The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Remembering Grandma: 1907-2009

As many of you may already know, my beloved grandmother Anne Sandra Miller Hirsch passed away at 1:56AM on July 10th at the age of 102. My mother and I were with her and held her as her soul passed from her body to rejoin the many other people whom she has known and loved during her extraordinary and long life. You can read my eulogy for her, see some photos from her life, view the video I made for her 100th birthday, and find out about memorial donations. עליו השלום

For a better and easier viewing experience of the same content, click here to visit a special site I have set up at


Grandma was an atheist. She was too practical to believe in God (but never too busy to argue with anyone who did). And in keeping with her wishes, we’re not having a formal funeral. She didn’t even want a grave—just to be cremated and have her ashes spread over the grave of her husband. So this is for the rest of us who need to say goodbye.

They always say that you should warm up the crowd with a joke, so I might as well tell grandma’s favorite one.

An old Jewish couple, Beckie and Izzy, are sitting at home one night. Beckie says “Izzy, tonight I’d like to have an ice cream sundae.” (It was much better when Grandma used her Yiddish accent). And Izzy shrugs, “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

“I want you to go down to the store and get it for me.”

“Okay, what do you want?” sighs Izzy.

“You’d better write it down. You know how you forget everything.”

“I’ll remember. Just tell me.”

“Well, I want vanilla ice cream…two scoops…and some chocolate sauce…and whipped cream…and… Izzy, you’d better write all of this down.”

“I don’t need to write it down!” he snaps back. “I’ll remember, I’ll remember! Just tell me already!”

“Okay…well the ice cream and the chocolate sauce and the whipped cream, and maybe some nuts, and a cherry, and you’d better write this down or you’ll never remember!”

“I’ll remember!” he says, and he goes. About 20 minutes later Izzy comes back from the store—with a bag of bagels.

“You see?!” Beckie berates him. “I told you to write down what I wanted or you would forget, and you didn’t listen, and you didn’t write it down, and sure enough—you forgot the cream cheese!”

Well maybe Beckie and Izzy couldn’t remember much, but grandma certainly did. As the youngest of her grandchildren I missed out on most of her life, one that began 102 years ago in 1907. It’s hard to fathom what that really means: 1907. There were only 45 states. Theodore Roosevelt was President while countries like Austria, Italy, and Russia still had Emperors, Kings, and Czars. Today people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot; Grandma probably knew plenty of people who remembered when Lincoln was shot! The Brooklyn where she grew up was paved with dirt roads and the average home there had no phone or electricity yes. The relatively new Brooklyn Bridge had three lanes: trains, pedestrians, and horses. My mother once said grandma was sort of a “relic”. And while most ladies would probably not like to be called that, in a sense it was true. She was a living time traveler, some who could remember—and regale us with—stories of another world, of another time that few other people knew.

Given my interest in family history I have to share a little background. Her parents fled the pogroms of Russia to give their children a better life. Her father Meyer Maxman came to New York, “Americanized” his name to Miller, and when he raised enough money he sent for his fiancé Beckie Resnick. Many of you already know the story: Beckie’s mother didn’t like Meyer, so she sent the Russian police to stop Beckie from following him to America. But Beckie stole away in the dark of night and finally made it here—leaving us with little doubt where grandma got her moxie.

They had 4 children before Meyer died in the (original swine) flu epidemic of 1918. Beckie eventually remarried Morris Shayon who would become a second father to grandma in every sense. Grandma became a teacher and married her childhood sweetheart, Jacob Hirsch—her beloved “Jack”. They had three daughters before a heart attack once again took away a special man in grandma’s life far too soon. Before I was even born.

My own memories begin during her last years in Brooklyn. Visiting her on East 59th street, going to McDonalds around the corner, and a bizarrely vivid memory about eating sprinkles right out of the package. Grandma loved to travel, and I remember when she would come back from one of her trips she would have everyone over, and the souvenirs would be laid out on the credenza in the dining room. I also remember dancing in the living room—which for a child meant spinning myself around until I got so dizzy I fell into her glass coffee table and wound up in the emergency room.

