Two weeks ago my grandmother, Gloria Fishman, passed away peacefully in her sleep. A quiet end to her vibrant and dynamic life story. Gloria was always ahead of her time: a 90 year old woman with two Ivy League degrees when most women never even thought about college. A working mom when being one wasn’t easy or celebrated. Passionate about business when it was frowned upon and even quitting her secretarial job (the step that led her to teaching) because she just couldn’t stand working for men who she knew she was smarter than.
As her only female progeny, my grandmother was unabashed about wanting to make me her mini-me. While I owe so many of my passions to her influence—art, reading, travel, a perfectly-made egg salad sandwich—I can only aspire to live up to her legacy.
To that end, I only get to have a platform in Something Major because she was such a trailblazer. That’s why this week I’m sharing some memories and lessons from her extraordinary life.
A penchant for principle and a way with words
If Teddy Roosevelt lived by the words “speak softly and carry a big stick,” my grandmother may have lived by the words “speak softly and write a damn good letter.” Those words belied her unwavering belief in standing on the principle of right vs. wrong, whether the issue was big (she was a committed volunteer in her community) or small.
In December 1998, at the height of the Furby craze, my grandmother headed to FAO Schwarz to purchase the must-have-toy of the holiday season. When she arrived, she learned they were sold out—despite advertising their dedicated “Furby Shop.” Adding insult to injury, not only was the entire Furby Shop sold out, but the toy was on back order until 1999.
Any ordinary person might have shrugged their shoulders and found another toy for their three grandchildren in the 20,000 square-foot mega-store. But my grandmother wasn’t ordinary and, at this point, it wasn’t even about Furby. She promptly left the store, walking five blocks east to her beloved First Avenue apartment and sat down to pen a letter to the CEO excoriating him for false advertising.
A week later a package arrived in the mail, alongside an apology note. Yes, that’s right: that year for Hannukah we all received Furbys personally procured by the CEO of FAO Schwarz himself.
Rethinking “passion” at work
In addition to her infamous letter writing (Furbys were not the first subject, nor the last, of her most epic letter writing campaigns), my grandma was a certified social studies teacher. She never taught it though; instead teaching only business and computer studies after studying business at UPenn’s The Wharton School and receiving her Masters degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. Truly a feat when she attended in the late 1940s and early 1950s, even for a woman as brilliant as she was.
She used her social studies certification to pursue her passion for travel, taking continuing education intensives all over the world. Even traveling to places as far flung as Tahiti and Australia all in the name of professional development and keeping up with her credits.
We live in a time where we constantly hear a toxic message at work: if our job isn’t our life’s passion we’re doing something wrong. We’re failing. We’re missing out.
What my grandma got right is that it’s not about making your job your life’s passion. It’s about using your job as a vehicle for your life’s passions. That might sound subtle on paper but in practice it can have a transformative impact on your career satisfaction.
Resilience: not optional
Her funny stories and extraordinary accomplishments risk eclipsing one of her greatest gifts, her resilience. A first-generation American, my grandmother was the daughter of immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in Poland. They arrived via Ellis Island, escaping the Holocaust unlike some of their siblings—something that was never lost on her.
Her first son was born with Down Syndrome, a difficult thing today but even more so 60+ years ago when our healthcare system had only a fraction of the research and resources. The subsequent birth of her second son, my father, was marked by the nearly simultaneous and sudden death of her father. Any ordinary person could have been crushed and easily spiraled into a depression. But Gloria was was extraordinary and she only loved her family, including her third son, even more fiercely. It was ferocity that never diminished.
Aside from family (including her dogs), one of the other great loves of her life was learning. When she was healthy she lived her best New York City life: attending lectures, art exhibitions, plays, or the opera weekly. When her Parkinsons made getting around too difficult she would sit at her dining room table with the day’s New York Times reading it like a book: page by page and chapter by chapter, sending me articles she thought I needed to see. When even reading became too difficult, she listened to audio books via the Library of Congress for hours on end, eagerly taking recommendations from friends, family, and her doctors.
Even her battle with Parkinsons is a testament to her tenacity and resilience. Defying all the medical odds, she outlived the 10-year life expectancy at her diagnosis by double, fighting for two full decades. Her pure love of life carried her forward when her body tried to give up.
I’m so grateful for all the memories. The “big ones” like our trips to London and Paris and celebrating her 79th birthday in Buenos Aires. Or her walking down the aisle and dancing at my wedding when she still could. The “small ones” too, like the way she would swat my grandfather’s hand away when he tried to eat one her french fries. Her infamous “that’s enough, Mel!” was mentioned in almost every euology. Or the way she would hold my hands every time we said goodbye, giving me a squeeze with her superhuman-soft-hands, saying: “love ya, sweetheart.”
Love ya, too.
Her memory is truly a blessing, just like her remarkable life was.