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Astrid Thoenig - December 2009

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Astrid Thoenig – Prototype of Today’s Modern Woman

Astrid Thoenig
Photo: Alexandra Pais,
New Jersey Local News Service

Dedicated career woman, wife, mother, community volunteer, single working Mom, entrepreneur, remarriage, third career, caring daughter to her Mother and involved Grandmother.  Sound familiar? Sure. Except that Astrid has pulled it all off successfully to age 100 – and still going strong – and still working a 40 hour week! 
       “I am blessed,” she says.  She’s also immensely talented and determined and focused.  “I don’t feel old and I don’t think old,” she’s quick to add.  And listening to her on the phone or watching her at work, she would easily be mistaken for someone 40 years younger than her chronological age.  She doesn’t have any tricks or secrets to her success – “this is just the way I am and always have been.”
       Born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, on September 24, 1909, to Swedish immigrant parents, Astrid was the middle child of three girls.  During the 1918 Flu Pandemic – that killed 50 million worldwide, as she recalls – Astrid lost her father and her older sister, just hours apart.
       “My mother and younger sister were both stricken, but survived.  My younger sister lost hearing in one ear as a result.  I was never sick – I didn’t get it at all.  My mother just had to carry on; she had two young daughters to care for.  When she remarried, we were adopted and so we had a father – I always called my stepfather my dad.  He was good to us and we grew up in a normal, loving family.  My mother was a very strong woman. I give her a lot of credit for how my life has turned out.  When we were in our teens we all went to Sweden to meet our cousins and other family.  We had a terrific time.  My dad was American and didn’t understand the language, but he was a good sport and my mother translated.  We girls picked it up very fast. 
       In high school Astrid learned to sew and do needlework, skills that she applied to make most of her clothing throughout her life.  She also learned typing and stenography and other business skills that would provide the foundation for her career.  “Early on” she recalls, “I dreamed of having a career.  After graduation, most girls looked forward to marriage and a family – I was eager to go to work.”  So eager, in fact, that during Christmas recess in her senior year, Astrid worked at a local bank.  “I loved working, and thought I would stay on at the bank rather than finish out my senior year.  My mother was so wise; instead of telling me I couldn’t do that, she went to the bank president and asked him not to offer me a job until I had graduated.  I didn’t find out until years later.  At the time I was disappointed, but by the time I’d graduated in June, 1928, I had decided I wanted to work for a lawyer and set about finding a job with a local law firm.  If there had been paralegal positions at that time, I would have followed that course.”
       As it was, Astrid worked for a couple of local lawyers for the next three years, enjoying the challenging and interesting work, as she describes it.  “Then I wanted a change, so I took a job on Wall Street in Manhattan at an import/export business.  I thought I would be an old maid, and I was OK with that, except I began to wish for a family of my own.  On vacation at Lake George one summer with mother and my sister, a couple of boys came over to us as we were sitting by the water.  We talked and discovered they were from New Jersey also; we exchanged phone numbers.  The boys offered to leave the canoe they had rented with us to use since they had paid for it and were leaving before the rental was up.  We accepted and enjoyed paddling about the lake.  When we returned it, we discovered we had been stuck with the bill – it had not been paid in advance. It was an innocent mistake – but  Stewart Thornton was so embarrassed when I told him when he called – I teased him about it; it was a riot.  We began dating and were married in 1937.  I continued working and he was a manager at Collier’s magazine.  Even though it was during the Depression, we were all right.  For many others, though, it was awful.”
        In 1942 , with the birth of her son, John, Astrid became a stay at home Mom.  “I was contented,” she recalls.  Then her life suddenly changed.  “My husband was drafted when John was only 18 months old.  They hadn’t been taking fathers until then – but suddenly there was a shortage of men and he was called up and sent to
France.  My brother-in-law, who was also a father of one, was drafted the following month, but by the time he was to report the quota had been filled and he didn’t have to serve.  It just shows how arbitrary life can be – my husband missed it by four weeks. He was wounded in battle and earned the Purple Heart for his bravery.  But his injuries left him totally disabled to do any physical work, so he was given a desk job in Atlanta where he served out the rest of the war.  He never really recovered from his injuries and died when John was 9, the same age as I was when I lost my father.”
       In order to support them and still be home with her son, Astrid started working from home doing typing for lawyers and other professionals in the area – and even a judge, she adds.  It was an unusual arrangement in those days. “But my friend’s husband was a lawyer and he lost his secretary so he began coming over in the evenings and giving me dictation and I would type it up and deliver it to his office the following day.  My home business grew by word of mouth.  I was a good typist and stenographer and I enjoyed the work.”  If you enjoy what you’re doing, you do it well, she believes. “After six years I was so busy that I was about to hire a girl to work with me and start a formal business.  Then, on my mother’s birthday, we were at a restaurant celebrating.  My Dad was a home builder.  One of the patrons recognized him and came over to the table.  I was introduced to Ray Thoenig, an architect who worked for my Dad.  One thing led to another and we married. 