When she moved to Suffern we saw even more of her. She became a fifth member of our family. I would often sleep at her apartment where we would swim and paint and make pottery decorated with wax and wool. Every morning we would wake her up by jumping on her bed and yelling “Yakabebe!!” which according to grandma means “I love you” in some exotic language she learned in her travels. In the summer we’d buy coconuts and throw them from her second-floor balcony to break them open. That was fun.

And of course there was the time she and I went to Europe. Despite her extensive travels we managed to find two countries that she’d never been to before (and which no longer exist—another testament to the changing world she saw), West Germany and Czechoslovakia. We had a lot of fun. Hotels in Germany traditionally include a big buffet breakfast from which grandma would slip enough food into her purse for lunch, dinner, and a midnight snack as well (the Great Depression died hard for her). One day she was spotted and the hotel added 5 Deutschmarks to our bill. That’s only a couple of bucks, but on principle grandma quite literally made it a diplomatic case. And then she fractured her foot, decided it was God’s punishment for visiting Germany, and started calling everyone Nazis. Believe it or not, this was fun! And despite this she insisted on pressing on to see Prague before going home. Imagine that: 83 years old with a broken foot and she still had the energy to see one more country. In fact, she was also already in her 80s when she climbed the Great Wall, visited the pyramids, and went on an African safari. Is it any wonder she lived to be 102?

Everywhere grandma went she made friends. She was the definition of gregarious. Our visit to Prague was just after the fall of communism there, and I remember listening to her engage in countless fascinating conversations with average people about their new freedom. During our visits to the opera she knew everyone within a 5-seat radius before the first intermission. Even in her final years she became a local celebrity in the nursing home: everyone from patients to staff knew all about “Annie” and loved her.

Then came Florida. She would come up in the summer, and we would visit her in the winter where she’d take us to EPCOT. Long before grandma actually needed a wheelchair she would rent one so didn’t have to wait on any lines.

Eventually she moved back up north. Not many people do that, but maybe that’s just the progression of events if you live as long as she did! Like a famous advertising icon, she just kept going and going. She was a tough old bird; she had to be. She lost her father, her husband, and later Jack Siegelman. She beat breast cancer at a time when chemotherapy was no better than a prayer. She lived through the Great Depression, 2 World Wars, one Cold War, 5 rulers of England, and 19 Presidents. She outlived nearly all of her friends and family. And through it all she raised her own family, painted watercolors, baked cookies, and played the piano.

Truman Capote wrote an autobiographical story called “A Christmas Memory” about his special childhood friendship with an older relative. It’s always made me think of my own childhood adventures with grandma. The pair in this story is also crafty, making kites for one other and flying them together. And every year, on a cold November morning, the older woman would exclaim “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!” and they would gather the ingredients to bake 30 of them for their friends and family (and the President).

Like Grandma and me, the call of grown-up responsibility for boy and the ravages of age for the old woman eventually stop their adventures but not the love they share:

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn't count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with our dog Queenie. Then alone. ("Buddy dear," she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, "yesterday Jim Macy's horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn't feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson's pasture where she can be with all her Bones...."). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me "the best of the batch." Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: "See a picture show and write me the story." But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, another Buddy who died in the 1880's; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: "Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!"

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

I miss you, grandma. I love you. Yakabebe.


A montage of Grandma and all her descendants (to date):

It all begins: Grandma's birth certificate, listing her name as "Any Maxman" and date of birth at January 26. However, her parents always celebrated her birthday on February 22nd because that was the nearest American holiday:

The Millers family around 1910: Grandma with her parents—Beckie and Meyer—and baby sister Jennie:

Grandma and her mom, around 1922:

Grandma's graduation portrait, around 1929:

Always the athlete, no matter what the sport. Grandma was even on the NYU women's basketball team!:

Grandma in Berkshire Hills, 1943:

Keeping dry in Niagara Falls around 1941:

Grandma in slightly higher style:

Grandma and Grandpa, around 1964:

Grandma and Grandpa celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in 1955:

Grandma around 1944 with daughters Marilyn, Hedy, and Eleanor:

Grandma in a familiar spot: at the piano:

Grandma with her mom (by now Beckie Shayon), stepfather Morris, brother Freddie, and daughters Ellie and Marilyn (soaking in the sun) around 1941:

Easter in Florida, 1953. Apparently the "Parrot Jungle" photo has been around as long as she was:

In the kitchen with her mother, 1959:

Marrying off Ellie in 1954...

