Friends are always surprised when I tell them my mother was born on a farm in Brooklyn. It was located just off the present-day Belt Parkway near Pennsylvania Avenue, an area known now as Canarsie or East New York.
I always knew her age because her birth year was 1900. Had she survived, she would be 115 years old today.
She lived the life of a woman of her times. She went to a K-8 public school and graduated at the head of her class. Although she was valedictorian, she never went to school another day in her life. After that, she would be cheated out of the career opportunities all men had in that era.
An exception of sorts was during World War II, when my mom and thousands of other women took jobs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Mom was a spot welder who fixed damaged warships. The world knew Rosy the Riveter, but our family had Lilly the Welder!
My brother was in the Marines fighting on Iwo Jima. When men goofed off on the job at the Navy Yard, my mother complained they were hurting the war effort. She ordered them back to work!
While I was attending Brooklyn College, if I didn't know the meaning of a word, I never used a dictionary, I just asked my mother. When I worked for the Anti-Defamation League as the Long Island coordinator of the World of Difference Program in the 1980s and '90s, I used her example when we urged corporate executives to eliminate the glass ceiling for women employees.
After my dad died of heart failure in 1967 at age 68, I went to her apartment to help with the paperwork to get their Social Security benefits transferred to her name. That is when she blew my mind.
She handed me her birth certificate. After a close look, I returned it and said it must have been a relative's. It gave the name Lena Shapiro, and her name was Lillian.
"I never liked the name Lena, so I changed it to Lillian," she told me.
Because she'd never made the name change legal, my eyes rolled back. I knew I'd have a hard time getting the clerks at the Social Security office to believe me.
Then I noticed that the date of birth said May 7, 1900. I was confused.
"Mom, we always celebrated your birthday on May 1st," I said.
She said May 7 was correct.
"I was keeping company with your father, but I wasn't sure if he was as serious as I was," she explained, recalling their courtship. "When I learned his birthday was on May 3rd and mine was on May 7th, I decided to tell him mine was on May 1st."
Still confused, I asked why she made the change.
Unashamedly, she replied, "I wanted to see what kind of present he got for me before I bought his. That way I'd also know how serious he was about our relationship."
To this day, that story remains the biggest shock of my life. (And I'm afraid I never learned what gift he gave her.)
My mother said she never told my dad about the changes. He died after 49 years of marriage to a woman whose name and date of birth he never knew!
It took a year to straighten all this out so she could get her monthly Social Security check in her chosen name, Lillian Ricken.
Reader Robert Ricken lives in Floral Park.