My grandmother was an amazing woman.
She was a Holocaust survivor who learned to survive and thrive in any circumstance. Here were the 12 Life Lessons she taught me:
1. It’s What’s Inside That Matters. She always told a story about people who were sailing on a ship from Russia to New York. The rich passengers had furs and diamonds and were eating expensive foods. A brilliant but modest professor remained below the fancy cabins. He had no money and no one knew him. The ship hit an iceberg and people started to go under the water, when a big ship rescued them.
Most of the passengers were saved, but their riches, furs and diamonds were lost at sea. The new ship took everyone ashore to America. Upon their arrival, the rich people were in wet rags alone, but a bunch of students met the modest professor and took care of him, because, he was, somebody. My grandmother liked to say that when it comes hard times they can take away everything from you except for what’s in your heart and head. That’s what matters.
2. Spend a Penny, Save a Penny. When my grandmother emigrated from Romania, she had hardly any money, but she resolved not to spend on credit cards, to go into debt or to accept help from the government. She got a job as a tailor and saved her money whenever possible. She built a nest egg. She always said that you should spend one penny and save the other for a rainy day, because you never know when you’ll need it.
3. If He Doesn’t Want You, Consider Yourself Lucky. I remember once a boy broke up with me and my grandmother said, “If someone doesn’t want you, you should consider yourself lucky. You want someone who’ll want you and will always stick around. This is a good motto for life in general.
4. Learn to Stand on Your Own Two Feet. My grandmother was the youngest of five so they always coddled her. After she lost her family and husband in the Holocaust, she had to learn to take care of things herself. She embroidered and sold shirts on the black market, learned to measure houses and read letters for the farmer’s wives in exchange for food. She always said that she wished her husband could see how independent she became and reminded me to learn to stand on my own two feet.
5. Always Help Others. After having been through so much, my grandmother felt that it was everyone’s job to make this world a better place. She always gave to charity because she knew what it felt like to go without.
6. Only Get the Best. My grandmother did not buy a lot of things but when she did buy something, she’d only get the best. For example, she’d buy a tailored suit for $200 (which was a lot at that time) but then she’d take good care of it and wear it for twenty years. Her philosophy was that if something was made well, it would stand the test of time.
7. Never Give Up. Even when she lost loved ones, was poor, her house burnt down and she left her country, she made a resolution to never give up. She always told herself that things would get better. We all go through hard times (to lesser extents) but it’s important to maintain a positive vision of our future and to work towards it.
8. Take Care of Your Health. Without It You Have Nothing. My grandmother used to cook for herself until she was 99. She finally agreed to get Meals on Wheels. She always cooked healthy and said that her body was like a car; you had to take good care of it and give it good fuel, so it would last.
9. Appreciate Loved Ones While They’re Here. My grandmother always made my sister, mother and I her top priorities. She knew what it was like to lose loved ones, so she always wanted to see us through good times and bad.
10. Don’t Fight. When someone would yell or use profanity, my Bubby would manage her own anger by taking deep breaths and counting to ten. She’d say, that person’s not in their right mind right now so just let them get it out. Stay quiet. There’s no need for you to get upset and add fuel to their fire.
11. If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It. My grandmother used to walk everyday and clean her own house to exercise her body, into her 90’s. She’d watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune to exercise her mind. She loved to say, “If you don’t use it, you lose it!”
12. Appreciate What You Do Have. My grandmother lost so many people and things in her early life but it made her more appreciative of what she had later. She lived in a small studio overlooking the East River. She loved how quiet and safe it was, having doormen 24/7, that she had a beautiful view, a television and a radio, plants that she loved, big picture windows with sunshine and that she could make her own food whenever she liked. She was grateful for her health, her family and neighbors and to be live in a time of relative peace. Sometimes we take these little things for granted but she never did.
My grandmother passed away just before she turned 100. I miss her every day and I learned a lot from her wisdom and example. I think we all can.
Remember to teach your life lessons to your grandkids while you’re still here. They will pass them on to help others!
Dr. Paulette Kouffman Sherman is a psychologist and author of Dating from the Inside Out, published by Atria Books in 2008. She writes a column as The NY Love Examiner. She’s been cited as a relationship expert in the NY Times, Complete Women, Seventeen, Glamour and Forbes.