...Marilyn in 1961...

...and Hedy in 1966:

Grandma's favorite picture of her and Grandpa:

Grandma and the family at Grandpa's 60th birthday party. He died only a few months later:

Grandma and friend Jack Siegelman model the latest swimwear: Florida, 1962:

The world traveler (left-to-right, top-to-bottom): Amsterdam, 1956; Egypt, 1982; Norway, 1961; Scotland, 1956; Switzerland, 1958; Nova Scotia, 1960; China, 1980; Africa, 1982; Germany, 1990:

One of Grandma's many art shows, this one in 1975:

Some of Grandma's paintings:

"A Grand-Daughter's First Smoke": Grandma and Jessica in 1972:

Grandma with Jessica and me in 1972. I think I was drunk:

Thanksgiving in the Catskills, 1979: not the most flattering portrait but always one of Grandma's favorites:

Grandma and me at my Bar Mitzvah, 1984:

Grandma and me dance the hora, 1984:

The Millers reunited, 1997: Grandma with her siblings and their spouses:

Jessica's PENN graduation in 1991: even in her 80s Grandma could still hold her own at a kegger:

Grandma at my college graduation in 1994 along with my sister, parents, and Grandma and Papa Tischler:

Her youngest granddaughter's wedding: Grandma with Jessica and Jeff in 1995:

Grandma at her 100th birthday party in 2007. Just before this photo was taken my Aunt Ellie told a story. My cousin Michael leaned over to Grandma and asked what Aunt Ellie had just said, and without skipping a beat Grandma replied “I don’t know, but I’ll drink to it!” and took a swig of her champagne:

Some of the many personal greetings that poured in for Grandma's 100th birthday, including Prince Albert of Monaco, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and a proclamation from the Governor of Florida. The President of Austria, Heinz Fischer, even sent her a genuine Sacher-Torte!:

Me trying to live up to Grandma's globe trotting: her at Brussels' Grand Place in 1961 and me in 2009:

A century apart: Grandma at her 102nd birthday party in 2009 with her Chelsea, age 3:


The following is a video I made for Grandma's 100th birthday, chronicling the first 100 years of her life. Back in 1983 she sat down with a tape recorder and recorded her life's story, as well as a lot of first-hand memories of life in the early 20th Century; I tried to bring it all to life with photos, videos, and music. It's about 25 minutes long but opened to rave reviews! Given YouTube restrictions, it is divided into 3 parts...

CHAPTERS 1 & 2: Anne tells how her parents came to America to start their family, recalling first-hand what life was like in New York in the early 20th Century:

CHAPTERS 3 & 4: Anne falls in love with Jacob Hirsch and starts a family. After his premature death, she spends her time traveling the world:

CHAPTERS 5 & 6 + BONUS FOOTAGE: Anne talks about her love of art and music. A final montage shows all of the life that she lived and made possible through her 3 children, 8 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren. Plus after the credits, grandma gives some advice on budget travel!:


While by no means necessary or expected, those of you who whish to make a donation in grandma’s memory may do so to one of the following two organizations:

The Juilliard School
Grandma was a teacher and a music lover; a donation to The Juilliard School will help to educate and foster the next generation of young artists.

Click here to make a memorial donation to Juilliard online or contact them by mail or phone at:
Office of Development and Public Affairs
The Juilliard School
60 Lincoln Center Plaza
New York, NY 10023-6588
(212) 799-5000, ext. 278

Maine Coast Heritage Trust
Grandma loved to travel and she loved to paint. The ocean was one of her favorite subjects, and one of the highlights of her life was a painting expedition up and down the Maine coast with renowned watercolorist Ed Whitney. A donation to the MCHT will ensure that this part of the country that she loved is preserved for future generations.

Click here to make a memorial donation to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust online or contact them by mail, phone, or email at:
Director of Development
Maine Coast Heritage Trust
1 Bowdoin Mill Island, Suite 201
Topsham, ME 04086
(207) 729-7366

And finally, you can click here to head back to the DougBlog entry celebrating grandma's 100th birthday!


  • Thank you, Doug for sharing the stories and your grandmother's special spirit which remains in you and your wonderful mother and sister. Love, Annette and Eve

    By Blogger Aladdinc, at 7:18 AM  

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