My Jewish Grandmother’s Recipe for a Long and Happy Life

Eat all the desserts you want. All the time.

There’s no right way to remember a loved one who’s passed, but I honestly adore the Jewish traditions around death — bringing everyone together to tell stories, forcing them to not work, force-feeding them food… there are worse ways to grieve.

I recently had reason to be on the receiving end of this ritual: My Grandma Joann Freeman Shwayder passed away on the first night of Hanukkah last month.

My grandmother was, to put it lightly, a prodigy. She began learning piano at age 3 with her mother, my great-grandmother, Edith Freeman. She gave her first full-length recital at age 5 and appeared with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of 8.

After graduating from Vassar, she was trying to decide between pursuing a music career and attending medical school. Mind you, this was the mid-1940s. Women, especially Jewish women, were not doing much of either of those things. She once had a manager say to her, “Most people don’t want to hear a woman pianist.”

Eventually, that decision was made for her when she not only got accepted to Julliard, but also received a prestigious fellowship offer to attend. Of course, because Grandma had no ability to sit still (something she passed down to me and several of her other progeny), she decided to pursue a master’s in philosophy at Columbia at the same time.

Grandma eventually met Grandpa and moved back to her hometown of Detroit, where she had my father and his three brothers. She did this, however, while continuing an international concertizing career, performing in venues from India to Israel to Greece.

Courtesy of Maya Ergas Shwayder

I say all this not (only) to brag, but to provide context for the way I remember her. Her memorial service was filled with music and people’s recollections of her concerts, her practice sessions, her teaching music to her children and grandchildren, and her unique way of babysitting (sticking babies on the floor underneath the grand piano while she played).

But my memories of her revolve around something much different: parties. Massive Passover seders, sumptuous Yom Kippur break-fasts, silver-adorned New Year’s Eves, b’nei mitzvot celebrations… in the chaos of all these events, she was always at the core of it: the cool and collected grand dame, the sun at the center of my swirling, loud, messy family. So when it came time to eulogize her, that’s what I seized on.

There’s no right way to be a grandparent. And there’s no right way to remember your grandparent when they’ve passed. In the end, all you can hope is that they lived well, and that their life can provide us all with inspiration to pursue our passions and dreams, in spite of… well, everything.

So without further ado, here are the top 18 lessons for living a long and happy life that I learned from my grandmother, presented in no particular order.

1. Drink all the red wine you can. Does not matter the time of day. Does not matter your age — or your granddaughter’s age the first time you offer her a glass, for that matter.

My cousin loved to relay an anecdote about one Sunday when she was in middle school, when, in the middle of the day, Grandma suddenly offered her a glass of wine.  “I was like, ‘Grandma! It’s a school night! And I’m 12!’” she said. “And Grandma was like ‘So? Life is short! You gotta live life to the fullest every day!’”

2. Drink all the coffee you can. In fact, if possible, get an IV and just pop it in.

If Grandma didn’t have a glass of wine in her hand, she had a mug of coffee. Always black. Usually reheated many times.

3. Never drink a glass of water in your life. Why would you need to? You have red wine and coffee.

Self-explanatory, really.

4. Throw many large parties. Often. This will ensure plenty of opportunities to drink red wine.

In 1969, Grandma founded the American Artist Series, a concert series dedicated to celebrating and performing American chamber music. It ran for three decades and casually won some awards, but the real highlight of these concerts were the after-parties. These were always at her house and usually featured a few Detroit Symphony Orchestra Musicians (often including John Thurman, uncle of Uma) lounging, drinking and making merry in my grandma’s massive, ornate living room.

5. When throwing these parties, white tablecloth. Silverware. SILVER. ware. Always.

Doesn’t matter if it’s not a sit-down occasion. Your table will be decorated and laid out perfectly. Nothing less is acceptable.

6. No plastic anything on the table. Ever. Put the ketchup in a bowl.

7. Eat all the desserts you want. All the time.

Life is short, after all. To her dying day, when she was refusing most foods, chocolate ice cream was still on the menu.

8. While we’re at it, eat all the food you want.

My grandmother’s particular favorites included red meat, desserts, more red meat and more desserts.

9. Never eat a vegetable. Why would you. What are those even for. You have red meat and dessert.

One time, when I was maybe 7 or 9 years old, Grandma took me to a museum in Chicago. As one does, we stopped at the food court for lunch, and I remember her selecting a salad in a plastic bowl or herself (plastic, shocking, I know). The salad, to my memory, was probably ⅔ romaine lettuce, ⅓ sliced ham. She proceeded to eat all the ham and none of the lettuce. When I pointed out to her, in my childlike way, that maybe she should eat a vegetable, she waved her hand dismissively and said, “Oh that’s just rabbit food.”

10. When hiding the afikomen for the grandchildren at Passover, don’t bother writing down where you hid them. It’ll be fine. The kids will find them. Eventually. Maybe.

We recently found a broken afikomen wrapped in foil from who knows what year shoved under the cushion of a chair. These things happen.

11. Never run. Make them wait for you. Doesn’t matter if the plane is already delayed — make them wait for you.

My father loves to tell the story of a time when the whole family was attempting to go on vacation together. My dad and his two older brothers, all either in college or graduated, were already sitting on the plane, waiting for their youngest brother and parents to arrive.

And waiting. And waiting.

Finally, it was time to take off and the youngest, Walter, burst through the plane doors, which immediately shut behind him. The plane began taxiing. The three older brothers looked at Walter and asked what happened. “Mom wouldn’t run,” Walter said, out of breath.

So now the four brothers are all sitting on this plane without their parents, looking at each other, thinking, “Uh, what do we do now?”

Suddenly, the pilot came on the intercom and said ,“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have to turn around and go back to the gate. It seems four little boys have lost their parents.”

Apparently, because Grandma wouldn’t run, when she and Grandpa arrived at the gate for their already-departed flight, Grandpa seized the phone from the flight attendant, called the tower and had the plane come back and pick them up. So yes, my Grandma single-handedly turned an entire plane around.

12. Never exercise. You have red meat and red wine, dessert and coffee. You don’t need to exercise.

I know it’s diet-and-exercise season, but I will just say Grandma was incredibly slender for her entire life. I stopped fitting into her clothes around age 11. Take that diet-and-exercise advice as you will.

13. Read books. And the news. But mostly books. Never stop reading books. And never throw any of them away. But also make sure you buy lots of books for the people you love.

14. Silk blouses and high heels are always acceptable dress. No matter the activity. No matter the weather or the time of year.

15. If you want to get good at something, you have to practice your cello, Maya.

16. Travel. Everywhere. As often as you can.

17. Your 9-year-old granddaughter is going to steal your makeup and try to figure out how to put it on. When she comes downstairs to rejoin the family holiday dinner with badly-applied blue eyeshadow and several different shades of lipstick smeared outside the corners of her mouth, and someone asks her, “Did you steal Grandma’s makeup?” and she goes “Noooooo!”… do her a favor and just teach her how to do it the right way.

18. Love with abandon and with your whole heart. Always.

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