       The only problem was, Ray was vehemently opposed to having a working wife – even working at home.  And so Astrid gave up her business and settled into being a housewife.  She kept busy volunteering in the community – activities her husband approved of – with organizations such as the Red Cross and United Way.  “Then I was asked to volunteer part time for the Caldwell borough treasurer’s office.  “I really liked that because it was interesting and substantive,” Astrid tells.  It soon led to the offer of a full time job. “I said to Ray, ‘I’m so bored, I just can’t  stay home any longer.  I’ll do all the things I should around the house and as your wife, but I’ve just got to go back to work.’”  Over his objection, Astrid took the job of assistant treasurer.  However, when she was asked to fill the treasurer’s job, Ray put his foot down and said no.  “The job meant I would be attending conferences and meetings out of town and in the evenings, and he would have none of it.  He was earning a good living for us as an architect, and in the 1950s and early 1960s, for our generation, it was considered a negative for a man whose wife worked outside the home – it was as though he couldn’t support her.  It was all nonsense, of course, but that’s the way it was – it was a status symbol for a woman to be a full time, stay at home wife – at least for the man.”
        So she turned down the treasurer’s job (“which I regret,” she adds) and stayed on as assistant treasurer.  After 16 years of marriage, Astrid was widowed again.  This time, she had her chance to shine.  When her son John approached her with the idea of starting a home insurance business, 68 year old Astrid jumped at the chance.  She quit her job with the borough and went into business with her son.  Third time’s a charm, they say.  Astrid has worked full time at the business as secretary, office manager – handling all the finances and bills – and keeping everything in order and on track – “she’s meticulous, detail oriented, and a very hard worker,”  says John. “ She pulls her own weight.” Indeed, Astrid adds:  “It’s a joy to be doing the work I love alongside the people I love – my son and now my grandson, Peter. But when I walk through that door, it’s all business, and our relationship ends – until the end of the day.  I’m treated like any other employee – no favoritism or nepotism. If I want time off, I ask for it.  That way, other employees respect me, too, because I’m one of them and there’s never any tension in the office that I’m getting special treatment.”
        But of course, at 100, how could anyone not garner special attention  who is working full time, using the computer in addition to the fundamental skills learned decades ago, who shows up at the office smartly dressed and is always cheerful and eager to tackle whatever tasks the day requires. What a work ethic!  Astrid confides: “I love to work, and I love the work I do. It must be terribly unpleasant, even difficult, for people who don’t like their jobs.”  John deserves a lot of credit, she says. “He has faith in me and in my abilities.  If I couldn’t do the work, he’d tell me – and he’d let me go.  A lot of employers won’t hire older workers, and that’s a shame.  I’m very lucky that I can continue doing what I love at my age.  Most of all, I love to type.  It’s like playing the piano, and I make very few mistakes.  With a computer you’re using your brain and your typing skills and it’s a good way to keep your mind sharp and maintain your coordination.  But I still like the sound of a typewriter.  I don’t miss carbon copies, though – that was a nightmare if you made a mistake having to erase it on every page.”
         Except for a “botched hip operation” 2 years ago, the result of a slip, Astrid says her health has always been good.  “I had to give up driving then and I’m much slower now – I was always very quick – I hate being slowed down.  But at least I’m not in a wheelchair.”  She lives alone in an apartment and spends the evenings reading and knitting. “ I love to knit, I always have.  Right now, I’m working on an afghan with a very intricate pattern.  I don’t like to do easy patterns, they’re boring.  I like the challenge.  And I think to myself, ‘I want to stay around to finish this afghan, and then I’ll  start a sweater and I want to be around to finish the sweater,’ and so it goes.  I’m a fatalist, I suppose.  I think when it’s your time, you leave.  Until then, I intend to enjoy my life just the way it is.”
        On a personal note, Astrid adds this advice to those who have elders in their lives.  “It’s important to keep occupied even when you’re older, and it’s important for people to have a sense of satisfaction.  Others can help them achieve this with a little ingenuity.”   Astrid tells the story of her mother, who lived to be 101.  “She had been a hard working woman all her life, and she was an avid knitter.  For years and years she knitted beautiful baby garments – sweaters, booties, hats were her specialty, and she would donate them to the church or to charities to sell at fundraisers and to organizations that helped people in need.  When she began to lose her vision because of macular degeneration, she chose to live in a group home; she didn’t want to be a burden to me because I was working and she didn’t want me to quit and take care of her.  She continued her knitting and would offer her items for sale to benefit the home.  As her sight diminished, she could no longer see when she dropped a stitch, of course ruining the garment.  I made an arrangement with the woman who ran the home that I would continue to supply the yarn and she would continue to display my mother’s baby clothes in the case as she always had, as though they were for sale, and change them out periodically.  We kept to that arrangement until the end of my mother’s life, and she was so pleased and proud of that case and of the baby clothes she was able to make to help others.” 
       There are small things that we can do to help give our elders a sense of dignity and a sense of remaining who they are. 
       Of course, that’s for people when they grow old – and Astrid is not there yet!  She’ll be the first to tell you.

Astrid in her 30s

Astrid with son John

Astrid in 2004


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