Grandma Moses may have brought a certain cachet to the title, but most of the world's grannies go underappreciated and overlooked. Even poor Elizabeth II is not duly recognized in her role as a grandmom. Or so says Judith Levy, devoted American granddaughter, aspiring grandmother and author of the new best-seller Grandmother Remembers (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $12.95). When Levy, 50, shipped off a copy of her book to Buckingham Palace, along with a note saying, "To the world you are Queen Elizabeth, but to Prince William
you are his dear grandmother," she later received word back: "As a grandmother, Her Majesty was grateful."
So are less blue-blooded grandmas elsewhere. With 300,000 copies of the slim volume in print (the book is already in British and Dutch editions, and French and Japanese versions are likely soon), Grandmother Remembers is going faster than you-know-who's freshly baked cookies. The publisher has found little need for advertising, since grandmothers appear to view the book as a vindication of their status and have spread the word on their own. The book, illustrated by Judy Pelikan with birds and flowers like a fairy tale, is meant as a dynastic diary—a place where a grandmother can record her family background, traditions and memories. Subtitled A Written Heirloom for My Grandchild, it also provides blank spaces for the author to tell "how the world has changed since I was a little girl" and to share recollections like: "When Grandfather proposed, he said..." The point of all this, explains Levy, is to let members of the growing-up generation know that grandmother was once a girl too. "For many years," she admits, "I thought my grandmother fell out of the sky a grandmother."
Now that she knows better, Levy has turned "Nana" into nickels, dimes and big bucks. Grandmother Remembers Family Recipes, with blank spaces for jams, jellies and chicken soup, was published on Mother's Day. A Grandmother Remembers calendar is ready for 1985, and My Grandchild's Baby Book (Workman, $5.95) is already in print, along with birth announcements for Granny's convenience. Then there are "A Picture of Love" note cards, with a space provided for Granny to slip in a photo of her grandchild. After all, says Levy, you can never have enough of a good thing. "The grandmother-grandchild relationship is the most perfect one," she declares. "No matter what you do, your grandmother thinks it is wonderful."
Levy's relationship with her maternal grandmother, Chana Shultz, was a treasured one. (Her paternal grandmother died before she was born.) As the eighth of 10 children of Alter and Dina Privin, a cantor and a housewife in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, Judith found that it wasn't always easy to get parental attention. "In a group like that you can get lost without a grandmother," she says. "Whenever I was in trouble, my grandmother would whisper to my mother and remind her that she too got into trouble when she was little. That would save me from a lot of spankings."
In later years—as a singer with the Peter Duchin Orchestra, as wife of Herb Levy, 50, a handbag manufacturer, and as mother of three daughters—Judith often thought fondly about her grandmother. But it was not until she took a course at Florida Atlantic University in writing one's own family history that she got the idea for her books. "I found myself surrounded by grandmothers," she recalls. "They had come because they wanted to put their memories on paper. They felt they had become just a voice on the phone and a present in the mailbox to their grandchildren." Yet most of the grandmothers seemed uncomfortable expressing themselves. Levy thought back to her own school days, when the teacher would start students on a composition by beginning a sentence for them. "I knew I could start the grandmothers on the path, using phrases like 'On my wedding day I wore...' " Levy says. "Grandmother might forget where she put her glasses five minutes ago, but she remembers what happened to her as a girl."
With what her own bobbe (Yiddish for grandmother) might have called chutzpah, Levy decided there was a book in this and began making the rounds of New York publishing houses. A friend directed her to Stewart, Tabori & Chang, and soon a cottage industry for grandmothers had been launched.
Naturally, Levy can't wait for the chance to fill in her own copy of Grandmother Remembers. Her younger daughters, Carole, 23, a fashion coordinator, and Cathy, 22, a student in Oneonta, N.Y., are both single. But her eldest, Marcy, 27, married Jared Alt-man, a Manhattan trial lawyer, last March. Her mother can scarcely contain herself. "I'm a grandmother-in-waiting," she says.
Until Judith can blissfully send out her own grandchild announcements, she divides her time between the family home in Boca Raton, Fla. and a Manhattan apartment and is busily creating new projects. A recipe book using readers' submissions is in the planning stage, and so is Grandmother Remembers Fairy Tales. Ah, but what about Grandpa? "I don't see men as writers," says Levy. She concedes that if she receives enough pleading letters from Grandma's other half, it may soon be Grandpa's turn to tell what it was like when he was growing up.