Judith Levy: helping grandparents remember.
Two factors have contributed to 54-year-old author Judith Levy's incredible literary success: She loved her grandparents, and she didn't know much about them.
Let's face it. We all have a natural curiosity about our grandparents, but Judith took that curiosity a giant step forward. She created a keepsake, a bound and illustrated fill-in-the-blanks reverse of a baby book that grandmothers and grandfathers can pass down to future generations.
The idea seems simple enough, but it came about only because of an adult education course Judith enrolled in at her local university. The course was "How to Write Your Family History," and it was being offered at just the right moment in Judith's life.
After a lifetime of living in the Northeast, the osteoarthritis in Judith's fingers had become uncomfortable enough for her to convince her husband Herb that they should semi-retire and move to Florida's warmer climate. After all, their three daughters were now grown and living on their own.
Herb still had his successful handbag manufacturing company, so he and Judith compromised. They kept their apartment in New Jersey, which they use in the summer months. The rest of the year Herb commutes four days a week to and from Boca Raton, Fla., where they bought a home.
Judith, with time on her hands and an itching to get involved in some kind of project, noticed the newspaper ad for the family history course. "The fee was only $7 for eight weeks," she says. "How could I resist such a bargain?"
There she was, nearly 50 years old, and the youngest person in the class. Her fellow students were mostly older grandparents. They asked the teacher where they should begin. Fortunately for Judith, the teacher's response was a vague instruction to begin anywhere. Her classmates were confused and hesitant. That's when Judith's idea hit.
"When I was a girl in school," Judith recalls, "my English teacher would have us start our compositions with, `The thing I liked best about my summer vacation was...' That made it easier for everyone to start writing.
"I thought, what if I created a book for grandmothers that would start them off? It would have phrases like `When granfather proposed, he said and `On my wedding day I wore It would be a written record of a woman's life and thoughts, and the things she wrote about would help her grandchildren know and understand her."
Judith had no writing experience other than the many poems she wrote and kept private. Actually, before her marriage to Herb, she had been a society band singer with the Lester Lanin Orchestra and the Peter Duchin Orchestra, which explains her poised, articulate and gregarious manner. Now, she sensed within herself a growing desire, an imperative need to write - to conceive, nurture and give birth to a book called Grandmother Remembers. Herb liked the idea. He encouraged Judith to pursue it. Her enthusiasm and belief in the project, plus her family's moral support, provided a momentum that kept her going, despite the discomfort of the arthritis in her fingers.
The making of a masterpiece
Judith undertook a monumental task. For a period of time, wherever she went, she interviewed grandmothers, asking what they would like to be able to tell their grandchildren, and asking grandchildren what they would like to know about their grandparents.
As the manuscript took shape, Judith wrote short poems that would introduce each section of the book. She found a local art student who delicately illustrated the book with ribbons and birds and flowers. Finally, the book was complete.
"What did I know about the publishing business?" Judith asks, laughing at the memory of her naivete. "It's easier to say what I didn't know! For one thing, I didn't know that you mail a book manuscript to a publisher and then you wait many months for a decision."
Judith had been one of 10 children born to a Brooklyn cantor who sang in the neighborhood synagogue. She learned early that to compete with so many siblings, she had to be assertive; she had to make her presence known. It gave her an obvious resilient quality.
It was that same temerity that guided her as she pounded New York's pavement, walking from publishing house to publishing house, startling the receptionists and editors who weren't accustomed to having would-be authors personally deliver their book manuscripts.
Some publishers humored her and wished her luck; others bluntly told her they weren't interested. Finally, Lena Tabori of Stewart, Tabori and Chang Publishers smiled at Judith and said, "Sit down. You're home."
The rest is history, and what a lovely history it is! Grandmother Remembers has been translated into Hebrew, German, Dutch and Japanese. It has sold over 800,000 copies. Small wonder. The book permits grandmother to preserve in writing such details as what she wore on her wedding day, where she lived and went to school, her ambitions, values, disappointments and hopes for the future.
She can write about the ways in which her grandchild is special to her. For posterity, she can include favorite family recipes, anecdotes, traditions and photographs.
Heading each section is a small poem Judith wrote, such as:
"I offer you my memories So that you will know Your grandmother was a little girl Not so long ago" and:
"Of all the men in the world I knew he was the best, So when Grandfather asked to marry me. I happily said, 'Yes!'"
"As soon as you give this book to somebody," says Judith, "a conversation opens up about nostalgia and hopes for the future. I believe the book creates a bond that can never be broken between grandparent and grandchild.
"As much as I loved my grandmother, I didn't know anything about her. I wanted to show that the road the grandchild is traveling is the same road that the grandparent traveled."
Judith is convinced that, because Grandmother Remembers is a one-on-one conversation between a grandmother and her grandchild, and because it's so personal, the love in the grandmother's voice will be heard loud and clear when anyone reads it 100 years from now.
Although Judith is not yet a grandmother, the National Council for the Observance of Grandparents Day named Judith Levy the First Honorary Grandparent in the United States in recognition of her contribution to personal cultural heritage. It is a title she wears like a badge of pride.
Granddads wanted a say, too
Somewhere along the way, a surprising thing happened. Grandfathers approached Judith or wrote to her, asking for a Grandfather Remembers.
"Men traditionally are taught to keep their feelings inside," she says. "I felt they might not want to write down their innermost feelings, but I was wrong." Indeed, one widower informed Judith that he had crossed out "Grandmother" and substituted "Grandfather," then filled in the blanks.
Judith undertook a companion book, Grandfather Remembers. At times, her arthritis interfered. There were days when she would seek relief by soaking her fingers under hot running water; other days she would take time out from writing to exercise her stiff fingers by clenching and unclenching them. Swimming in her backyard pool also helped.
On a few occasions, unable to write, she would dictate her thoughts into a portable recorder, then transcribe those thoughts into her computer when her fingers felt more agile. Judith's philosophy was that she might be delayed, but she would not be stopped!
Grandfather Remembers, in its third printing, has become Harper & Row's 11th backlist bestseller, giving testimony to the theory that men do wish to create a written bond between themselves and their grandchildren.
Although similar in concept to Grandmother Remembers, Grandfather Remembers is more masculine in content and design. Illustrated with bow tie, pocket watch, acorns and antique cars, it provides an opportunity for grandfather to discuss such things as his best money deal, risks he took that worked or failed and what he says when he brags about his grandchild.
"These are the things children living miles away from their grandparents never have the chance to learn," Judith says. "Too many grandchildren think of their grandparents as a check in the mail or a voice on the phone."
The books are available at bookstores or can be ordered from their publishers. Because they are fill-in-the-blank books, Judith does not credit herself as the author, but rather as the conceiver. Each grandparent is the author.
As Judith theorizes about her books' popularity, her brown eyes widen with wonder and gratitude. "We're a nation of scattered people," she says. "We're going off in different directions. Although that affords us many opportunities, there's been a lot lost, too. People want to regroup. Grandmother Remembers is like a gentle hug and Grandfather Remembers is like a bear hug - like getting together again."
Judith says the books' success has made her feel young again; now everyday is a new challenge for her. Spurred with enthusiasm, she is now deeply involved in writing a novel, a multi-generational saga.
"I want to see if I can write something that ends in a complete sentence," she jokes, refering to the fill-in-the-blanks concept of Grandmother Remembers and Grandfather Remembers. Then, her shoulders straighten and her smile fades into seriousness as she looks down at her hands.
"I've always believed that God put me here for a reason, a special purpose," she says. "Despite obstacles and detours, I really think that anybody who has a project they believe in and want to tackle should take the ball and run with it. After all, you're as young as you're ever going to be, so get to it!"
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|Date:||Jan 1, 1989|
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