Sweet Caroline

I left you last month with a post about my editor—and I promise to update you on Jane’s encouraging feedback at a later date. This post, however, I’d like to dedicate to my grandmother, Caroline, who passed away on Tuesday, two days short of her 100th birthday.

Caroline (second from left) with her parents and two of her three brothers, Henry and Venable Martin

Young Caroline with her parents and brothers Venable and Taylor Martin in Clinton, South Carolina

My grandmother was born on December 18th, 1914, in Clinton, South Carolina. I marvel often at how she, a young Presbyterian from the South, ended up in Rio de Janeiro during the Second World War—and even more so at the fact that while in Brazil, she married my grandfather, her antipode—a gregarious, unflinching Polish Jew. I’ve filled many pages of The Lucky Ones with the story of how my grandparents met, of the meals and conversations I imagine they shared in those early years.

Caroline (center) with her two best friends in Rio, XX and XX

Caroline (center) with her two best friends, Ginna and Dorothy, in Rio, 1943

My grandmother was courteous. She was poised. She carried herself with confidence and ease, but (unlike my grandfather) had no interest in being the center of attention. She never complained. She welcomed young relatives from all over the world into her home, often for months at a time, with genuine warmth. Her niece Kathleen described Caroline as perhaps the kindest person she has ever known.

Caroline and my mother, seven months old (1949)

My grandmother with her second child, Isabelle (my mother), 7 months old. My mother’s older sister Kath writes, “My mother’s first and favorite priority was raising children, and she did so with more love and attention than most of us can maintain.”

When I think of my childhood, I think of my grandmother. I think of us watering her purple pansies, creating art projects from the pages of expired calendars, playing endless games of Milles Bornes. I think of all of the birthdays we shared (I was born on her 64th), of the patience and encouragement with which she taught me to swim in the neighbor’s pool, of how she would painstakingly peel the tape from her Christmas presents in an effort not to rip the paper, which she would reuse the following year.

My grandparents and their three children, Kathleen, Isabelle and Tim, 1957

My grandparents with their three children, Kath, Isabelle, and Tim, in Plainville, 1957

My grandfather died when I was fourteen. A year later, my English teacher assigned our class the task of uncovering a slice of our family histories–an “I-Search” project, Mr. Griffin called it. My mother suggested I interview my grandmother about how my grandfather came to America—a story I knew little about. I readily agreed, and soon found myself in my grandmother’s living room, listening intently as she recounted a chapter of life that my grandfather had chosen to leave behind. As I took it all in, I remember feeling like I’d unearthed something big. Something important. As our conversation came to an end, I hugged my grandmother and told her how much I appreciated the memories. She smiled and patted me on the knee and in her soft southern drawl said, “You know, Eddy had four siblings. You should interview their families, too. They’ve all got stories. Write them down, write a book about them. I know I’d love to read it.”

Thank you, Granny, for the suggestion. And for the tenderness, selflessness, honesty, and grace you so effortlessly embodied. I think of you often as I stumble through life, doing my best to emulate the way in which you carried yourself, the way you interacted with me, with others. You continue to inspire and shape me—as a granddaughter, a daughter, a friend, a wife, a mother.

I miss you more than words can describe. It was hard, celebrating my birthday this year without you. But I’m comforted in knowing that you are very much alive in the pages of my book, as well as in the hearts of your children and grandchildren, and in all those you touched.


One of many joint birthday celebrations in Plainville.

As a part of my "I-Search" project, I was asked to write about my interview with my grandmother. Miraculously, I kept a copy.

A paper I wrote for my “I-Search” project describing my interview (mentioned above) with my grandmother.


My grandmother surrounded by family on Martha’s Vineyard in 2006, they day before Robert and I were married.


A recent summer visit. My grandmother loved watching her great-grandson buzz around the hallways of the Doolittle home.

“I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long, but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.” 

~ Stephen Colbert, on the passing of his mother