The hardest thing about having kids so late in life is the absence of older generations. I woke up thinking how much my grandmother, Anita Karoll, would be going out of her mind over the twin boys we’re having. She’s been gone for nearly 20 years but today would have been her 99th birthday. So, in theory, she could still be with us. (I often wonder if accepting the loss of my loved ones will finally become easier when they reach the age when they couldn’t still be alive.) I love this gorgeous hand-tinted photo of my grandmother. I believe it was taken in the late 1920s. She had the most beautiful red hair which she passed on to both of her daughters. It then jumped a generation to my own daughter Leah who has exactly the same luxurious shade.
Unfortunately, my grandmother died before any of her great-grandchildren were born. I was lucky enough to know my own great-grandparents when I was a kid, but that’s because the women in my family tended to have children when they were practically kids themselves. My cousin Nurit, who is a year younger than me, has seven children. Her oldest, Na’ama, just had twin boys a few weeks ago, Yuval Mordechai and Roni Ya’acov. Na’ama’s boys are in the rare position of having a GREAT-GREAT-grandmother, my Auntie Anne, who lives in Israel. Pretty incredible, no? Anne is the only surviving sibling of my late grandfather, Sam Karoll. Her parents were my great-grandparents who I’ve written about so often, Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba Korolnek.
I’m not positive but I think I’m the oldest person in my family who’s ever had a new baby. We always heard the story when we were kids about how my grandmother had my Uncle Paul so very, very late in life. The story always reminded me of the biblical character Sarah who supposedly gave birth to Isaac when she was 90 years old. My uncle’s birth was seen as that kind of miracle. It was only as an adult that I did the math and realized that when she had my uncle, my grandmother was a shocking…38?? Okay, I guess in those days, that was considered old!
A few years ago on her birthday I talked about my grandmother’s interesting history. Although her Jewish parents emigrated from Russia at the turn of the century, my grandmother was born on April 5, 1910, in the unlikeliest of places: Newport, Kentucky. She was a real country girl. This picture was taken in Kentucky during the first World War. That’s my grandmother in front with her younger brother. It kills me that I can’t sit down with her to talk about her life, starting with her earliest memories as a tomboy in Kentucky. I know so little about her childhood. My grandfather’s family was so large and powerful that marrying it into it meant your previous identity was quickly subsumed by the dominant culture. When I was growing up everything was focused on my grandfather’s side of the family. For the most part, we only saw my grandmother’s relatives once a year, on the second night of Passover. (Being second-tiered relatives they were never invited to the first seder!) So, while I can trace my grandfather’s journey at the age of three from Staszow, Poland to Toronto, Canada, I barely know anything about my grandmother’s past.
I do know my grandmother never finished high school in Kentucky because she had to go to work. When she was already a grandmother, she decided she wanted to go back to school. First, she got her high school diploma. It was such a huge deal back then for an older woman to go back to school that her graduation was picked up by the wire services and printed in newspapers all over the country. This article came from the Reno Gazette. She then went to Northwestern University and majored in journalism, an amazing achievement for a grandmother in the 1950s. After that, she went for a master’s degree at the University of Chicago. In 1960, the Chicago Sun-Times printed a big article about her called “Degree-Happy Grandma.”
Anita Karoll was just 14 when she quit high school and went to work as a comptometer operator. She was the mother of a 16-year-old high-schooler when, despite the doubts expressed by friends, she returned to the classroom.
Now a grandmother, she is the possessor of a high school diploma, a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and by the end of this year, will have her master’s degree in political science. And, oh yes, she’s also working on her teacher’s certificate.
“If you do anything that’s off the beaten path, you’re bound to get criticism,” she said. “But it’s remarkable how, as soon as you achieve any measure of success, it stops. If I wanted to quit school now, my family wouldn’t let me.”
Except they did. She never did finish that last degree or become a teacher, unfortunately. I always heard that my grandfather had finally had enough and asked her to stop. Too bad.
After her high school graduation, she took a few courses at Northwestern University’s downtown night school—just for fun. The faculty urged her to work toward a degree on the Evanston campus, though at that time it was against the university’s policy to accept older adults as full-time freshmen.
“I did feel a little funny that first quarter at Northwestern because I didn’t know a soul,” she says. “Now that I’m working on my master’s at the University of Chicago, age doesn’t mean anything. I’m a student—period!”
On only two occasions has she dropped out—once to plan her daughter’s wedding, and once to remodel her house, but there have been rough times when she’s been tempted.
“I think my children have benefited,” she says. “They know how to study. My nose is in a book so often that theirs are, too. And it seems to have started a trend. Quite a few of my friends have gone back to college.”
What has it cost?
“I’ve never tried to figure it out and won’t,” she says. “Education is something that can’t be valued in monetary terms.”
You go, girl! And Happy 99th Birthday! I miss you!