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5 lessons from 95 years

Katerina Zoob shares five lessons that her grandmother has learnt in the last 95 years. From relationships to religion, she offers advice on how to approach life with a positive mindset, and embrace all that it throws your way.

Last week I sat down with one of my favourite people, the matriarch of my family, Greta Zoob. In all her glorious 95 years I wanted to know how she maintains such a positive outlook and sunny demeanour. I thought I would interview my grandmother and dig for nuggets of wisdom. Before we even began our interview, however, she warned me “I don’t know why I am a positive person – like no one asks you why you are blonde – you just are, and I just am!” This might be true, but that does not mean that life has not presented her with some challenges, and subsequently given her the wisdom to navigate the twists and turns. So, here they are: 5 lessons from 95 years.

1. Life Is About Other People

At the age of 25 Greta packed up her life in a Chicago suburb and moved to England, where she has lived for the last 70 years.

“What made you decide to leave America?” I asked.

G: I was fed up – fed up with my job, with my boyfriend, with living in Chicago. And the summer before I moved to England, I had visited my sister in Vancouver, and it was such an eye opener. The people that I met had been to Europe and had seen the world and seemed so much more sophisticated and exciting. I thought wow these people have travelled.

K: So, you wanted your own adventure? Did you think that this would make you a more interesting person?

G: No. You know I didn’t even think about it like that. I wasn’t worried about me not being interesting, I wanted to meet people who were interesting and open-minded and exciting. My life needed more stimulation and excitement and I needed to find other people to give me that.

I have in the past thought about how moving to another country would be this filmic adventure, with me as the leading role. And how all these wonderful or interesting things might happen to me. For Greta, however, it was about soaking up the joys of meeting others and learning about their lives and thoughts. For me the lesson here is that life is about other people, and that who you surround yourself with is incredibly important. Rather than constantly thinking about myself and my own narrative, I wonder if it might be better to look around and appreciate all that other people are, because they are my real life.

2. Enjoy now!

For a long time, I have had this quote from Greta in my notes on my phone: “Enjoy now, stop worrying about the future and just enjoy now!”. For someone with anxiety and an ever-racing brain this command from my grandmother sometimes feels completely unattainable. But it is nonetheless something I strive for, after all we cannot control the future, and the now is what is real and precious.

G: I was at a funeral a few weeks ago – a Christian funeral – and I was sat next to another Jewish person, a Jewish man I didn’t know. We were talking about how so much of this funeral was about what happens after you die. And he said to me “we [Jewish people] don’t have that – we just have life, now”.

For some Jewish people there is a belief in an afterlife of some kind, but it is ambiguous for different people whether they are Reform or Orthodox. The major difference being that it is not stated in the Torah that there will be a final judgement sentencing you to heaven or hell. In Judaism there is the practice of Yom Kippur whereby you can atone for the sins between yourself and God – sins between yourself and fellow humans must be resolved between yourselves. Whether you are Jewish or not – indeed our family are I would say lapsed Jews – I think that we can take a lesson here, both on a profound level, and a more everyday one: enjoy now. A focus on the present in both life and death terms, and also in terms of day-to-day anxieties is something to practise – seeking resolution where possible and allowing for the unknown to exist without too much resistance.

Which leads us to number 3...

3. “Every new experience is an adjustment, but there is something exciting about the challenge of the new.”

Where Greta and I differ is in how we embrace change. In many ways I think she finds it genuinely exciting. Whereas I find myself catastrophising and not knowing how I will handle the changes as they happen in my life. We talked about this and being afraid of making a big change in your own life on purpose:

G: When I got to England, I was terrified. I was really quite daring I suppose. And you do have to be brave because I was scared. I didn’t sleep a wink the first night when I heard the chimes of Big Ben – I was terrified, but I wasn’t so terrified that I turned around and went home. So yes, I was scared but that gives you some adrenaline, I think. It was fear but also excitement.

As we continued chatting, we talked about change beyond our own lives to cultural change and how that can be scary too. Something I admire so much in Greta is her willingness, even in her 90s, to accept cultural changes – or at least not instinctively resist them.

G: Sometimes people my age can feel threatened by things changing culturally. It can be frightening because it’s not the world they know or know how to deal with, but that’s a conservative way of thinking: if it’s new I’ll reject it. So, I try not to think like that.

This is something I try to carry with me – change is a good thing, it’s what allows all the progress in the world to happen. All the progress I fight for and believe in. So, change as a concept is actually not something that I hate or fear. The lesson I will try to learn here: channel fear into excitement and remember that change can be good.

4. Get Help

... get therapy for yourself even if you are not the one people think is struggling.

My grandfather, Max (Greta’s husband), sadly died before I was born. I have heard many stories about him, and he is a character in my family’s story who is of immense importance. He was not without his troubles, and while he was never officially diagnosed Greta believes that he was manic-depressive or bi-polar. But something that is oft forgotten is that it is the partners and friends of those with mental health issues who are also in need of help.

G: My good friend who was a psychotherapist bumped into Max on the street one day and saw how depressed he was. She came to me and said, “this must be affecting you and you must talk to somebody”. So, I did, I talked to my doctor, who was also a good friend, for an hour a week after that. And I did need that. I was in it as well. People maybe don’t realise that the partners of the people with mental health issues are in it too. Being with someone like that, they can become a different person, and I didn’t really analyse it that much while I was going through it, I just knew it made me feel so bad. But then talking about what I was experiencing helped me so much.

I am so glad that all those years ago Greta’s friend advised that she get help. I suppose the lesson here is not just about looking after yourself and getting help if you are the friend, family member, or partner of someone with mental health issues. (Although that is of course very important). It is also to check in with people who you know are experiencing this.

5. Take back control of your life and protect your independence

Greta has always seemed to me an extremely independent person, even now aged 95 she is amazingly successful at having control over her life. However, it was not always this way she tells me, and there was a time in which she felt she had lost some part of her identity.

G: When I wasn’t working, I felt infantilised, I was dependent, and I really hated that. I felt I lost something. If I was ever going to moan, it was then. I felt diminished. When I met Max, I was an independent woman, and I wanted to go back to that. The day I went back to work as a teacher after having my boys was one of the best days of my life. Because for a woman having that independence – that financial independence that’s it – that’s what it is about. I hated having to ask my husband for money. When I saw problems that needed money to solve, and I could do it myself, that changed everything. It changed the whole dynamic of our relationship because I didn’t have to be angry, or upset, or asking for money all the time, I could just do things for myself.

Even with all my feminist beliefs and sense of personal independence, it can sometimes feel scary to think that I must one day be entirely self-sufficient. But Greta’s passionate statement that this is what life is about rings through my mind, and with it the reminder that it is a privilege in itself for one to be able to have their own money, and to do what they want with it.

I loved talking to my grandmother about her story, and her thoughts on life itself, and I hope that other people find these lessons from her helpful. For me, it is not just because Greta has lived a long time that I see her as having wisdom to offer, it is because of how she lives with optimism and genuine joy, that I seek to share her thoughts with the world.

Hi, I’m Kat. In 2021 I graduated from my English degree at Exeter University, and am currently an MA student studying Gender Studies at SOAS in London. I love writing prose, poetry and (sometimes) even essays! I am fascinated by people, their quirks and thoughts, their weird and wonderful ways. I strive to learn more about human beings and that magic that is human connection. Luckily, this is also what Matriarch is all about! Be it through literature or academia or just a conversation with a friend I find there is so much to learn, and I am eager to soak it all up.


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