Back in 1920, when she was a teenager, Lillian Ezrin knew already what she was good at--and she was itching to get out and start doing it.
The 15-year-old begged her mother and got permission to drop out of school and go to work in a shoe store in downtown Baltimore.
"It was my forte, selling things. I'm not boasting, but I'm telling you, it was the thing I was good at," said Ezrin, now 94, looking back on the century from her small, immaculate, one-bedroom apartment in Ring House, a Rockville apartment building that provides cultural and other programs for Jewish senior citizens.
So good was this daughter of a Lithuanian shoemaker at selling the hard-to-move merchandise--the out-of-style, the oddly colored--that she earned enough money to pay for her trousseau.
"I've always been independent," said Ezrin, who came from an era in which independence in a woman was best enjoyed quietly. "Never let your husband know everything you know."
Ezrin, who was born in Baltimore, got married, at 20, to Daniel Ezrin, of Washington.
She lived in Washington for most of her life and went on to sell all manner of merchandise, from penny candy in Southwest Washington to fine clothes and hosiery at the Saks Fifth Avenue on Wisconsin Avenue.
Along the way, she raised four boys and a girl and watched downtown Washington grow from a bustling retail hub with dirt roads at its perimeter to the office-dominated federal city of today. Three times, she said, "we were chased out by government."
The family's home and store (the homes were always above the store) had to be moved once for the FBI building, once for Census Bureau offices and once for redevelopment.
Another time, fire drove them out.
At Ring House, where Ezrin has lived for nine years, several residents gathered recently to reminisce.
Many of them, as it happens, also had been shopkeepers. "It was the kind of thing that Jews new to the country could do," Ezrin said. "You didn't have to be hired at a company; you started a business of your own."
With all the moving from place to place, Ezrin is hard pressed to single out one place she thinks of as home. But the small, carefully coifed woman has a special fondness for the candy and tobacco store at Fourth and I streets SW.
"It was next to the Jewel Theater and so we called it the Jewel Store," said Ezrin, recalling that the store was open in the days of segregation and that the movie theater's customers were black. "We got along with everyone, and we were good friends with many of them."
Before the movie started, people loaded up on ice cream and candy at the Ezrins' store--Baby Ruths, Mary Janes, Paydays.
When the theater owner let them send in "a boy with a basket" full of food, sales took off.
With the money they made, "I sent three children to camp in the Poconos," Ezrin said.
There were some tough times that Ezrin remembers with a shiver--the influenza outbreak of 1918, when "so many people died"; the Great Depression, when she and her husband "lost everything" and she "went home for a while to Mama."
But there was occasionally a bright side to the tough times. Amid the scarcity of World War II, they managed to wangle coveted items such as cigarettes, so their store was popular.
There were colorful characters, like Al Jolson's father, a cantor who circumcised three of Ezrin's sons: "He was musical and had a wonderful sense of humor--you could see where the son got it!"
And toward the end of her husband's life--Daniel Ezrin died in 1976--they lived for a few years in Baltimore, where he fulfilled a long-deferred dream to pursue rabbinical studies.
"Because he had to help the family, he had to give it up," she said, reflecting that the return to Baltimore was "maybe our happiest time."
These days, the woman who never learned to drive ("There were streetcars and the taxis were 25 cents!") and whose husband drove her around in a Tin Lizzie ("You had to crank it up!") is learning to get around in a motorized wheelchair. It's a tough adjustment, some days, but she gets encouragement from her family, which includes 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
"They tell me 'You can do it, you always could do anything!' " she said, pointing proudly to the family photographs that fill the apartment. "We made a better life for our children," she said, "and, all in all, it was a good life for us."
CAPTION: Lillian Ezrin, at the Ring House in Rockville, where she lives. "It was my forte, selling things. I'm not boasting, but I'm telling you, it was the thing I was good at," she says.