Friday, September 2, 2016
Jo hired me based on a reference from a former male boss. I wasn't a bit surprised that she and Bob hit it off but that's for another blog post. It only took me a few days to see that Jo could be tough. Exacting in her standards, she required exemplary performance and held each member of her staff accountable. At first, I was petrified. But over time, I came to see that Jo was soft inside the tough cookie exterior.
Willowy and blond, she was a throw-back to 60's prim cool, although her hair was loose and natural and often threatened to fall across one blue eye. But with an alluring head toss, the fetching errant wave would land back into place. Her clothes could be a touch old-fashioned but were trim and tailored and fit her small waist and athletic form perfectly. Her favorite pieces included nubby wool pencil skirts with coordinating silk blouses, and wool jumpers that were fully-fashioned and with real pockets. She wore beautiful hosiery with kitten heels and in winter, black tights with ballet flats or boots. A few times, a personal shopper would show up at the office with nylon zippered wardrobe bags from Brooks Brothers filled with lovely clothes such as crisp white shirts with ruffled jabots or neat French cuffs, a peacock-blue boucle wool pantsuit, colorful cashmere cardigans, and full bespoke skirts cut on the bias. She had trust-fund style and a mysterious but tragic romantic past.
We knew Jo once had a husband who was killed in a car crash early in the marriage. He worked for a certain presidential candidate who was killed too. That was all we knew but of course, we also knew that she never married again. She lived in the heart of the city and after I stopped quaking in her presence and perhaps after she trusted me, she invited me to her apartment for lunch one day where we discussed whether or not she should have her bedroom walls painted yellow. I remember that we also discussed how late in the month of September she could comfortably host a cocktail party outside on her cobblestone patio. I was so busy trying not to show that I was hanging onto her every word that I could barely eat the wonderful little lunch she prepared for us.
I felt important to be allowed into my boss' inner sanctum but I never took it for granted. Jo was the superior who authorized my paycheck so the line of demarcation was never blurred and I never tested it. If the others tried, she cannily showed them their places. But this didn't make her an unkind boss - on the contrary, she was very kind. One extremely hot summer she suddenly interrupted my work to ask if I had an air conditioner at home for my small child and when I said no, an unmarked pick-up truck showed up at my place the next Saturday morning bearing a brand new window air conditioner for my 2nd floor walk-up. The driver revealed nothing stating only that my boss had asked him to deliver and install it. She called in favors a lot because she did so much for others. If an extra mile needed to be taken for a child whose care we oversaw at our non-profit, she took two. She simply cared.
Since Jo was senior to me by nearly 20 years, I was able to learn about life from her. Like an exotic aunt, she advised me to read a newspaper every day and I often saw the Boston Globe spread out on her office floor in the morning. She told me to always have a bottle of Champagne in the refrigerator as well as a bottle of perfume in the summer. When I complimented her on the scent she wore - an inexpensive Elizabeth Arden spray that had to be asked for specifically at the counter because only a few hold-outs still wore it - a wrapped bottle appeared on my desk the next day. Jo also taught me to buy good underwear, stating "Never make friends with cotton panties" - an axiom I still live by. Jo also believed that the first day back to work after a long Labor Day weekend was the perfect time to wear something autumnal. Our line of business ran parallel to the school calendar and to keep the back-to-serious-work blues at bay, she believed in wearing a chic fall-forward outfit no matter how balmy the early September breeze was. I practice this by replacing my summer bag for my cognac one and my sandals for pumps. Jo once wore a navy printed two-piece silk dress on a first Tuesday back to work and I often choose navy for that day too. It has just the right amount of change-of-season essence for one of the busiest work days of the year.
Another trait that Jo was known for was her natural ability to make us feel truly special and not just a cog in a never-ending bureaucratic wheel. When her sharp blue eyes were fixed upon me, I felt she cared very much about my ability to do my job well enough to advance on to better things. She gave me confidence and modeled good office behavior that I still draw on today. Looking back, I realize it was actually she who was special.
Over the years I have had many bosses: the good, the bad, the ugly...and the indifferent. But never have I had a boss as fair, kind and intriguing as Jo. She was a bit strict and precise but tempered it with an acerbic self-deprecating wit along with a big heart of gold. She was by far the best boss I ever had.