Life Lessons from Wise Women

Life Lessons from Wise Women

Frannie died last night.

The last time I saw her was on her 91st birthday, nine days ago.  My good friend Neil and I had driven to where his mother Frances was in rehab, after a bout with pneumonia had put her in the hospital a week or so before.  I had sent flowers, as I did for birthdays and Mother’s Day over the years.  You see, I lost my mom when I was 23 and have been adopting everyone else’s mother ever since.  And I had adopted Frances.

Neil was our intermediary in our mutual admiration.  I ended all my conversations with “Give my love to Frances” and she would always ask, “How’s Sharon?”

I admired Frances so.  She and her siblings were orphans, and had grown up in an orphanage somewhere near New York.  At our lunches out, she would recount how fortunate she was because one of her teachers at the home loved the arts and took enough interest in Frances to take her to different performances. Eventually that would land her an audition with Martha Graham, performing a dance piece she had written and choreographed herself.  She would go on to win a scholarship to New York’s famed Neighborhood Playhouse where she’d learn to act alongside yet-undiscovered Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and Tony Randall, among others.

In time, she met and fell in love with a man who went off to war in the Pacific.  While she waited for his return, she became–somehow–one of the first women employed by IBM in a project involved with those ‘newfangled’ things called computers.  She’d eventually marry her war hero-turned-stockbroker and have two children.  She’d lose her daughter at an early age and her husband in the 1990s.

That’s when I met Frances, Neil’s mother.  A widow, living in Florida.

To me, her past could only be a series of stories told over lunch.  And when Neil let her know I had written a book, she said, “I have a book in me.”  And she did.

Frances had trouble rebounding from the pneumonia and the doctors gave her a 4-in-10 chance of pulling through.  After her birthday, she didn’t seem to have any fight left in her.  Yesterday evening Neil called me to gently warn me that the end might be getting near.

I sat quietly and meditated, trying to find Frances and her energy in my thoughts.  I saw myself holding her head gently between my hands, and felt her slipping away.  I called Neil back and told him to stay close to her.

After midnight he called to say she had died in the ambulance, headed back to the hospital from the rehab center.

The energy I had felt when thinking about Frances was the same one I felt as I held my beloved Aunt Pat, my mother’s twin sister, three years earlier as she too slipped away, on the day before her 90th birthday.  It was familiar … and peaceful.

I always loved hearing Patty’s stories about living in Miami during World War II, during the blackouts because of German subs off the coast of Florida.  And about having trouble finding a small enough mechanic’s suit (she was a size 2) for her to work at the Firestone Tire place because all the men were off at war.  We created some stories of our own, as in the time I picked her up in Dallas, TX, headed for Kentucky in a stick-shift van.  Thirty miles later, she asked me why I was still in first gear.  I had to admit that I had never driven that car before and that I didn’t know how to shift.

From Patty my thoughts moved on to my Aunt Elisabeth, my Uncle Arthur’s French widow, who I went to spend Christmas 2009 with and found a seal on the door of her Nice, France, apartment and a tag that said, “Enquête décès” (Death Investigation).  She was 89.

Over long, multi-course dinners with exquisite wines, Elisabeth would tell me stories about being a teenager in Dijon, France, watching train after train moving east into Germany, knowing they were filled with Jews being moved “somewhere.”  And, in hindsight, feeling totally guilty for having done nothing.  And she’d cry as she talked about the 18- and 19-year-old, fresh-faced young American boys who, in wave after wave, would roll off the landing vessels at Normandy straight into the bullets of the waiting Germans.  Giving their lives to save France.

The more I thought about these three women, the more I realized they had something in common.  While they looked like any other octogenarian, their lives were vibrant and rich in their minds because of their stories.  What they had done, what they had seen, and what they had learned.

It’s so easy to look at a small, thin woman in her 80s, wrinkled face, white hair coiffed or not, lively eyes but an unsure step … and dismiss her.

Yet the wealth of information available in such women’s minds about what’s important in life and what’s not; about how to navigate through difficult times, be it wars, economic depressions, loss of loved ones or whatever;  and about how to find a sustainable lifestyle over the long term so that life can be relished, whatever the circumstances.

I look at their lifestyles.  They each arrived in their 80s by very different paths.  But at some point they had looked forward to their later years and made some choices, sometimes difficult ones.  They had opted for circumstances “that worked for them.”  They had found a housing solution for the duration that was stable.  They had accumulated “things” that they loved over the years, but felt they needed very little more.  They took great joy in what was new and what was different, without living in the past.  They treasured every sunrise.

And they would share the richness of their lives with any who were truly interested.  Otherwise, they were just little octogenarians moving almost invisibly through life.

When someone like Frannie dies, we automatically ask about those she left behind, how they feel, how they are coping, and isn’t it a shame she’s gone.

Anyone who’s smart will ask another question:  “What is it about life that I can learn from someone who has accumulated such a wealth of knowledge over her lifetime?”

Most of the pearls of wisdom you’ll find in their stories.


Sharon O’Day is an expert in global finance and marketing with an MBA from the Wharton School. She has worked with governments, corporations, and individuals … yes, she was the secret ‘weapon,’ if you will, behind many individuals in high places. At age 53, she lost everything: her home, her business, everything. Since then, Sharon has interviewed women and done extensive research to understand how that could have happened, especially with her strong knowledge of numbers and finance.

The surprising answers will be shared in her upcoming book “Money After Menopause.” Today her focus is to show women how to reach financial security for the long term. She has developed a step-by-step plan to get past all the obstacles that keep women broke and scared … and from reaching the financial peace of mind they so deserve.

  • Christinalee1

    Looking forward to the book !

  • I am sorry to hear of your friend’s passing…you have honored her through your heartfelt words and now I feel blessed to know a bit about Frannie. Thank you for reminding me to look more closely at people in my life…to look for their hidden treasures.

  • Thank you Sharon again for sharing this story with me and reminding me of the importance to taking time to listen to others stories and cherish those who impact me most.

  • GREAT story, Sharon! You were both blessed to have known the other!

  • Sondra Wright

    A beautiful story and a beautiful tribute to the memory of Frannie.

  • Very inspirational! Knowing those who have pioneered the way for us upcoming women. May God comfort those who have known and wished to have known Ms. Frannie.

  • Sharon, this paragraph: The more I thought about these three women, the more I realized they had something in common. While they looked like any other octogenarian, their lives were vibrant and rich in their minds because of their stories. What they had done, what they had seen, and what they had learned….

    This “living family legacy” is something I’m truly passionate about and you’ve put faces, lives, and love into the very heart of what it means to live an abundant life! So many of us miss what abundant life truly is… but these women you have pictured (and yourself, as one of them, too – although not octogenarian!) have discovered the true meaning of life.

    You are so right that often these wise women with legacies that extend far beyond mere earthly possessions, will pass through their daily world almost as “invisible” people… people are past their “prime” and no longer considered valuable for what they can do or produce. But yet if we could only stop and LISTEN to their stories!

    This afternoon I have an appointment with an older woman who has been struggling with pneumonia for the past 3 months while taking care of a disabled husband. Living in poverty not many think twice when they pass by her… but inside of her is a treasure house of wisdom and knowledge! And her spirit! She’s like a little child, exuberant in spirit, yet every bit as full of wit as she was in middle age. She sparkles! I will be recording her stories today… and it’s such a privilege!

    Sharon, you have honored and given tribute to these women in your life, and I can see how they have helped shaped your life! What an elegant family portrait! And by family, I mean the people (blood or not) who we love and treasure as part of our very own being.

    This is a remarkable article and I’m so glad you published it, Sharon!

  • Sue Graber

    Sharon…this is so beautiful. You are so right about the pearls of wisdom that we can glean from those in our lives who are so ready to share them if we have a listening ear. I can feel your love for all 3 of these wisdom and I am sorry for your loss. Thanks for encouraging us to open up our ears to hear the stories and gain the wisdom that is there.

  • Rachelle

    I’m going to pick up the phone today and call Gma and Grandma Opal! Thanks, Sharon!

  • Jeannette

    Sharon, our culture places so little value on wisdom and experience – things only achieved by living many years. Thanks for a vivid reminder of the treasure surrounding us.

  • Lorna Landis

    Thank You Sharon! I am passing this on to my hubby and others. So worth reading!

  • I am dealing with paradigm, I want to be a wise old woman…. but I don’t to grow old. Enjoyed your article Sharon – you are a great writer, and I am so sorry you lost your Frannie.

