By J.F. McKenna
My nephew, Joseph Patrick, and I sat in the living room, solving all the major issues of the day and recycling favorite old jokes and stories that substitute for precious heirlooms among our West Side clan. As typically happens, our talk turned to Aunt Ceal, long the doyenne of the family and my first and best business teacher. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan always subscribed to the idea that culture is more important than politics. My mother’s sister, Lucille Schnitzer, subscribed to the divine doctrine that devotion to family and liberally applied common sense trumps anything one can extract from a fat business text or The Wall Street Journal. She expected two generations of nieces and nephews to take out a subscription to that view, too.
In a world of pioneering businesswomen a generation ago, Aunt Ceal was a clear standout. Naturally, I’m biased. When I was a kid, she used to wipe my dirty face and bribe me with a dime so that I would sit still for a haircut. To her way of thinking, it was simple economics: Joey has a dime in his hand, and I don’t have to look at a child with a dirty face and unruly hair.
But such pioneering business savvy only started in the room off of our kitchen. In the world outside my house on West 100th Street, my aunt was best known as one of the first female investigators for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, from the end of World War II until the late 1960s. Her job for Uncle Sam was to keep factory owners honest about their record keeping.
The child of an Irish immigrant mother and a quiet, pragmatic German-American laborer, Aunt Ceal for years leveraged her upbringing and her convent-school training in a world of tough-talking men and solo road assignments by bus and train. Neither Weatherhead nor the Wharton School could have devised such a business education. Those poor factory managers.
As she would often recall during her retirement years, some owner and managers “would try to out-fox me, thinking I was just a dumb woman. I showed them. ”
Without question, Aunt Ceal would have been hell-on-wheels had she transferred to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the 1960s. She would have gelded Southern bully-boys like Bull Connor and then sweetly complimented them on their weight loss. “People like that,” she often observed, “are full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green.”
Be assured that Aunt Ceal was no would-be Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. She didn’t require liberation. She was already equal, and she thought everyone else was equal as well. If my chain-smoking aunt resembled anybody, it was Auntie Mame, as portrayed by Rosilind Russell—quick-witted, sharp-tongued and congenitally sensible.
“I’ve been working since I was 13,” she once told me between puffs on a Kent cigarette. “I had to work. During the Depression, I was the only one working in our house. That’s just the way it was.” Do what you have to do was Aunt Ceal’s motto and her philosophy about business and about life. It was as simple as that.
I now recognize that it was also as profound as that. When my dad died unexpectedly at age 48, my mom was left with two children and a tiny police pension with which to support the family. Without any fanfare, in stepped Aunt Ceal.
Some years later, she still dismissed any talk of personal sacrifice. “Your mother had her job, staying at home and making sure that you and your sister were raised well,” she explained. “I went out and worked at my job.”
That’s how my sister, Mary Ann, and I found ourselves with two mothers and a common-sense attitude about women’s varied roles. From my mom, Mary Ann learned to cook. From my aunt, I learned how to let those who can cook, cook.
Over time, my boys, my two nieces and my favorite nephew benefited from Aunt Ceal’s informal tutorials on the business of practical living. At certain times, they also experienced my aunt’s unorthodox, certainly politically incorrect, style of problem-solving. Asked to babysit all five of the children one evening, Aunt Ceal decided the primary schoolers should sharpen their counting skills. So she taught them to play poker.
Epistemologically speaking, her effort was admittedly novel but effective. However, I did question her decision to substitute traditional light refreshments while hosting her apprentice card sharps. I found the brood around my aunt’s kitchen table, sipping their colorful beverages and learning that “it takes jacks or better to open.”
“Aunt Ceal is teaching us to play poker,” my niece Mary Therese announced.
“How grown-up,” I replied.
“But Aunt Ceal didn’t have juice or pop,” Suzanne reported.
Further inspecting the fruity-looking beverages on the table, this crack reporter asked Aunt Ceal what she was serving her guests.
“Obviously, I couldn’t give the kids beer,” Aunt Ceal instructed me. “But the other stuff is just like fruit juice.” The other stuff being wine cooler.
No young poker player was permanently harmed that night. And Joseph Patrick still laughs every time that story is told. “There was nobody like her,” he says, often.
In 2001, at age 91, Aunt Ceal died, having defied doctors for years regarding her diligent intake of cigarettes and Rolling Rock beer. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” she had said to me on more than one occasion. She had outlived her siblings, many exasperated doctors and most of her adult poker cronies.
My sister tapped me to deliver the eulogy for our beloved “pinch mom.” I was honored. At the podium with me were her five biggest fans.
“An observer of my aunt’s unabashed generosity,” I said, “might marvel aloud, ‘You’ve done so much for so many, Lucille.’ Our aunt, while deeply religious, fostered no taste for exaggerated piety. ‘Oh, yes,’ she’d reply, ‘I’ve been so busy patting myself on the back that I’ve nearly broken my arm.’”
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant. He and his wife, Carol, are working on a new children’s book about the world’s smartest canines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .