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Who’s The Grandparent (or Wise Mentor) Of Your Dreams?

My lovely grandmother, perfectly composed as always, with Katie

Throughout my life, from one decade to the next, I’ve always been so fortunate to have by my side either a grandparent or someone much older than me- a mentor, guide, confidante, and friend offering the perspective and wisdom that only comes with age.

There’s something so healing about being in the company of an elder–someone who has seen life and understands all its challenges and rewards, a subject I wrote about a few days ago in a Blog about my remarkable friend Bud.

Nana Adored My Dog

And the one person who started it all for me is my maternal grandmother, Essie, known in our family as Nana.

There was nothing old-fashioned about this energetic dynamo–who was physically robust, articulate, and up to date on everything, including movies, music, and fashion. Charismatic and fun to be with, she tended to me and my two sisters with incredible devotion–taking care of us together with my Mom, picking us up at school, helping us with our homework, cooking and baking (her signature crumb cake with yellow raisens being one of my favorites), carting me to piano lessons, sunday school, you name it.

My Favorite Picture of Us At My First Book Launch

Her arrival at our house was always cause for great excitement. As I write in my upcoming book:

I became jubilant whenever I saw her car pulling up into our driveway, her yellow tortoise-shell purse catching the light.

Sometimes we’d sit at the kitchen table, laughing for hours as Nana quizzed me on American history, afterwards treating me to her fantastic crumb cake or signature Cream of Wheat.

She also played the piano—usually “The Skating Song,” a popular tune in the silent movie days. But mostly, she’d sit on the bench next to me, encouraging my efforts at the keyboard, (and years later, attending all my piano recitals.)

When I was hospitalized in my 20’s for a stomach ailment, there she was, nursing me back to health; a few years later, when my first book was published, she was next to me at Barnes & Noble, smartly dressed, as I signed copies.

And five years after that, we marketed Nana’s shortbread meringue cookies, dubbed “Essie’s Crumby Dessert Squares…The CrumbiestYou Ever Had.” Katharine Hepburn, Peter Jennings, Nancy Reagan, Calvin Klein, and Paul Newman all raved about them, giving her endorsements. They were sold at Bloomingdale’s and led to such newspaper headlines as: “Top Stars Clamoring for More Of Buffalo Grandma’s Cookies.” And: “Cookies Turning A Grandmother Into Rising Star.” There was Nana being interviewed on television and signing autographs! (Just click on the picture that says “Cookie Maker To The Stars” to see my grandmother’s famous fans!)


In short, Nana was remarkable in every way—and with me, every step of the way. Like any great grandparent–she was a protective guide, loving us unconditionally and

teaching us about what was right and what was wrong–how to behave, and what to be careful about.

I’m sure you’ve had a grandparent who you were especially close to, who influenced your life profoundly, and whom you miss.

Years after I’d left home and moved to New York, when my grandmother was in her final years and ailing, she was still no less interested or central in my life. And she would always send her fond regards to another great matriarch I’d met, my down-the-hall neighbor, Pearl, who became, in a sense, my co-grandmother. Pearl is the one of the key stars of my book, an octogenarian who we all nicknamed Granny.

In fact, when Family Circle magazine wrote about Pearl’s influence on all the main characters in the book–they titled it “Granny Down The Hall.”  And  like Nana, Pearl was always a source of practical advice, laughter, loving support and fun.

At The Piano, Having One of my grandmother's famous cookies!

Family Fun: My Mom, Katie, my sister Debby, and Nana

As I’m writing this, I can feel the tears beginning. Why? Because I would give anything–anything at all–to have both my grandmother and Pearl at my side in September at the Katie Up And Down The Hall launch party and booksigning. After all, it’s thanks to them that I have a story to tell, coloring it with all their heart and lessons learned.

I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since Nana died,  and six since I lost Pearl, because it seems like just yesterday we were all laughing on the phone, playing with Katie, having dinner together, our little family circle complete.

In short, Nana and Pearl were  the grandmothers of my dreams….and I miss them both more than I can say.

And so, on this day when I’m thinking about these two great women (and about my fantastic Uncle Jack who, at age 94, sadly passed away today, another incredibly wise and loving friend)–tell me about the grandmother, grandfather, or older mentor of your dreams. How did they enrich your life and what are your favorite memories?

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Vim & Vigor: The Happiest Friend I Know

One of the enduring pleasures of life (and a key component to the message of Katie Up and Down The Hall) is the phenomenon of intergenerational relationships.

My best friend and mentor down the hall, the heroine of my book, PEARL

The Ebullient Bud

I can tell you that nothing beats the friendships I’ve had with people older than me–wise souls who have been my mentors, confidantes, companions, and best friends. The value, comfort, and enjoyment found in such friendships can forever change your life.

