Throughout history, the image of “wisdom” is exclusively portrayed by men: God, Socrates, Confucius, Merlin, the aging college professor. Where are their female counterparts? The wisdom of older women is indisputable. Having lived decades raising children, caring for husbands, creating “nests” from which progeny fly out of to be productive members of society, and often being forced to observe more than participate in the events around them, older women have unique insights that help future generations not only to survive but also to thrive.
New York Timesbestselling author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, Dr. Lois Frankel, now honors and gives voice to the often marginalized and “invisible” older women in our society. From Los Angeles, California, to Shanghai, China, women over age seventy share wisdoms and stories that are heartwarming and hilarious, insightful and witty, and philosophical and practical. “When life gives you lemons,” says Jo-Ann Mercurio, born 1941, “add vodka.”
Beautifully photographed and illustrated, Ageless Women, Timeless Wisdom is a precious record of our women’s reflections and takeaways on lives well-lived that is sure to be passed from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter.
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About the Author
Dr. Lois Frankel is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling business bibles for women, Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office and Nice Girls Don't Get Rich. She has appeared on the Today Show, 20/20, Tavis Smiley, and Larry King Live and has been featured in People, USA Today, and numerous other global media outlets. She lives in Pasadena, California.
Lisa Graves is the author and illustrator of the series “Women in History,” with three books to her name, as well as the illustrator of The Tudor Tutor and the co-author of A Thyme and Place (Skyhorse Publishing). She is the creator of Historywitch.com, a site dedicated to illustrations of history’s most fascinating characters. She lives in Medway, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
AGELESS WOMEN, TIMELESS ADVICE
Witty, Wicked, and Wise Reflections on Well-Lived Lives
For the unlearned, old age is winter. For the learned, it is the season of the harvest. — Hasidic Proverb
There is a sign that has hung in my office for many years: Entrance to another's soul is a sacred honor. It is a reminder that as a psychotherapist, executive coach, and, now, documenter of women's unique lives, I have a responsibility to treat what is shared (whether across the couch, across the desk, or across the ocean) as precious. Listening to the stories of the women interviewed for this book as they spoke about where they came from and how they got to be where they are now, I was touched by the trust they placed in me with their most treasured possessions — their memories. Quite honestly, I had no idea how richly and deeply their experiences would transform my world. Not only did I learn to be more patient (not something for which I am known), but also more curious, compassionate, and courageous. I was inspired to take action on several other projects I had been thinking about but not quite sure about embracing. I'm hoping that reading this book may have the same impact on you as well!
For the purpose of this book I chose to focus on septuagenarian, octogenarian, nonagenarian, and even a few centenarian women. In other words, women from seventy to a hundred years old. Every effort was made to include a wide spectrum of women with different backgrounds, ethnicities, educational experiences, and religions. Some had married and lived decades raising children and sometimes grandchildren, caring for ill husbands and parents, creating "nests" from which progeny fly out of to be productive members of society, and often being forced to observe more than participate in the events around them. Other women that I spoke with chose not to marry or have children and instead had careers outside of the home, traveled extensively, or ran their own businesses. Yet others chose religious paths and spent their lives educating generations of children, caring for the poor, or ministering to the sick. Regardless of their past, every woman had valuable insights, perspectives, and experiences from which we can all learn.
As a society, however, we often fail to capitalize on that wisdom. Instead, we marginalize women who no longer look like Madison Avenue's definition of vibrant and relevant and overlook the myriad ways in which their existence is actually essential to the survival of us all. As a result, older women theselves often don't recognize and acknowledge the ways in which their contributions are still valuable. So, the process of gleaning their wisdom took longer than I anticipated. It wasn't as simple as asking a question and receiving an answer, it was about first listening to their stories. Woven between the lines of long lives were pearls of wisdom hard-earned from life experiences as unique as seemingly identical snowflakes, only to find under closer examination just how inimitable each one is.
Unfortunately most people tend to lump all older women into the same homogeneous pile when nothing could be further from the truth. They are as different in maturity as they were in their youth. Curious young women continue to take classes on subjects like the Byzantine Empire and the History of the American Railroad well into their nineties. Social-minded young women become mature women who volunteer for hospice or to teach immigrant women how to read. And adventurous young women continue to seek challenges to conquer with grit and determination. The stories I collected from women around the world reflect these differences in temperament, background, experiences, and interests.
Listening to them was not only inspirational, it was also a lesson in history. From ninety-one year old Peggy Kennell I learned about the Johnstown Flood of 1936. Eighty-six-year-old Wai-Ling Lew taught me about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred the immigration of all Chinese laborers. And Yvonne Richmond, eighty-one years old, illuminated what it was like for an African American to live through the race riots of the 1960s.
