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Love, loss, and a grandmother’s advice
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Love, loss, and a grandmother’s advice

Ilene Beckerman’s newest book recalls her poignant youth

For what’s wrong on your inside, Ettie Goldberg would recommend hot tea and lemon; and “for everything wrong outside the body — Vaseline.”

A doctor she wasn’t, but that didn’t stop her from dishing out sage advice to all who came into her Manhattan stationery store, from Irish nannies to celebrities like Marlene Dietrich.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother, Sara, a regular customer, told Ettie she was worried about her son’s future because of his polio, the Jewish grandmother said, “Don’t worry, your son’s got a good head on his shoulders. I bet some day he’ll be president.” It wasn’t prescience, she told her granddaughter in later years — that’s what she told everyone with a son; “that’s how you get customers.”

That granddaughter is Ilene Beckerman, now 75 and a grandmother herself, but still grateful for Ettie’s well-remembered guidance. She recently published a book about her, The Wisest Woman I Know, complete with photos and her own quirky sketches.

Beckerman, who lived for years in Livingston and now lives in Hampton, will talk about the book at the JCC of Central New Jersey on Jan. 18 at an event hosted by the center’s adult enrichment program.

The Ettie book is her fifth. Beckerman, a former advertising agency owner, wrote and illustrated her first book, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, in 1995 when she was 60. It was done on a whim, to share stories of her life with her five children and friends. She focused it around fondly remembered outfits, a tactic she invites her audiences to engage in, too, as a key to unlock cherished — or galling — memories.

To her total surprise, a publisher decided it had broad appeal and published it. The New York Times described it as a “small gem worthy of a Tiffany box.” It has been translated into German, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. Sisters Nora and Delia Ephron turned it into a play that has run Off-Broadway in New York since 2009; a touring version is currently playing in Chicago.

Asked whether the play matches the vision in her head, Beckerman answered, “My head is filled with what we’re going to have for dinner. Generally, I go through life with no expectations.”

Her other works, all published by Algonquin Books, are What We Do for Love, Makeovers at the Beauty Counter of Happiness, and Mother of the Bride: The Dream, the Reality, the Search for a Perfect Dress. She has written for various publications and gives talks to organizations across the country.

When asked by NJ Jewish News if she foresaw such success, Beckerman e-mailed back, “I’m still surprised. I never thought about writing a book. I never thought I’d learn to drive. I never thought anybody would ever marry me. I surprised myself three times.”

Writing, she said, “isn’t fun, but it’s very fulfilling. It’s like being pregnant; you have a secret inside you that’s all yours (yup, there is a husband but he doesn’t carry it). Fun is meeting and talking with other woman and hearing their stories.”

As light as her tone is, she earned her breezy humor the hard way. Her mother died when she was 12, and she was sent to live with her grandmother Ettie and her grandfather. She never saw her father again. That was when the urge to write and draw took root. Lonely and shy, she expressed what she couldn’t say out loud by doodling and writing poems.

Her first marriage ended very quickly. With her second husband she had six children in seven years, and lost her second-born to a viral infection. She and her husband responded to the tragedy in opposite ways, he by becoming more cautious, she by trying not to worry at all. They parted ways, but, she told NJJN, they remained close friends until his recent death.

Other than her youngest daughter, who lives in San Francisco, her children all live nearby, and she has 10 grandchildren. Asked how she matches up to Ettie, Beckerman stated with conviction: “No one can compare to my grandmother Ettie.”

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