By Lisa Bergson Yesterday, I stood up Lydia Jede, who worked for MEECO for 30 years. I was supposed to meet her and another retired employee for lunch and I forgot. Worse, I was already half-way through this column, so she was very much on my mind. At 80, stricken with Parkinson's, and close to blind, Lydia doesn't get out much. I feel terrible. "That's O.K." she says when I call to apologize. "I know you have a lot on your mind." (With my relatives, such a mishap would put me in the doghouse for a decade.)
From my father I inherited not just a factory, but also a family of sorts. They were an odd lot, but deeply bound, and their commitment to my father and me ultimately sealed my future.
THROW AWAY THE KEY. Among the endearing characters I came to love was Lydia, with her heart-shaped face, tightly coifed hair, and soft German accent. Small, but sturdy, she headed the wiring department, overseeing two equally fastidious women, who remained close throughout their lives. Her policy was to keep working no matter what. If "the Doctor," as she always called him, "didn't need our boards then we took them apart and built them over again," she recalls, with pride.
Lydia was one of three native Germans my father, a Jew, hired after the World War II "to show forgiveness". These three stuck by him, putting up with his bad temper, irrational behavior, poor compensation, and MEECO's unsavory working conditions. Under Lydia, the wiring department was a quiet, clean, and purposeful oasis in the midst of turmoil. When I started there in 1983, I was shocked to find kids openly sleeping on bare mattresses by their work stations, signing each other in and out at whim, drinking beer, and smoking joints amidst a backdrop of filth and blaring boom boxes.
"Your father wanted to help young people, but the wrong way," Lydia chides. "He should be stricter." When one particularly nasty fellow was arrested, my father asked Lydia whether he should hire a lawyer and bail him out. "I said, 'Take the key and throw it away.' He didn't believe it came from my mouth." That kid was in the crowd that tried to menace and intimidate Lydia. They didn't know who they were up against.
OF HORROR AND HOPE. A victim of horrible loss, Lydia grew up in Russia, at a time when German communities were subject to persecution and hardship. Although her father was mayor, when he illegally slaughtered a pig for his family, he was thrown in prison. "After that, we had almost nothing to eat, and my mother gave all the food to us children." With her father gone, her mother starved to death, leaving Lydia, at 14, to care for her younger siblings.
Later, during the war, the Germans invaded her region, and Lydia met and married a young soldier. She was relocated to a refugee camp in Dresden, where she had their first child. "The camps were full of displaced Germans, Russians, Yugoslavians, and Poles," she remembers. Already pregnant with her second child, she took her baby to the hospital for an eye operation. Within days, "There was fire everywhere, first the phosphor bombs and then the ones that make big holes. I couldn't get to my baby, and when I did, the hospital was just a pile of earth.
"Some days, you couldn't talk, you didn't want to go on, but then you had to continue," Lydia tells me. "You'd look around for people you know and even if you only knew them from the camp, you hugged and kissed. It was like they were family." Having endured so much loss, Lydia found a bit of comfort in the human bonds she forged wherever she went. At MEECO, she helped me through the early years when I was struggling to keep the factory going while tending to my sick father. When he died, it was in her arms that I wept.
DEATH AND DEVOTION. Last summer, my husband and I attended Lydia's 80th birthday party. In keeping with its Hawaiian theme, everyone wore tropical clothes and brightly colored plastic leis. Before a large crowd of friends and family, Lydia tied on a grass skirt and performed a little hula. She confides, "My dream was to go to Hawaii with my husband when I retired, but by then he was dead. I didn't want to go without him."
"Now you have Hawaii here," I joshed.
Lydia celebrates the living, but she keeps communion with the dead. Every Sunday, she visits her husband's grave and that of her only daughter, Hildegarde, who died several years ago after a long battle with cancer. Much as I clung to her after my father's death, Lydia fell into my arms at Hildegarde's funeral, pulling me next to her in the receiving line. In that moment, I felt heir to both my father's strength and Lydia's love. Her friends, family, and co-workers were undoubtedly surprised to find me by her side. I shook their hands. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at email@example.com