My grandmother was a woman of inimitable grace and style, who blessed those around her with her zest and passion for life. A civic activist, storeowner, and avid collector of folk art, she was my family’s compass—there for every decision, every change, every milestone.
My grandmother was born on April 14, 1922, on Long Island, New York. She was raised by her mother and her grandparents, immigrants from Poland who had come to America around the turn of the century. In the seventh grade, one of her classmates began calling her “Flip.” The nickname stuck and from then on, she was always known by it. For me, it conjures two things—an elegant “flip” of her hair, and “flip-out”—she was, after all, a very passionate woman.
At the age of 17, she enrolled at Connecticut College, then an all-women’s school, where she was one of two Jewish students in the class of 1943. A couple of years ago, I came across her college yearbook. Scattered through its yellowed pages were black and white photographs of smiling, saddle-shoed women, and there among them was my grandmother—lanky but impossibly graceful, wearing pearls for her yearbook photograph, working as an editor at the college newspaper, standing backstage with a clipboard during a play.
In her senior year of college, my grandmother interned at the famed Hartford department store G. Fox & Co. It was there that she met my grandfather Herman Imber. A recent graduate of Harvard Business School, my grandfather had just begun his career in retail. He was both a gentle man and a gentleman—kind and good hearted, natty and dapper, and he absolutely adored my grandmother. The two married in July 1943 shortly after my grandmother’s graduation, against the backdrop of World War II.
My grandfather had repeatedly been turned away from the military for poor eyesight. However, soon after my grandparents’ marriage, he was finally accepted into the army officer corps. He shipped out on Christmas Eve, 1943, and my grandmother spent the next two very long years without him.
Like so many other couples separated by the war, my grandparents wrote hundreds of letters to each other. She sent him dozens of endearing “pin-up” pictures of herself, every one of which survived the war and returned with my grandfather to the U.S. He landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 7, 1944, one day after D-Day, and was one of the troops that liberated Paris and later Buchenwald. My grandfather often recounted the story of his journey from Normandy to the French capital. He had offered to return two young children to their parents in Paris—who ironically had sent them to Normandy believing they would be safest there. Unbeknownst to my grandfather, the children’s stepmother was Madame Suzanne Luling, Christian Dior’s directrice. In a gesture of gratefulness for reuniting her and her husband with their children, Madame Luling took my grandfather to the Dior salon and instructed him to pick out any and every bottle of perfume available and to send it back to my grandmother in America. My grandfather sent her more than 50 bottles, and until the day she died, my grandmother always wore Dior perfume.
My grandfather was discharged on Christmas Eve 1945. The two spent the next few years in Hartford where my grandfather went back to work at G. Fox & Co. and, in 1947, their first son Peter was born. Soon after, they moved to Reading, PA, my grandfather’s hometown, so that he could join his father’s clothing retail business. In 1952, their second son Jonathan—my father—was born. In the mid-1950s, my grandfather branched out, opening his own chain of clothing stores. Known as The Jeannette Shops, they carried fine women’s attire and became one of eastern Pennsylvania’s most popular and beloved stores.
My grandmother initially came to Reading “kicking and screaming.” A native New Yorker, she was less than thrilled by the idea of moving to a small Pennsylvanian city. However, she soon discovered the benefits of living in a community like Reading that was still large enough to sustain the cultural institutions and civic initiatives that she made a central part of her life’s work. At a time when many college-educated women were expected to be primarily housewives, my grandmother seized opportunities to make a difference in her new community.
She served on more than a dozen boards of various civic groups including the county’s March of Dimes drive which she led in the 1950s, and the Ladies Auxiliary at the Reading Hospital whose Garden Party she chaired in the 1960s. She also sat on the boards of the Reading Museum, Reading Area Community College, and the United Way of Berks County, and she was a member of the Friends of the Freedman Gallery at Albright College. My grandmother was also a dedicated and proud alumna of her alma mater. She served on Connecticut College’s Alumni Board of Directors and the Planned Giving Advisory Committee. As the longtime agent for her class, she set records for fundraising.
After her sons went off to college, my grandmother became fully involved in running the Jeannette Shop with my grandfather. She had impeccable taste and fashion sense; if she liked something, it sold. Her direction helped make The Jeannette Shop into a Reading institution that outfitted generations of ladies. The store allowed my grandparents to take yearly buying trips to London and to keep an apartment in Manhattan where they did most buying for the store. I know my grandmother loved that.
She and my grandfather were also enthusiastic and dedicated collectors of folk art. They traveled all of over the U.S., particularly through the South, in search of raw, undiscovered talent. Many might have thought that the art my grandmother loved so much—her collection had so many bizarre and brazen pieces—stood in stark contrast to the type of lady she was—beautiful and refined, a “grande dame.” But that was just the type of person she was—she simply loved what she loved. She loved tea sandwiches, and she also adored a good burger or Sloppy Joe. She wore nothing but Dior perfume, but insisted on drugstore eye shadow. She loved to travel the world—Egypt, Russia, China—but appreciated every moment at home.
My grandmother was also so full of wisdom. She had a magic touch. She knew how things were supposed to be and how they were supposed to be done. She saw every challenge as an opportunity. She had a knack for turning mishaps into happy memories—little things like finding the right shoes on short notice or the time when we set up a makeshift salon in her bathroom because she was too unwell to make the trip to the beauty parlor.
When it came to more serious life choices—where I should go to school, what job I should pursue, how I should approach major decisions—she was an unfailingly generous listener and advisor. My grandmother taught me the lesson that there is always a solution, that you can always make the best of things, and that persevering and seizing opportunities is what it’s all about.
I don’t think I will ever quite adjust to making my way through life without her. She was my role model. I appreciate and treasure every moment that I had with her, and I feel so lucky that I had her in my life into adulthood. It was an honor to be her granddaughter. Every day I try to live by her lessons and emulate her kindness and enthusiasm for life.