Tom started up a business. We worked hard, laughed often, cried occasionally and danced the rhythms of life and work for almost six years.
We shared a love of family and of books. She delighted in hearing of the escapades of our daughters, especially Katy, who loved playing softball and disliked wearing dresses. In all the time I worked with Esther, I never saw her in a skirt or dress – and this was the era of padded shoulders and the hit television series, Dallas!
I had the first lunch hour, sometimes eating in the small break room or downstairs in the cafeteria, more often than not running errands or tending to motherly pursuits. Several summers had me driving home, dropping the girls off at the community swimming pool, then eating in the car as I returned to work, checking in with Tom before I got back to my duties (this was before cell phones).
Esther had the second lunch hour, usually eating a sandwich she brought from home and the purchase of a bowl of soup from the cafeteria. Esther ate soup for lunch almost every day. When she returned to her desk, the first thing she did was call her elderly mother to see how her day was going.
Esther, as the story was told to me, once had a prestigious job downtown, in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Her father developed a life-threatening illness needing surgery, a long recovery, treatments – and had no health insurance. Esther resigned from her position, cashed her pension, and used it to pay for her father’s health care, then she started her work life all over again. She never complained, never felt sorry for herself, and carried on.
She gave me comfort and encouragement in those six years; when my mother died of cancer only two weeks after being hospitalized, when my uncle Joe died a few months later, Jennifer becoming ill for a spell, then Katy losing part of finger, and Tom’s long battle with his first bout with diabetic retinopathy and his mother passing away. I gave her big hugs, books, home baked goodies and as many doses of encouragement I could while she battled shingles, then cancer and a long series of chemotherapy treatments.
I thought of Esther today, and of the afternoon, not unlike this afternoon, shortly after the 1993 inauguration of Bill Clinton, when she came back from lunch, called her mother, then looked at me and said, “Penny, I want you to read this book I just finished. It is by Maya Angelou. I know you appreciated her inauguration poem and now you must read this book she wrote a long time ago,.”Why the Caged Bird Sings” . . . and so, I did.
I thought of Esther today, as the news broke of the death of Maya Angelou, and felt a wave of gratitude that they both entered my life, each in their own unique way.