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I’m Not Ungrateful!

Posted February 8, 2017 by Maurice Tannenbaum

I was raised by a mother who couldn’t love, or if she did it felt more like pain. She just didn’t have the capacity! She was the kind of woman who was feared by everyone, especially her children. I am the second youngest of 5 children. For seven years I was the baby, but that didn’t mean anything when it came to getting more attention or love. I feared her more then anything. When she came home, she would keep the shoes she wore that day on the steps leading up to the second floor. If for some reason we pissed her off, we would run from her to avoid her wrath. Sometimes that meant upstairs and she would fling a shoe at you and hit you dead on. Never missed! If we ran into the dining room and around the dining table to get away from her, she would block your path with a chair, catch us and either slap you or, if she had the time to prepare, she would have my fathers belt in hand and whip you with it. When she washed my face at night, it felt like she was removing it. If we got hurt we would go to my father, because he was caring and gentle when dressing a wound. My Mother would hold the wounded area so tight that her touch hurt more than the wound.

I survived! But not without lots of support. Much of it came from psychiatrist, which I turned to when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. My sister-in-law helped me find help because I was in a lot of pain then. I was conflicted about being sexuality and not wanting to be gay because it wasn’t accepted at that time. I thought that if I got help, I might be able to change. In those days even psychiatrists thought that they could cure homosexuality.

I also got support from other members of my family, such as my sister-in -law, and my eldest sister, Evelyn (who I adored and admired immensely).  She was gorgeous and soooo loving. She taught me at an early age that I could be loved and that I was lovable. She took me to special places like Fishers Restaurant. In those days it was a big deal for an eight year old to go to a place that served shrimp cocktail. She bought me great clothes. She adored me then and still does today, even though she is certifiable! I am still grateful to her for all that she did for me then. Now, it’s almost impossible to have a relationship with her, she is so far gone. She is a seventy seven year old born again Minister of the Jewish faith. That says it all.

As for my sister-in-law, she was there when my brother couldn’t be. All relationships are difficult for him, especially with his own children.  My sister-in-law turned out to be very much like my mother.  Since I already had one women in my life who tortured me (my Mother), I no longer speak to my sister-in-law.  My brother goes with the package at her demand. They have two children and they don’t speak to from time to time (for years at a time).

So, most of my support came from my clients. Wonderful women who “were” nurturing! Many of them loved me, others taught me, and some took care of me. Most contributed to my life in ways that are unimaginable, and I am grateful!

When I was first starting out (fourteen or fifteen) I would go from door to door in the North East section of Philadelphia hoping to do hair. I charged $.25 to set, cut, color and do anything to hair that the women would allow. One woman, Shirley, owned a beauty supply store, which is where I bought my supplies. I suppose she wondered what such a young person was doing buying so much stuff. When I told her what I did, she asked me to do her touchups (double process blonde) and set her hair every week. No one let me cut their hair in the beginning, except my sister-in-law. I was supposed to trim her long hair but she ended up with a short “bubble” and she never complained. Instead she claimed to love it. I still don’t know to this day if she was telling the truth. Shirley had a brother, Harry Leiber, who at that time was a renowned hair stylist in the Cheltenham area of Philadelphia. Later on I worked for Harry, twice. Taught me a great deal about hair.

After about a year, right before I was sixteen, another wonderful woman, Lillian, took me under her wing. Lillian had a salon in the basement of her row home on Bustelton Avenue in the North East. She heard about me and asked me to work for her after school on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The salon was open late Thursday and Friday evenings. School let out at 3:00 p.m. and I was at the Beauty shop (certainly wasn’t a salon) by 3:30-4:00 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. And, I worked all day on Saturday. Lillian was a short, plump woman with very thin hair (you could clearly see her scalp). On Saturday, she would make me lunch in her kitchen upstairs. She would have anything that I wanted prepared. She even fed me smoked sturgeon. She was so kind and caring.

There was another salon across the street, Bernie’s, owned by Bernie Miller. He too had heard about me and made it impossible for me to stay at Lillian’s by reporting me to the state board for not having a license. He had a teacher’s license allowing him to send in hours for me so that I could get my license. I had no choice but to work for Bernie, so I did. I was sixteen. Bernie would book me every fifteen minutes, so I had to learn to be extremely fast.

I soon became the Vunderchild of the neighborhood. I developed a tremendous following. At first I worked the same hours as I did at Lillian’s. I was making more money than my father. Knowing that college was not an option (none of my siblings went to collage), I decided to quite school and work full time. My mother was against it but she eventually agreed. And so I began to make real bucks. My clients adored me! They would bring me things, bake for me, make sure that I had lunch (at least the nice ones did) and invite me to their houses. Bernie and his wife would have me over all the time.

Bernie’s wife was gorgeous! It was his third marriage and her second. She had a son by her first marriage that was six years old at that time. Bernie called him “Pecker Checker!” I liked her a lot even though she was so self involved. She couldn’t stop looking in the mirror, so she didn’t give me much more than compliments on the way I did her hair. She preferred that I did her hair over the rest of the staff. For Bernie, I was a meal ticket. Revenue! I have no idea as to whether he liked me or not.

One of their friends, Barbara, was an attractive blonde with thin hair and after she heard of my reputation she became a client.  She was graceful and kind with a gentle voice. I was doing oil paintings at that time and I had painted a relief of a skyline (12″x 50″). She bought it from me and hung it over her fireplace. She too would make me lunch, invite me over to her house and include me in family events.

At nineteen I had my own apartment in the North East and went to work for Harry Leiber. I had worked for him when I was fifteen for two weeks as an assistant when his sister, Shirley, told him about me.  Harry was a funny looking man. Silver hair, very short, very skinny but had a pot belly. He always had a cigar in his mouth. His wife, Lillian, was the receptionist at the salon. She also applied hair color for some clients. She too was strange looking. Platinum blonde with black eyeliner that looked like she added more each day to what she had on the day before. They too would invite me to their house every Friday night for dinner, or we would go out to a restaurant. They would treat. I was the top producer in their salon so I felt that their generosity was insincere. Again, just another meal ticket.

I had a client who brought me a new word each week to learn. She wanted to make sure that my vocabulary was the best it could be. Others suggested reading material, discussed politics and much, much more.

I left Harry Leiber, moved to a salon on the main line, got married, and had my son, Seth. When Seth was born, the gifts were overwhelming! Clients were delighted for me. It was as if I was a member of their own family. They invited me to their children’s weddings, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Several invited me to stay in their vacation homes. One vacation home came with a boat and captain. It was the clients that really cared for me.

These women and men have taught me how to be generous, kind, caring and have made me more intelligent, thoughtful, loving and trusting. I could never repay their generosity. I’m grateful!