Happy Mother's Day, Marion
By Susy Schultz
Marion was the 8th child in a family of 13—11 of whom lived.
This was someone who taught me how to read a stock table, how to get the most of the people who work for you and how to balance a checkbook.
Marion was an unconventional grandmother.
She died in May 1994 just before Mother’s Day. But I think about her whenever I think about the woman I hope to be and the person I want my boys to emulate.
“She was a feminist from start to finish although she never called herself that,” says my mother, Vernette. “She really marched to her own drummer.”
Marion Cyrille Love Smith got her cookies from the bakery, lived off her stock dividends, sketched the latest children’s outfits from Bonwit Teller and made them on her machine. She was one of the first women in real estate, argued politics as a fierce conservative and yet, had a large liberal heart when it came to rights—civil, women’s and gay’s.
She loved the colors of Monet’s haystacks and used the piano to raise herself from poverty. She loved Arthur Rubenstein’s version of Shumann’s Traumerei and the preludes of Beethoven. But the piano rocked when she played her version of McNamara’s Band.
She was fiercely honest and except for her age and hair color—both discretionary items for a lady—hid nothing. When she died, she was anywhere from 92 to 98. But almost every day until she died, she put on a business suit and the sneakers that my Aunt Jeanne gave her and walked seven blocks from her Washington Boulevard home to the Oak Park mall.
Marion spelled her name in the masculine form because she was a woman of business when business would not have women.
But, as she saw it, she had no choice.
She grew up in what is now Bridgeport but was at that time open fields. She faced challenges—and trains—head on. Her brothers taught her to walk underneath a moving freight car and make it to the other side without being crushed.
When they hung around, it was literal. They went to the middle of the railroad trestle that spanned the neighborhood sewage canal, waited for the train and then hung down from the ties as the train rumbled over head.
“We had a strong incentive. No one wanted to swim through sewage,” she told me when I interviewed her for a family history.
This was also a great introduction to Wall Street and, later, real estate, she said. She moved to New York and lied about being married and took a job as a stockbroker’s secretary. She stayed for years and left only when she could no longer hide her pregnancy. Married women did not work and pregnant women did not show themselves during pregnancy.
When the babies were born, she taught herself to roller skate in Central Park by holding on to the baby carriage.
Marion’s mother, Hannah, had a heart attack in a snow storm after returning from delivering a neighbor’s baby. She died several days later. Her father, James, sold the house from under the children. “We came home one day and he just told us the house was sold,” she said.
The older children took in the younger ones, but Marion became a Nike gal long before the ad campaign. “No one else will help you,” she told me. “You have to just do it.”
She graduated from Providence Academy in Chicago, got a music certificate from Doney Musical College in Chicago and played piano for a silent movie house where she earned the money to later take business classes at Columbia College when she moved to New York with her husband, Daniel R. Smith.
Grandfather was a great guy but different from Marion. He sat, she moved perpetually. She loved to dance, he wouldn’t. Some nights, she slipped off her wedding ring and danced in a nearby neighborhood.
Later, when Daniel was downsized from his job as chief financial officer of a major corporation, Marion turned them to real estate. In 1954, she founded Touhy Realtors and Builders in Skokie. He died in 1964; she went on to become North Suburban Real Estate Board president.
She remained always a poet. She told me a great story one afternoon as we sat at the Art Institute of Chicago looking at Van Gogh’s flowers.
“We used to collect wildflowers when I was little,” she said. “But we would never pick them. We would try to find all the colors and then come back to tell each other about our private flowers.”
She was my heart and soul. And since she died, I have worn a gold ring on my left pinky, Marion’s graduation ring, which read, “P.A. 1918.” Daily, I rubbed that ring to remember the angel always on my shoulder.
In January, I was pushing my son Bryant Robert off a boogie board in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. It was cold, my fingers contracted and, as I wrestled, Marion’s gold ring fell from my finger.
I saw the shiny object float lazily to the ocean bottom and I jumped. But the current was very strong and as I searched, I floated away from where I lost it. My son Zach and I cried. For me, it was like saying good-bye to her all over again.
But just last month, the boys and I were back in the Atlantic, swimming off the beach in North Carolina. Zach looked up at me and said, “Mom, should we look for great-grandmother’s ring?”
I laughed. He smiled. With or without the ring, she is always with me.
We both ran and jumped into Marion’s Ocean.