Bud and Kim at their Ct. wedding, 9/19/09, a very MODERN thing to for an octogenarian

My charismatic grandmother, Essie, with the star of my book, Katie

I was incredibly close to my maternal grandmother, Essie,

Together with my grandmother, Essie, at my Horowitz booksigning

who is featured in the KATIE book; and in keeping with the theme that “a family is anything you want it to be,” I was equally close to the heroine of my book, Pearl, who was Katie’s devoted keeper and my down the hall comrade-in-arms for 16 years.

Pearl with Katie, Ryan, and Me

And although forty years separated us, I felt as if we were complete contemporaries, able to talk about anything and everything, exchanging ideas and experiences bringing us ever closer.

I’ve been equally blessed to have in my life many other sages, my current all-time favorite being my 88-year-old friend Bud–who I always call “the youngest friend I know” in terms of his spirit, vim, and all-important vigor.

You won’t find anyone with more optimism, enjoyment for life, or a calendar filled with more social engagements.

Intelligent, quick-witted, well-informed, Bud is featured in KATIE in a cameo role, as he was one of Pearl’s friends who shared with her a love of the Broadway theater. In fact, Bud loved it when Pearl would bring over her vintage collection of Broadway programs, reminiscing about productions dating back to the 1920’s and 30’s. (Pearl would shoo Katie away when she tried to “peruse” one with her teeth.)

“It was great meeting someone even older than me who could present something from the past,” Bud reflected, “and we always played a little

My favorite picture of Bud and me taken on “his” bench in Central Park

quiz about our favorite shows.” Indeed.

Nowadays, whether Bud is out on the town–backstage greeting his longtime friend, Broadway great Elaine Stritch, having a brunch with Tony Bennett, lunching with Liza Minelli, or savoring Sunday brunches at the Algonquin Hotel–where his close friend, brilliant pianist Barbara Carroll performs each week–Bud is a unique figure in New York cafe society, and a wonderful friend to me.

I begin nearly every morning with a phone conversation with him–drawing from his unbeatable perspective and wisdom. I know that when I ask his advice about something–I’m going to get a great answer. And more than anything, he’s just fun to talk to!

A retired fashion executive typically dapper in a snappy bow-tie, this octogenarian is consumed by his passions,  traveling to London, taking three cruises per year, devouring baseball and tennis, art and music.

I sometimes wonder where he gets all the energy, high spirits, and overall happiness–which is why, a few years ago, I interviewed him for FAMILY CIRCLE. In that interview, he confides that although he has faced divorce, alcoholism, and a bout with cancer, (maybe because of it all), he has honed a sense of  contentment, an uncomplaining nature, that makes him a magnet to anyone needing a lift.

The photogenic Bud

Here’s what he told the magazine:

“Keeping my attitude ‘up’ is from training! It’s something I learned at an early age from my mother, a very practical, grateful woman, who lived to be 97. Neither she,nor my father, who was an extreme optimist, would tolerate much complaining. So I wasn’t brought up with pessimism or a lot of whining. For me, I find that happiness is being surrounded by people with a positive outlook, which helps exorcise the demons that can bring anybody down–resentment, anger, guilt, or shame. To maintain my equilibrium, those demons must not be encouraged. I actually police them, don’t allow them to penetrate my soul.

One of many birthday parties held at my apartment

“When I’m beginning to feel negative, I automatically ‘switch channels’ and turn to my builder-upper friends with positive vibes. Wherever I go, I’ve got my eyes open for a dose of smiles. Just yesterday I saw a baby on the street who was beaming up at me from her carriage. It was just as if I was getting a huge dose of positive thinking from this smiling infant,  who had no clue what happened yesterday, no regrets or worries like we do. I recognized that this 7-month year old had a better key to life than we do when we’re riddled with toxic emotions that stand in the way of letting us appreciate what God’s given us.

“In order for me to be happy, I pragmatically maximize on what is actually available. Happiness depends on having realistic objectives in life. I don’t set myself up for disappointment. I feel grateful for what I have and don’t pine for what I don’t have. I have a lot of younger friends who keep me vital and energized. That’s key. I have my companion, Kim, the foundation of my happiness. He is pure giving, unconditional generosity, loyalty, an unbelievable spirit–a person with real empathy who provides support without guile.

“I also have a very close relationship with my son and my 27-year-old grandson, Jason, a really talented guitarist who is following his passion. We e-mail each other regularly, discussing music and his future. I have an I-Mac computer and it’s fantastic being online. It’s a great way of communicating, finding out information, and organizing things. I have a rent-controlled apartment  I’ve been living in for 47 years and I’m grateful for it.

“What else makes me happy? I’ve volunteered on an AIDS hotline for 12 1/2 years and it’s important to feel I’ve positively affected somebody’s life. I love the Yankees and know every batting average, and which players are being traded. I’ve been going to the Broadway theatre for 65 years–and  get absolute joy from it. I feel blessed that I live in a city where I can’t get enough of it.

“I also have a passion for travel and pride myself on doing it reasonably. I go on cruises, trips to London for more theater, and, since I turned 78, have taken art tours. I’ve recently learned about 18th-century French art and Dutch painting, and feel more passionate about it than when I was in college.

