At seventy-five, and a grandmother herself, Ilene Beckerman wrote and illustrated The Smartest Woman I Know, a tribute to her own grandmother. The illustrations combine beautifully with the text to tell the story of the woman Beckerman admired.
Beckerman’s grandmother, Ettie, met her future husband, Harry Goldberg in New Orleans in 1901. From there, they moved to New York, saving money until they could open a candy store that became Madison Stationers on Madison Avenue. All that is the background for the life of Ilene’s Jewish grandmother, a woman who worked long hours in the store, and then took in her two granddaughters when their mother died.
Ilene was twelve, and her older sister was seventeen when they moved in with Ettie and “Mr. Goldberg.” It’s Ettie that dominates Ilene’s memories, with her stories and advice. Ilene captures the voice of a Jewish grandmother, as she looks back with fondness. Here’s just a short introduction. “This story is mostly about Ettie, all 4’10” of her. She was one of the smartest women I ever knew, even though she never made it past the third grade. Also in the story are: Mr. Goldberg, who at four o’clock every afternoon, left the store and went upstairs where he and Ettie lived, to take a nap in his blue easy chair. And God, to whom Ettie spoke several times a day…”
In little conversation bubbles, Beckerman includes Ettie’s comments to God, and Ettie’s wisdom. There are conversations about some of the customers. “You understand about boyfriends of boys, God? I don’t. But if I had to choose between a somebody who fights with somebody and a somebody who wants to make believe that a boy is his girlfriend, it should be my business? If it were up to me, everybody should mind their own business.” There’s Ettie’s complaints about Mr. Goldberg. “So you listening, God? Boils, blood, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, hail, locusts, darkness, slaying the firstborn – that’s nothing compared to what I go through in a week with Mr. Goldberg.”
Ilene Beckerman’s small book is a work of love, from the charming cover illustration to the story of Ettie’s death in her nineties. If you were lucky enough to be close to a grandmother, Beckerman’s book will take you back to your own family stories. But, no matter what your connection to family roots, you might just find a little truth and charm in her loving account, The Smartest Woman I Know.
The Smartest Woman I Know by Ilene Beckerman. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. ©2011. ISBN 9781565125377 (hardcover), 100p.
FTC Full Disclosure – The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.