  • Sharon … I felt this story in my belly. Like I knew who this lady was… and sad I did not get the chance to hear her amazing stories. Listening to wiser women has always been such a joy to me. I love the Frannie’s of the world. I have always said the stories that are behind the faces are amazing.

    Now I must carry on her tradition … “How is Sharon?”

    • I’m doing fine, thanks, Angela. From your nursing work, you know how much control we actually have over our bodies: a frightening amount. And Frances was ready; there is a conscious or subconscious decision that takes place when the balance between “fighting to stay” is weaker than that of “releasing to go.” She made that decision, and we have to honor it.

  • Rose Kirkland

    Sharon– I LOVE–LOVE this story. It is soooooo true that we have so much to learn from older people. It’s too bad that sometimes we don’t appreciate them and their wisdom until we are older.

    So many times I wish that I’d had the maturity to really talk to my mother and really have the skills to listen to her before she died. However, this is something that we can teach our younger generations (if they will listen)–to acquire the maturity and appeciation for older people that can teach them so much. Thanks for posting this. It was very touching.

  • Sharon this had me crying, missing my grandma, laughing then crying again. My grandma came to live with us for 8 months before she too died at 90. You struck a nerve when you mentioned about control of our bodies and minds. Grandma celebrated her 90th birthday in July and just 3 weeks later peacefully slipped away. Being her caregiver and working full time wasn’t easy, it was extremely stressful especially since her daughter, my mother lived next door and they didn’t get along. But, as I sat in her hospital room holding her hand and talking with her as she took her last breath I knew I had done everything I could to make the last months of her life full and meaningful. On her birthday we took her to dinner. It was all about her. We stayed in the restaurant booth for hours listening to stories we had never heard in 40 years prior…her gift to us. Thanks Sharon for the wealth of your Frannie. I know she meant as much to you as my grandma did to me.

  • Absolutely loved your story Sharon! I have always loved listening to stories from the elderly because they have so much experience and wisdom to share with the world. Thank you for sharing the stories of these special woman who have gone before you and left foot steps for the next generation. It encourages us to leave a path of our experiences sprinkled with wisdom for those who may take a similar course later.

  • Sharon, you are such a rare gem…. such wisdom, such compassion & you were a secret weapon! I’m so honored to be working with you and more than that, to call you friend. I raise my Malbec glass to Frannie… she was a special woman. So are you! Much love to you today.

  • Wow, Sharon. You have warmed my heart on this stormy morning. What a blessing for you to have known these amazing women, and what wisdom they brought!

    Oh, and I cracked UP at you driving 30 miles in 1st gear!! 🙂

    Love & hugs to you in honor of Frannie.

  • What an amazing story Sharon – and so very true. I am so blessed that my mother is still with us. She’s 91 years of age and has a depth and wealth of knowledge and stories to share through having lived such a full life. You’re so right. We have so much to learn from these amazing women and their life stories. Thank you for sharing this story!

  • Christinalee1

    I have reread this with comments and am feeling very inspired and ready to tap into something I have neglected. I have had older female mentors including two lovely grandmothers and this is a great reminder to pay more attention to people who have
    so much to offer. How easy it is and I thank you for remnding me where the knowledge
    I need is ! Chris Lee

    • Anonymous

      Christina, love seeing you back again … and especially since it reminded you of invaluable “wise woman” knowledge you have available to you!

  • Beau Henderson

    What a way with words! We all have influential and powerful women that go unrecognized for their amazing achievements. Thanks for the inspiration to show some much deserved gratitude to a few special souls.

  • Victoria Gazeley

    Many years ago, I was lucky enough to work on a life story book for my great aunt and remember being so entranced with her stories and strengths. These women (and men) have such richness to share – we only have to take the time to ask. It always amazes me the stories that come out of people if we take interest. Thank you for this, Sharon.

  • Thank you for this gift! We are blessed to have our elders to tell us stories. You, Sharon, have exponentially multiplied those dinners and conversations by sharing them here.

  • Sharon, I truly enjoyed reading this!  I appreciate your observation of how these folks can be nearly unnoticed in our youth-oriented culture, but that what they have to share is truly worth listening to. I have had the honor of listening to many stories from women who were brave, smart, strong and downright funny. My life, like your is definitely richer for it!   I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.