In retrospect, I see now that my original vision for this book as a sweet little homage to the homespun wisdom of older women was totally misguided by my own blind spots about older women. The vision began to change when I started actually interviewing and speaking with as many women as I could. Then there were the submissions from the daughters, sons, granddaughters, and nieces and nephews of women who had heard about the project and wanted to submit something from the older women in their lives, both living and having passed away. The first one to give me pause was the one from a young man who said whenever he would procrastinate his mother would tell him, "Yeah, and if your aunt had balls she'd be your uncle." What am I supposed to do with that? I wondered, but filed it away.
A short time later I met Jo-Ann Mercurio in a pet boutique in Palm Springs, California, asked her what she knew to be true after all of her years of living and she replied, "If life gives you lemons ... look for the vodka." Hmmm. Not quite what I was expecting. Then, asking Nina Vincente in Scottsdale, Arizona the same question, I got the reply, "Don't trust men. If they don't treat you well, leave them. They don't change." Good advice as well, but different from what I thought she might say. So, I decided to go with the flow and incorporate everything I learned, whether I agreed with it or not, whether it was religious or irreverent, and whether it was sweet or sour. Everything wound up being grist for this mill.
There was one other variation from my original plan that you might find interesting. The original title for this book was Words of Wisdom from Wise Old Women. I was on a personal crusade to destigmatize the phrase old woman. Younger women loved the title but older women? No so much. They don't see themselves as the stereotype of old age and they want others to acknowledge their ongoing relevance and vitality. As ninety-one-year-old Dorie Snedeker told me as we were saying goodbye, "I'm 39 from the neck up but 139 from neck down."
So, ladies, I heard you and agree — you are indeed ageless and endowed with timeless wisdom. Thanks for sharing!
Born in Ching Lung Lei, a tiny village in southern China, Mrs. Lew (as she prefers to be called) was an only child. Although China's one-child policy was initiated in the 1950s, it was not the reason her mother had no other children. She was an only child because her father had left China to seek his fortune in Mexico as an overseas sojourner laborer before she was born. Mrs. Lew wouldn't meet him until she was twenty years old. Each month, with the exception of one period during World War II, her father would write and send money to support his small family. While in Mexico he started another family. This was not uncommon and known to all parties involved during this period.
Life was difficult in the tiny village. There was no electricity and the nearest communal toilet was a ways down the dusty road. In those days women did not work in business but rather took care of children and the household. There was famine, and many young men sought fortunes beyond China to work overseas. Those who remained, the "bad guys," as she called them, knew which families were single-mother households and targeted them for burglaries.
As World War II spread to Asia, money became scarce with the interruption of mail service. Danger from the Japanese occupation lurked. Her mother decided it was safer to move to Macau, a Portuguese colony across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. There her mother worked first as a seamstress to augment what little money was sent by her husband and soon she opened her own shop. Mrs. Lew also worked in the shop, and by the age of fourteen she could sew an entire custom-made dress in one day. It was there that Mrs. Lew learned how to manage money and a household. You see, despite being poor and uneducated, her mother was smart and shrewd. She saved every little bit of money she possibly could (from her husband's allowance and her own savings as a seamstress), and when she had acquired enough, she wisely invested and managed real estate in Hong Kong.
When World War II ended and Mrs. Lew had graduated from the equivalent of high school, her mother offered her a choice: go to work or continue with higher education. Mrs. Lew chose education and studied accounting in Canton University. When asked why she chose accounting, she replied, "I had to learn something to do something." Having watched her mother manage her own businesses and investments, accounting was a logical choice.
Somewhere early in her collegiate years, her father returned to Hong Kong from Mexico, and this was when they met for the first time. She was afraid of the quiet man who didn't speak much. She didn't really know him. And, as is customary in the Chinese culture, people do not openly display physical or emotional affection. It was only much later, toward the end of her father's life, that she felt closer to him. Much of this was the result of him conversing with her as an adult to another adult, contributing to her understanding of him and helping her come to terms with their relationship.
When Mrs. Lew completed college, her mother decided it was time to live with her husband in Mexico. Faced again with another defining life choice, Mrs. Lew followed her mother. Her father put her to work in his restaurant, where she met her half-siblings for the first time. Yet the entire time she and her mother lived in Mexico, they never met her father's other wife. He deliberately kept the two wives and households separate.
Mrs. Lew's college boyfriend soon traveled to join them in Mexico. As it turned out, he had also never met his father, a merchant in Monterey, California. Since Mexico was a lot closer to California than Hong Kong, he would be able to locate his father easily from there. Eventually he found his father, but because he was over twenty-one, his father could not sponsor him to immigrate to the U.S.
Soon, Mrs. Lew and her boyfriend married and started their own family in Mexico. The couple would have three daughters. Her husband insisted that the children be born in the U.S., so when the eighth month of pregnancy approached they boarded a rickety plane and flew to Los Angeles to stay with his father and siblings. Mrs. Lew's daughters were born on U.S. soil, making them citizens of the United States. Then back they returned to Mexico where she stayed home raising their children while her husband worked in her father's restaurant.
