Friday, March 11, 2011

A Working Life: Anna Bresnerkoff Cohen

In honor of Women’s History Month, I am re-running an interview that first appeared in Hartford Woman back in May 1987. The subject: my Great-Aunt Anna Bresnerkoff Cohen (1902 – 2001), a hard-working well-read to-the-point woman with a heart and spirit as big as she was short (very) and a truly impressive stage whisper. We need to celebrate the Anna Cohens, those not-so-commonplace women in our family trees. They just don’t make `em like that anymore.

She has cut down her volunteer work at the Outpatient Pediatric Clinic at Hartford Hospital to two mornings a week instead of three, but that’s the only concession that my great-aunt has made to being 87.

“I love the work I’m doing,” says Anna Cohen, who leaves her West Hartford home punctually every Monday and Tuesday morning to punch, sort, file, and collate the slips about the clinic’s patients. “The only thing is, when I don’t finish something, it’s still there when I come back next week.” Once in awhile, she considers giving up the work: “But I gotta have something else in mind before I do it.”

Cohen is no stranger to work. She came over from Russia as a small child in the early 1900s, and as soon as she and her sister Mary were old enough, they went to work at the now-defunct G. Fox department store in downtown Hartford during the summers.

“We made the big pay of three-and-a-half dollars,” Cohen recalls. “We gave my mother the envelope, she gave us 50 cents, and we thought we were millionaires, both Mary and I.” Every cent counted, so everybody who could work did: even Cohen’s mother, busy  raising both her own children and her stepchildren, peddled notions door-to-door in the adjoining tenement houses.

“My mother could not speak English, and the people she approached usually wouldn’t let her in. She showed them the basket, and they picked out what they wanted. She eventually learned to talk English, very broken, but she was understood, and she understood the people.”

Cohen worked in several stores until shortly after her marriage to my grandmother’s youngest brother, Iz. “From then on, I was a housewife,” she says. “I didn’t have to go to work. Iz never wanted me to go to work, and it was unheard of that a woman would go to work, especially if you had children. We didn’t have nurseries like they do now where we could put our children; and if there were any, which I didn’t have knowledge of, it was rather expensive.”

So she stayed at home until 1942. Then her oldest son, Sidney, went into the service and her daughter, Ruthie, left for college, leaving only her 9-year-old son Jerry. She got a part-time job in the fabric department at Sage-Allen, and her mother looked after Jerry in the afternoons when he got home from school. Iz, suffering from heart disease, was too ill to work himself or raise any objections to her doing so.

“During the time that I worked,” Cohen explains, “he was at home, more or less taking care of himself. And, to be honest with you, I never knew when I came home whether I’d find a corpse or a man. He shouldn’t have been left alone, but we were in dire straits. There was no income coming in, and what little I was earning – which was, part-time, $26 a week – was a gold mine to me. At least it covered the table.”

Cohen worked at Sage’s until after World War II, when the part-timers were laid off, “and things were quieter. During the war, people bought like crazy, whether they needed it or not.” Iz died in 1948; she remained at home a year and then, not wanting to be dependent on anybody, went to work at Aetna Life and Casualty. Her life became "a working life" until she retired at 65 in 1966.

Even after retirement, however, Cohen still worked.  She tried her hand at a number of odd jobs, such as babysitting at the Y in West Hartford. Around the same time, she also started volunteering at Hartford Hospital, working in a number of departments there before she found her present job at the Outpatient Pediatric Clinic.

“And that’s what I do now,” she says simply. “They’re very pleased with me; but, by the same token, I’m pleased, too, because it’s a lot for me as well as for them….I found my niche here, and I like it. They’ve been very wonderful to me. And, in spite of the fact that I don’t get any money, I enjoy it tremendously, and I look forward to it.”

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