In five years of keeping this blog, I’ve hardly written a word about my own grandparents, who inspired it. I had intended to write about them all the time, but every time I set out to, I get overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to explain who they were and what they meant to me. Of doing justice to them. Of revealing their flaws—not necessarily as grandparents, but as people, because, like all people, they had big ones.
So I’ve decided to try writing a series of very short “sketches” about them. Each sketch will say just a tiny bit about one, or maybe two, or maybe all three of the grandparents I knew well. Maybe in time, I’ll be able to put the sketches together into something bigger. But for now, each piece will stand by itself.
And what I want to say in this first sketch is that for the whole time I knew her, my mom’s mom, who was known in my family as “Butz,” read everything in French. Even though she wasn’t French, didn’t live in France, and didn’t learn the language until well into middle age.
Her name was Dorothy Fischer. Born in 1916, she grew up on a beach in Milford, Connecticut, where her parents owned some boardwalk concessions and rides. But, like most Americans, they lost everything in the Depression, which hit when Butz (pronounced “Boots”) was 13. Her parents divorced, and, with her mom and her baby sister, she moved to Washington, D.C. Eventually, the family opened a boardinghouse there. Butz didn’t have her own room, but slept in whichever was empty.
She was a good student and finished high school, but there was no question of her going to college.
Fast forward to 1958. She was 41, a not-very-happy housewife in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She had two kids, my mother, who was 14, and my uncle, who was 10. She had plenty of money, because her husband, my grandpa, was a lawyer and entrepreneur.
But the marriage was in trouble, mostly because my grandpa, who was known in my family as “Menu” (pronounced “May-NU”), was losing his mind. The anxiety that had long troubled him was beginning to take over his life. He figured the problem was work stress, so he resolved to take some time off. He and Butz somehow cooked up a “sabbatical”: they’d put the kids in Swiss boarding schools for a year and take that time to see Europe.
Menu’s anxiety only intensified while they were abroad, and he often took out his frustrations on Butz. So you might assume she was miserable there. But she wasn’t. She realized, or remembered, that she had a gift for language—a gift her Harvard-educated husband lacked—and as her French improved, she started to feel really good about herself, and excited about what the world had to offer.
When they returned home in the spring of 1959, Menu began daily psychoanalysis, and Butz started thinking about college. In the late 1960s, around the time my uncle started college, so did she, at American University. For four years, she excelled as a French major.
Thereafter, she read everything in French. By the time I came along in 1974, when Butz was nearly 60, she had not only made her way through most of the classics of French literature, but was keeping up with new releases and French periodicals. And when a novel in English piqued her interest, she waited for the French translation.
Perhaps what I admire most about this whole endeavor is that she never bragged about it. She was doing it for herself, out of a genuine love of learning, not because she wanted to impress anyone. Once, when I was in college, she took me to a book talk on Democracy In America by Alexis de Tocqueville, which I was reading for a class. I brought my copy, but she didn’t bring hers—it was in French, of course, and she didn’t want to look like a showoff.
I’ve been thinking about Butz and her passion for French recently because I have a similar passion for Spanish, which I studied on and off in college. I never became fluent, but, like Butz, I took enormous pleasure in each word I learned. Unfortunately, my Spanish is atrocious now, having atrophied from two decades of disuse.
Recently, though, I’ve been listening to some podcasts in Spanish and fantasizing about living in Spain for a bit. I’m 45, just a bit older than Butz was when she went abroad. My daughter is 9, and my husband is game.
It’s a crazy idea. We likely won’t do it.
But my grandparents pulled it off, so why couldn’t we?