“All this keeps my mind churning and learning. I focus on people, places, and things that feed my self-esteem. I’m living the life I’ve always dreamed about. Sure, I’m human and I have mood swings–life isn’t ‘Cinderella.’ But you can learn to focus on the positive. I turn to flowers, to Central Park, to a song that recalls a happy moment, to meditating, praying.

I don’t feel 88. I feel GOOD! So the chronological number doesn’t matter to me. I handle loss realistically. When my contemporaries get sick or pass away, sure it’s sad.  But I’m still functioning and can’t let it get me down. It’s just another sign to maximize on today, to make every minute count. Everybody has more gifts than defects, and the secret of happiness is maximizing on them. Lose yourself in your passion. Give music, reading, walking, exercising,recalling happy days a chance. Feel lucky. I do. In fact, the luckiest thing is that I’m NOT a victim of my expectations. The horizon you imagine is always within your reach.

On a recent Carribean cruise, reading an advance galley of Katie

In short, Bud epitomizes the definition of happiness, as Deepak Chopra described it to me in the same magazine article:

“Happiness,” Chopra believes, “is having a sense of wonder at being alive. It’s being grateful for what you have, having a task at hand that you wish to do, knowing what your purpose in life is, and the willingness to accept challenges and ultimately accept and embrace the mystery of our existence.”

That’s Bud!

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Everything A Boy (And Dog) Could Ask For–And More

"The Kid"

Although my astutely-intelligent cocker spaniel is the star of KATIE UP AND DOWN THE HALL– equally cute (as any dog!) is one of the book’s other main characters—an adorable boy named Ryan. We nicknamed him “The Kid,” and, together with his Dad, John, they were our neighbors down the hall, along with octogenarians Pearl and Arthur.

When I first met Ryan, he was a rambunctious three-year-old, incredibly cute as he whirled around and around with Katie, outfitted in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, blue corduroy pants, and black-and-white sneakers (with blinking red lights that illuminated when he ran.) He reminded me of Dennis the Menace—a boy filled with high spirits and mischievous plans.

Over the years, Katie and Ryan grew up together—from their puppyish years to adolescence—becoming lifelong friends.

A Boy And A Dog, bonded for life

Ryan furiously raced my dog up and down our 120-foot red-carpeted hallway until they were both breathlessly exhausted. I set them up at an imaginary starting line for hallway races, and Ryan would always attempt to outrun Katie, but she slyly cheated by jumping the line. “Not fair!” Ryan would holler,  both of them lining up again. In quieter moments, Ryan would giggle for hours chasing my dog, cuddling in bed with her, taking bubble baths with her, feeding her bagels and crackers, introducing her to his friends, and, at night, falling peacefully asleep against her, Katie’s paws placed protectively on his chest.

Ryan's Dad John and Katie the first year we met

Ryan’s father, John, a single Dad who worked for a major metropolian newspaper, often needed help babysitting Ryan—and we were only too happy to pitch in. In fact, this little boy became the light of our lives—a surrogate grandson to the matriarch of the family, Pearl, and a little brother to me. He raced in and out of our apartments constantly, dragging along his stuffed animals, games, puzzles, finger paints, Game Boy, and soccer balls.

The Famous Hallway shot that appeared in Family Circle magazine

Most poignant to me was watching the evolution of his relationship  to Pearl, who had never been able to have children of her own. So at last, in her 80’s, she had finally found a child who needed her. She whipped up the greatest dinners, spoiling Ryan with her famous chocolate pie. She was Ryan’s grandmother. She truly was. And Ryan, who had no grandmother of his own, reveled in his closeness to Pearl, and would wrap his arms around her, hugging her close. It made me happy to see how much Pearl was reinvigorated by the closeness to Ryan and by her new responsibility.

If you want to read all about Pearl’s relationship to Ryan, and Ryan’s to Katie, don’t miss a chapter in the book titled: “Ready, Set, Go!”  Here’s a little excerpt of it:

“This twosome, seventy-eight years apart, could be heard giggling for hours at Pearl’s dining table as they talked about school and played cards together. “Granny really knows how to play,” Ryan told John, “and she usually beats me.”

Sometimes I’d find them finger-painting at the table or putting together a model airplane. Ryan was also interested in Pearl’s collection of old vinyl LP’s. “Choose one,” she’d smile, and a few minutes later I’d find them singing and dancing together to Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, or to the soundtrack of  ”My Fair Lady.”

At Halloween, Granny surprised Ryan by wearing a monster mask when he trick-or-treated at her door.

At Thanksgiving, she stuffed him with turkey.

Ryan and "Daddy John"

At Chrismas, she reached up to the top of the tree to position the star.

And on his birthday, she helped blow out that last stubborn candle, wiping choclate off his face.

The eternal love of grandmother and grandson

But nothing lasts forever, nothing except the enduring bond of family, that can never be truly broken apart, even by inevitable separations, for the lovely relationship between Katie, Ryan, John, Pearl, and me, is something we’ll never forget. I’ll bring you up to date on Ryan next time!

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