10 Heartfelt Lessons from Brooklyn on International Women’s Day 2018

I don’t need International Women’s Day (#IWD2018) to recall one of the women who has had a profound impact on my life.

She passed away in 1994, yet to this day, I think of her every day.

Her name was Nettie Freeman, my maternal grandmother, known to me and my sisters simply as “Mama.”

Mama was born in 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. She was married for 63 years (to the same man), had three children and nine grandchildren. She lived to see 12 of her 21 great-grandchildren. She died at the age of 95.

How would Mama, who graduated from high school and never worked outside of the home, be an inspiration for International Women’s Day? She had never been on an airplane. She never lived anywhere except in New York, and a short time in New Jersey.

So what could Mama have taught me about business and my career in the 31 years that we walked this planet together? Mama was not well educated, but she was very, very wise. The lessons my grandmother learned during her life—and the ones she shared with me and many others—are not contained in any textbook or college class. She learned them by living life and often discovered these lessons the hard way.


( Me and Mama, circa 1992)


Here’s a sampling:

On Communication: “Know when to speak up, and know when to shut up.” Mama told me this before I got married, and I quickly realized this sage advice applied outside the home, too.

On Working Hard: “What you put into the pot, you take out.” A nurse once commented to Mama that she was fortunate to have so many visitors and such a nice family. Mama smiled, and replied gently: “What you put into the pot, you take out.”

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On Building Relationships: “What can I give you?” No matter where she lived or how old she was, Mama always greeted people at her front door with these five words, “What can I give you?” This summed up the core of Mama’s life. She didn’t have money or diamonds; she gave of herself. That is far more priceless than any jewelry or bank account.

On Emotional Intelligence: “They belong here, just like we do.” In the early 1950s, Mama’s street in East Flatbush, Brooklyn was abuzz with news that a “colored” family was moving in across the street. The whispering began. What would Jews, Italians and Irish do with a black family on their turf? The trepidation turned to excitement when folks found out the “colored” family was Jackie Robinson from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mama didn’t get involved with the gossip; she said what if people didn’t let the Jews and other immigrants into Ellis Island? Everyone belongs.

On Surrounding Yourself with Good People: “Sleep on the same pillow, you get the same thoughts.” The English translation from Yiddish doesn’t do it much justice, still, I think you get the point. Kind of like the adage: “Birds of a feather flock together.”

On Budgets: “Save your money. Never have to hold your hand out to anyone.” Amen.

On First Impressions: “If you can’t afford a new outfit or suit, always have a good coat and shoes. People see these first.” It’s perfect advice for job interviews and important meetings.

On Being Comfortable in Your Own Skin: “Walk in there, tall, strong and proud. You have every right to be there.” Act as if you belong, because you do.

On Storytelling: “One heart feels another.” When I would tell Mama that I loved her, she would often respond with “One heart feels another.” Still, it was through her stories that Mama touched so many hearts. She spoke of when she advocated for her children in school, how she got the sale price on the refrigerator days after the sale ended and the time she sat on a jury and an attorney “offered” her a free pocketbook.

Mama always pulled through when my sisters and I would ask to hear the story of how our oldest cousin Frankie broke his foot. Frankie—according to the lore—went to the circus that night with a giant clown shoe on one foot and a regular sneaker on the other. To this day, my sisters and I don’t know if there is any truth to the story. Actually, it doesn’t matter because the way Mama told the story, it was simply magical. It never grew old.

On Equal Rights and Childbirth: “The man should always have the last push, the last kvetch.” When I was growing up, and Mama shared her insights about “the boys and the girls” dynamic in so many families, this one was a gem.

I can only hope that I may have such a profound effect on my children and grandchildren that Mama has had on me.

Thank you, Mama, your loving spirit is alive and well, today on #IWD2018, and always.

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