The matriarchal force was my grandma Zelpha, and Zelpha had Style.
I challenge myself often as to why I am more comfortable being a single woman over marriage. I dig deep for reasons to feel badly about myself— Intimacy avoidance? Abandonment issues? Stubborn? Free Spirit?
All of the above, to a certain degree, if honest. High self esteem is probably the real reason. Not to say that married women don’t have confidence, being alone simply scares too many women into staying in mediocre or toxic relationships. Seeds planted in childhood with fairy tale romance, a knight in shining armor “saving” a princess, can become lodged in the mind and take root. This nonsense never got planted in me. I knew from a young age I was a capable, decisive Queen, not a princess in waiting or a damsel in distress. Since my father died when I was young, I did look for love in all the wrong places– mostly through work, bars and other addictions. That was in my 20s mostly, so I give myself a pass on that decade of poor choices.
No, I had a gift in the form of witnessing strong, brave and independent women in my family. The main matriarchal force was my grandma Zelpha, whom I shared a bedroom with from ages 4-11. She was a widow at 52. From that point on, her retirement dreams took a screeching halt and instead of heading to Florida with her husband, Harold, she came to Columbus with us.
What a surprise to this vibrant woman who never called herself a feminist, yet started her own business in a small town in Ohio in the 1950’s. “Zelpha’s House of Fashion” in Uhrichsville, Ohio, was THE most elegant lady’s clothing store in the area. She drove her sleek Cadillac, by herself, to major cities to hand select upscale items for her store— New York City mostly. After her day in the garment district, she always went to the latest Broadway shows, dined in cafes by herself and lived her passion out loud. Zelpha was a real dame, right there in our household. She had a healthy dose of ego as well. Pride and ego drove her into realms untouched by the average woman.
Again, never calling herself a feminist, Zelpha started a Woman’s Business Association because she wasn’t allowed in the local business association consisting of all men. Her deep seeded belief was that these were just obstacles to overcome and help her move forward with her goals. She was very matter-of-fact and took actions with no sense of victimhood— just creative solutions to living as a woman in a male-dominated world.
Zelpha’s bed was two feet from mine
At night I got to witness her rituals. She put on Grandpa Harold’s nightshirt and slept in it every night, saying it made her feel close to him. With a roll of toilet paper, she’d wrap a layer around her beehive hairdo so it “doesn’t get mussed”. Estee Lauder night cream on her face and Avon hand lotion on her hands first, and then elbows. She’d give me a squirt of lotion to rub on my hands and elbows as well. To this day I still do this ritual — not with those products, but I think of her each night as I put lotion on.
A lover of poetry, she recited memorized classics by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman to me. She could say the alphabet forward and then backwards in about 30 seconds flat. My favorite book she’d read me before bed was “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”, a fantasy poem by Eugene Field about 3 children sailing and fishing amongst the stars from a boat which is a wooden shoe. My imagination was fed with awe and wonder because of her. As the lights went off, Zelpha said, “I love you bushels and bushels more than tongue can tell”. One night, I asked in a little voice a question thatpuzzled me for years. “Grandma, what is Tonkentel?” I thought it was a German city. She laughed her boisterous laugh and broke the words down for me. I fell in love with the power of words because of her. Though I’ve edited the sentiment to “I love you bushels,” I say it to my son daily, so he too has a piece of her light.
With no man in her life, she just committed to her own interests. Besides her love of fashion, Zelpha had exquisite taste in home decor and our house certainly didn’t look like our neighbors’ homes in our working-class neighborhood. In our living room, where my older brothers would toss the football, she placed elegant chandeliers and crystal lamps all around… placed upon marble covered mahogany wood tables, of course. When the ball knocked them over, which was often, she got out the glue and repaired them. In her beautiful mind, elegance and style were more important to her than bland furnishings, and she’d rather get her toolbox out. People always thought we had more money than we had, our secret was that Zelpha had style.
When she moved back to her hometown to help run the historic Buckeye Hotel, she was greatly missed by us grandkids. My father missed having roundtable discussions about politics and current events- she did not mince words and he appreciated these debates. My mother probably liked having “her house” back since Zelpha was such a tour de force in it.
We visited her often in her new living situations- sometimes in a hotel room, apartment or a house. She also made sure I knew how to wield a hammer, lay carpeting, make valances for her windows and install them. I suppose not all girls have a role model like this. She shaped my perspective on what a person can and cannot do. Fearless is a word that best describes her attitude in life.
She was my gauge of what it meant to be a woman.
Even in 2023, society can be uncomfortable with strong women, mostly because of weak men, so ironically, it’s another way we must be stronger— on the inside.
Zelpha’s mantras to me were “Kerry Ann, you can do anything a man can do” and “Kerry Ann, you don’t need a man in life to be happy”. And I wonder why I am fiercely independent and content being alone! No more shame in my game… I turned out to be a Dame.
© 2023 Kerry Biondo – All Rights Reserved.