When the girls reached school age, Mrs. Lew said her daughters should be educated and gave her husband a choice of residency — Hong Kong, Mexico, or the U.S. By then, President Kennedy had made it easier for immigrants to come to the U.S. if they had a sibling sponsor residing there. Her husband's eldest brother stepped up to become their sponsor.
Once in Los Angeles, the young family lived sparsely. Her husband worked at a Chinese grocery store where, she said, he wasn't very happy. He was used to having more autonomy in her father's restaurant. With her encouragement, they opened their own Chinese restaurant in North Hollywood, California. Following her mother's example, Mrs. Lew saved her pennies until the couple could invest in their own real estate. They bought apartment houses where they could live and manage the property.
The most touching part of Mrs. Lew's story was a promise she made to her father. On his deathbed, he asked that she, as the eldest of all his children, promise to take care of his second family. This was a family she had not grown up with, and she had only developed some connection with them during the few years she lived in Mexico. At this point, she hadn't even met her father's other wife. Nonetheless, true to her word and honoring her father's wishes, Mrs. Lew sent funds to this other wife for over twenty years. When asked why she would be so generous to someone she didn't even know, she replied softly, "Because I didn't want her to have to live the kind of life I lived during the war when we got no money from my father."
And what advice does she have to give others? Only reluctantly does she give any advice, but it's this:
Education is very important. If you're not educated, even if you work hard, you will have a difficult time achieving your goals. If you are educated, but you don't work hard, you won't achieve your goals. But if you are educated and work hard, you will be successful.
While traveling the Southern tier of the United States to collect wisdom from women with whom I would never otherwise cross paths, my friend Linda Carpenter called to tell me she met the most fascinating woman and asked if I wanted to interview her. Trusting Linda's judgment, we scheduled a time when we could both talk to Nina Vincente while I was passing through Phoenix, Arizona. Linda was right. Nina is nothing less than a force of nature. Speaking with a heavy Italian accent, at times it was impossible to tell if she was speaking in English or Italian. In fact, it was a little of both but she had no problem getting her point across and we had no problem understanding her. Her story was peppered with frequently asking "capito?" Nina held court for three hours — and they were three of the most spellbound hours of my life.
To say that Nina is effervescent is an understatement. No taller than five feet and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet, she said her mother used to tell her "the smaller the barrel, the better the wine" — the Italian version of the maxim "good things come in small packages." I would describe her as Gina Lollobrigida meets Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls. Her home is filled with pictures of her younger self — all of them voluptuous and many of them seductive. As her story reveals, Nina is a woman who knew how to get what she wanted and, most of the time, wanted what she got.
I was a queen in Italy. I had three restaurants, two boutiques, and a discotheque. To do this you have to treat people nice. I've had people work for me for thirty-five years. Men are superficial. I'm deep. I learned to be independent when the town we lived in was gone from bombing during World War II. It was in ruins. My mother said we had to be tough. So we went to the mountains until it was all over. When we went back to Puglia, it was all gone. That taught me I have to take care of myself.
I went to San Remo when I was about twenty-six or twenty- seven years old to open a restaurant with money given to me by my Mamma and grandmother. I learned how to cook from watching my Mamma in her restaurant from the time I was a little girl. I also knew how to sew. At seventeen, I learned how to make pants. My brain told me I could make money sewing pants — everyone needs pants — but my love was cooking.
You don't have to go to school to cook in Italy. You make good food at home. Three generations were cooks. I said I have to cook too. When I make chicken, people go crazy — it's only chicken! The Sicilians put too much in their foods. It's why they get ulcers. Mine is simple. I slept only three hours a night preparing everything I had to get ready for the next day. Nina Italiana was the name of my first restaurant.
I was in San Remo for five years when I knew I wanted children but I didn't want to get married. I also had my ovaries removed six months earlier. I wanted a baby so badly. There was a Swedish man who was a tour guide and he would always bring tourists to the restaurant when he was in town. He was beautiful. His name was Tom. I introduced myself to him. We became friends. One night he invited me to a dance. We fell in love and it exploded that night. We started to date. One night I invited him to my apartment. In the lift going up I was talking to myself about going to bed with him. I figured I couldn't get pregnant, so we made love.
A month later I went to the doctor and said I felt strange. I wanted to eat all the time and I was vomiting. The smell of food made me sick and I had to cook all day! The doctor told me to come back in two weeks and when I did, he did a urine test. I thought he was going to tell me I had a tumor and I was upset. Instead, I was pregnant! I was a miracle woman! They had missed a little bit of the ovary, and because I'm an active woman it grew back.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ageless Women, Timeless Wisdom"
Copyright © 2015 Lois P. Frankel, PhD.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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