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Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2001/ 24 Teves, 5761

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Consumer Reports

Where have you gone Frieda Pushnik? -- OH, NO, they can't take that away from me. GM nixed our fathers' Oldsmobile Ah, the Delta 88. It had the aura of arrival without the pretense of a Cadillac. The Olds was dignity. No one ever used the back seat of an Olds for untoward activity. Buick resorted to Wildcat models and Pontiac has Trans Am, the car of mid-life crisis that becomes the tool of 17-year-old boys in defying speed bumps.

Oldses were equipped with homing devices for civilized beauty shops wherein the stench of "waves" (translation: perms) and weight of gossip took your breath away. Today's beauty shops malign hairspray and have the feel of Tower Records. God-fearing gossip was never meant to be shouted above decibel disco beats to men wearing too much black. Semis outside a restaurant mean good, cheap food and an Olds outside a beauty shop meant hair that stays in place until next week's appointment.

Just days after they took away the Olds, Montgomery Wards closed its doors. Wards was inexpensive, but reliable. Not trendy, but timeless, or so we thought. Folks don't want clothing purchased with Maytag's line in view.

Youngsters don't want pearls from a joint that sells hack saws. The polyester clothing lines at Ward's were tough to distinguish from fall foliage. Today's 24/7 sophisticates never found the Ward's charm. Now Sears has closed 89 stores. Can this nation survive without Kenmore?

Then Frieda Pushnik died. Can the world ever be right again? Frieda Pushnik, 77, born without arms and legs, was known in Ripley's world and Barnum's circus as the "Limbless Half-Girl." She made her living on display in what was referred to in our candor days as "freak shows."

When asked whether it was acceptable to be stared at Frieda put Sixty Minutes in its place, "If you're paid for it, yeah." I knew of Frieda as a child because she hailed from our neighboring town of Conemaugh, Pa. She lost her limbs in utero when a doctor botched her mother's appendectomy. The thought of a malpractice suit never crossed the Pushniks' minds. Unable to afford a wheelchair, they put wheels on a high chair and Frieda was off and running, in her own fashion.

Using only stumps, she fed herself, sewed and crocheted. She earned a nice living traveling around the world on display, retiring to Costa Mesa, Ca. in a tastefully decorated home with a real wheelchair, complete with jaguar fabric.

These too-frequent demises from beauty shops to Frieda pain the tender heart.

The greatest generation is leaving us and taking its stores and autos. It's not just the loss of their beauty shops or that future generations may never know that canned evaporated milk is what you use to sweeten coffee and tea. It is their spirit that I mourn. Frieda Pushnik was the embodiment of their can-do, non-government program ethic of taking what life handed to you and forging onward without excuses.

Their spirit was quality without pretense. Elegance without designer logos. Achievement despite obstacles. Solutions, not statutes. Ambition, not rationalization. Overcoming rather than litigating. Dignity and sportsmanship, not whining. This week the YMCA had to hand out a code of ethics for parents' behavior at games. And our departing president took cheap shots at our incoming one, going so far as to question his legitimacy. He broke a presidential code of honor over 200 years old. Dignity once stopped such stings.

I mourn the loss of the reason, restraint and refinement of WWIIers. Their classy understatement had them wait patiently as their baby boomer children tried growing up. They questioned our "divorce is better for everyone" phase until social scientists confirmed what they said all along - stay married.

They were mocked when they clucked about "free love" but now we know nothing comes without costs and/or STD. They objected to the welfare state and the great society and survived our condemnations for their cold hearts. Now we understand they were right about work, limited handouts and dignity. The dot-commies' lectures about "new economy" seem silly now as they experience the poverty from unemployment, failed companies, wild debt, wilder spending and Lexus vehicles. The greatest generation's lessons of thrift haven't trickled down to their grandchildren and their baby boomer children never had much credibility with their Gen X spawn.

The greatest generation has been trying to help us grow up since Woodstock and just as we finally catch on; they leave us with too little time to tap into their wisdom and depth. They have packed up theirs Oldses and are driving into the sunset in search of that great beauty shop and multi-purpose department store in the sky.

The way they did their hair, the way they chose their cars, the way they shopped with thrift, the way they persevered, the way they sweetened their tea, oh, no, they can't take that away from me.

The spirit of Frieda Pushkin shall live on so long as I can get my hands on a can of hair spray.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings