Cover Story: Grandparenting
Left, Flora and Vernon Stroud with two of their fivegrandchildren, Laura and Jonathan, in 1991.
The Family Melting Pot
By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer
Three generations of Grahams.
Is there such a thing as a “typical” Jewishgrandparent in America? When I thought about this impossibly broadquestion, I turned to my own extended family for examples. Were theytypical? Stereotypical?
To me, they seemed different from all others in certain respects,but also universal. They included “types” that we all think we know:Eastern European and German immigrants; Holocaust refugees; those whogrew up in poverty and pulled themselves up; those who grew up withwealth and privilege and left much of it behind; fiery Zionists;Jewish scholars, skeptics and seekers; those for whom Jewishtraditions and rituals are important; and those for whom tradition isirrelevant and uncomfortable.
Like all families, mine has its share of meshugas, anddisagreements, as well as celebration. And, like all families, wehave our secrets. But there are many stories that can be told aboutthe Graham (Granowsky) and Stroud (Straus) households. The cast ofcharacters includes Oma, Grandpa Jerry, Grandpa Vernon, Grandma Judyand my 11-year-old son, Sam.
I have an idealized memory of my father’s mother, Edith Straus,who we called Oma. A large German-speaking woman, she worecustom-made, flowered-print dresses, often in blue to match her eyes.The kitchen of her Berkeley home was filled with smells of cookingmeats and potatoes. Food, to Oma, was the solution to almost everyproblem. According to one often-told tale, her response upon learningthat one of her grandchildren had plowed into a police vehicle withher car was, “Poor boy! You must be hungry.”
Oma was the only grandparent I really ever knew, since Opa diedwhen I was 1, and my mother’s mother, a Lithuanian immigrant inGlasgow, Scotland, was too far away. My mother’s father died before Iwas born.
Oma and her husband, Frederich “Fritz” Straus, had fled NaziGermany in late 1938, leaving behind many possessions and mygrandfather’s banking business in Karlsruhe, a southern German citynear the Black Forest. The family — Oma and Opa and five children –settled in Berkeley because they had some contacts there.
The Granowsky Disposition
My husband’s grandfather, Dave Granowsky, came to the UnitedStates from Russia in the early 1900s and became a successfulscrap-metal dealer in Indianapolis, first with his father and thenwith his brother. We have a videotape of Grandpa Dave in his mid-80s,shortly before he died, ambling slowly about a grocery store,squeezing lettuce and searching for bargains, and advising hisgreat-grandson Sam not to eat as much candy as the boy’s dad did lesthis teeth would rot. Dave was a joker, a testament to the “GranowskyDisposition” — a term coined by his sister Sophie.
Example: Whenever his grandchildren would get out of the pool,he’d say, like clockwork, “You didn’t get the water wet, did you?”
Dave and his wife, Lillian, had three sons; the youngest, JerryGraham, my husband’s father, became a television and radiobroadcaster and author. Now 63, he has two grown sons, threegrandchildren and a 6-year-old daughter, Lillian, from his secondmarriage, to Catherine, a writer and aerobics instructor.
Semi-retired and living in Northern California, he is making upfor his devotion to his career the first time around by volunteeringin his daughter’s classroom, watching Nickelodeon with her and being”hands-on” with his grandchildren. But because of geographicalseparation, he sees them only a few times a year.
“Grandparenting is an occasional thing, stress-free,” said GrandpaJerry recently. “It’s like playtime, while being a parent isfull-time and something overwhelming. Being a grandparent at adistance can be difficult, but it is a fact of modern life.
“It’s very hard to find situations like the movies and TV imagesof old Gramps taking the kids fishing or, as in the “BerensteinBears” (children’s books), where the kids always run over to Gramp’sand Gran’s house. I don’t think that happens very much any more.”
With five grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 27, my father,who changed his name from Werner Straus to Vernon Stroud during WorldWar II, and mother, Flora, have a relationship to Sam that’s quitedifferent from the other grandparents. The Grahams are looser andmore relaxed, while the Strouds, foreign-born and almost a generationolder, are more traditional and formal.
Jonathan, the 26-year-old son of my oldest brother, David,remembers that he had difficulty relating to his paternalgrandparents when he was younger. But, now, he thinks he understandsthem better.
“When I was younger, I couldn’t identify with them, but I’velearned to respect what they went through. I want to know all aboutthem,” he said. Especially Vernon’s deep knowledge of Judaism andtheir celebration of Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. “I feel moststrongly Jewish when I visit my grandparents. It’s the ceremonies. Ithink they kind of epitomize what it means to be Jewish.”
Jaws drop when my son introduces his Grandma Judy. Slender, prettyand stylish at age 60, the Hollywood-based knitwear designer forfilms, television and retail looks about the age of her bearded49-year-old companion of 20 years — artist and photographer MichaelAnsell.
Judy Rammelsberg had married her Indianapolis high schoolsweetheart, Jerry Graham, when she was 18, had two children by thetime she was 21, and became a grandmother for the first time at age49. She and Jerry divorced in the 1970s.
Judy makes a point of not letting a week go by without seeing Sam,her first grandchild. He has been visiting her rustic hilltop homesince birth, winding yarn, doing crafts projects with his grandma, orhelping Mike build a darkroom and develop photos. Lately, they’vebeen haunting flea markets, driving hard bargains for old cameras.
“Being a grandma was real easy for me, and I love it,” said Judy.”I feel like Sam is my best friend. I would rather be with him thanmost of the adults I know.”
As for her other grandchildren, Janna and Jared Graham, who livein Atlanta, Judy visits them once or twice a year and talks to themweekly on the phone and via e-mail.
“I feel sad that I can’t be more a part of their lives, but theminute I see them, I feel as if no time has passed,” she said.