Jenny Graubart in 2015

I’m starting 2019 without my mother, Jenny Graubart, who died a week ago. And I’m thinking about the valuable lesson she taught me about life – not with words, but by the way she lived.

My mother was 82 and at the end she was just a shadow of the strong and vibrant woman she once was. She had Alzheimer's disease for years and had suffered a stroke that limited her mobility. But even though she was badly impaired, she never lost her positive attitude.

My mom never had it easy. She was born in Belgium in 1936 to Jewish parents who had left Poland to find a better life. When World War II begin in 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland, her father recognized that it would be wise to get out of Europe.


My grandparents and my mother fled first to France, where my aunt was born, and then Spain. They sailed to Havana, Cuba where they spent the next six years, fortunate to escape the Holocaust. They were a close-knit family, lacking the material basics we take for granted, but always optimistic.

In 1946, after the war ended, the family settled in New York, where my mother grew up. That year, she saw my grandmother receive a postcard from the Red Cross informing her that her parents and six siblings had all been murdered by the Nazis.


My mother says that my grandmother cried for one day and then never mentioned it again.

The family adapted to the new land. At age 10, my mother was learning English – her fourth language after French, Spanish and Yiddish.

My mom married and raised me and my two sisters, but her life didn't get any easier. Her father was murdered in a mob hit. Her marriage disintegrated. We three children had our own struggles.

The people of my mother's generation were made of tough stuff. They didn't let small things take them down, and they didn't let even the most horrific, unimaginable events cause them to break their stride.

And yet, through all of that, I can remember my mother being depressed only once, right around the time of her divorce. The rest of the time, she maintained not just a positive attitude but a truly happy one.

My mother came from a world – or at least a family – where people didn’t wallow in their problems and mope around. They didn’t allow their life stories of misfortune – the narrative they had constructed about "Why me?" or "Why now?" – overwhelm and them and drown them in misery.

My mother made a new life for herself after her divorce. She had boyfriends. She had fun. She studied French literature in a class that she attended for years. She would spend summers at Oxford University in England taking courses. She would go to the U.S. Open and watch the tennis. She was always up for anything.

And in her final days she lived peacefully, calmly, with no drama and no apparent fear.

The people of my mother's generation were made of tough stuff. They didn't let small things take them down, and they didn't let even the most horrific, unimaginable events cause them to break their stride.

Instead, as my mother said, they pulled up their socks and kept going.

So if you ask me what the main lesson my mother taught me was – aside from love and family and friendship and culture and optimism – it's this: Don't let your story take you down.

Everybody goes through something hard in life, or many such somethings. But we don't have to be defined, or debilitated, by those events.

I'm sure there are people out there who have been through more challenges and more suffering than my mother went through.  But I sure know a lot of people who are pretty miserable in life, even though they have been through a whole lot less than my mother.

You don't have to deny the existence of your story, or minimize its power, unfairness, or overall effect on you or your loved ones.

But the one thing that my mother taught me and everyone she knew is that you don't have to give your story – your negative narrative – so much power that it transcends the love, the beauty, the kindness, and the joy that life can still afford.

In the end, my mother was surrounded by love and by positive people. And you know why?

She saw to that.