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Sisters extol vibrant, diverse grandmothers

Travels across the U.S. tell of women ages 30 to 117

SHARE Sisters extol vibrant, diverse grandmothers

THE GRANDMOTHER BOOK: A CELEBRATION OF FAMILY; Photographs by Jessica Burstein, Text by Patricia Burstein; St. Martin's Press; 207 pages; $24.95.

The talented Burstein sisters — one the first female staff photographer for NBC and the other an author and journalist who has written for People, Ladies Home Journal, New York, The New York Times and many other publications — have joined hands to produce a beautiful, oversize book that celebrates grandmothers.

For a year they traveled across America to capture images and voices for a moving portrait of the grandmother.

The many grandmothers they talked with and photographed range in age from 30 to 117, and the result is amazing diversity. It is clear from these pages that the stereotype of a white-haired woman in a rocking chair does not adequately represent the many interesting, vibrant women who talk about being grandmothers on these pages.

There are 45 grandmothers shown here in both lively prose and stunning photographs; here are a few examples:

— Virginia O'Halpin, 59, a retired deputy sheriff, lives in Miami, Fla., and Long Island, N.Y. "I'm very affectionate with my grandkids, just as I was with my children. I give them lots of hugs and kisses. My 14-year-old grandson, Jamie, told this girl his grandmother was a deputy sheriff; she didn't believe him because 'sheriffs are only in Westerns.' Jamie says sheriffs are sort of mean, and I am too nice to be one."

— Dr. Jimmie C. Holland, 70, is the founder and chief of the Psycho-Oncology department at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "As a grandmother, I am privileged to be a link between the past and future, providing a sense of continuity between the generations. Erik Erickson called this stage of the life cycle one in which generativity is the goal and ability to place personal ambitions aside and to take pride and joy in mentoring and sharing one's knowledge and values — and hopefully wisdom — with one's children and grandchildren. And the feeling of generativity extends to one's professional life — the people I have trained are my professional progeny."

— Thelma Mothershed Wair, 56, was one of the "Little Rock Nine," the first to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Currently, she teaches survival skills at a homeless shelter. "I didn't join the Little Rock Nine to get in the history books. I did it because I wanted the best education I could get. Education is the key to everything. I tell every young person, 'Stay in school!' "

— Sarah Knauss, 117, who lives in Fleetwood, Pa., is the oldest living person in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. She lived with her 94-year-old daughter until eight years ago when, at the age of 109, she moved to a nursing home. There, her 72-year-old grandson, Robert Butz, visits her frequently. Since she has difficulty speaking, he spoke in her behalf for the book: "I think part of Grandmother's longevity is her strong genes, but I also believe the biggest factor has been her remarkable disposition — letting things be, not getting excited, being tranquil. The only complaint I've ever heard from her is that there are too many old people in the nursing home."

— Brenda Lee, 53, is a former music icon from the '60s, and she still performs professionally. "I'm almost living my girls' lives through my grandbabies because they look exactly like their parents did when they were children and have their personalities. It is almost like having mine all over again and being able to say, 'I can do this over again and do it right,' because I was touring so much of the time when my children were growing up."

This is a book of wisdom that can be placed on the coffee table and read in several sittings. There is whimsy as well as serious, provocative thinking. The result for any reader is likely to be a greater appreciation for the wisdom of grandmothers everywhere and the benefits of their interaction with their grandchildren.

E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com