Grandma’s Roundtable Eases Life Challenges For 7 Lucky Grandkids

By Gail Rosenblum
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).


She’s a therapist and career coach, cheerleader and wise woman, secret keeper and borscht pusher.

Mostly, 85-year-old Gretta Freeman of Golden Valley, Minn., is chief executive officer of perhaps the most endearingly run support group in the Midwest, and likely beyond. Unfortunately for us, membership is closed.

For 18 years, Freeman has guided her seven grandchildren, now grown, through myriad life passages and challenges. She has done this through her Grandma’s Roundtable, a periodic gathering of grandmother and grandchildren, where food and wine are abundant, judgment is banned, and no question or concern is off-limits.

“I think they had a lot of respect for my life,” said Freeman, reflecting on the impact of her roundtable, which continues today when schedules allow. “And that I was so open.”

She needn’t talk in past tense. The grands, spread out across the country, many of them married with kids, remain viscerally connected to her, and immeasurably grateful.

“I went to college more relaxed, more focused on what I wanted and, above all, more confident I would be OK,” said Jenny Cukier, 35, the oldest of the bunch.

“Grandma’s Roundtable solved my quarterlife crisis,” said Jenny’s little brother, Zach, 30.

“We are so fortunate to have a grandma who can get real with us,” added cousin Rebeccca Lesure, 32.

Jenny recalls that the roundtable began organically with just her and Freeman talking about what mattered to a high school senior. Jenny loved that Grandma was paying attention. “I remember being very candid with her,” Jenny said, “opening up and talking, talking, talking. I didn’t realize I had so much to say. She pulled it out of me. I remember leaving conversations feeling lighter and better.”

Soon, Jenny’s sister, Katie, joined in. The girl-fest met several times a year, often around holidays. Eventually, Zach joined them, then cousins Rebecca, Michael, Ben and Matthew.

Grandma’s Roundtable migrated from her dining room table to the backroom of the Lexington restaurant in St. Paul, where the two generations sat for hours talking themselves out over Szechuan green beans.

Parents were off-limits, but significant others were invited, if they fit the criteria. “They had to be close to engaged,” Freeman said. “They had to be able to handle it.” It being conversations around drugs, drinking, sex, media, suicide, feminism, peer pressure, politics, religion and, “above all, love and relationships,” Jenny said.

The latter could have been trying and complicated to a woman born in 1929. But we’re talking about Grandma Gretta here.

Katie remembers breaking down at a roundtable after she began dating a man who was Mormon. No one in the immediate family had married outside the Jewish faith.

“I was scared what my parents’ reaction would be,” Katie recalled. “How could we possibly build a life together and even think about raising a family? Grandma’s Roundtable was the first time I truly dealt with this relationship struggle.”

Grandma Gretta asked a lot of questions. She let Katie cry.

“The next thing I knew,” Katie said, “she was calling me to say she had talked to a rabbi, as well as a bishop from the Mormon church. It was not going to be easy, but she would be there to support us.” Katie and her Mormon boyfriend, Jake Giesting, got married six years ago and just welcomed their second daughter. “We could not be happier,” Katie said.

The dining room table of Freeman’s sunny condominium is elegantly set as she shares reflections, with an overflowing bowl of fresh fruit, coffee with cream in a tiny Lalique pitcher and three kinds of spreads for bagels, still warming.

“Not quite toasty enough,” she announces from the kitchen, where a sign over the sink reads, “What happens at grandma’s stays at grandma’s.” “It’s corny, but I love it,” she said.

She wears a blush-colored vest and stylish scarf. The phone rings. “If it’s bad news,” she said, “I’m not going to answer. Omigod, my bagels!”

She grew up on the old North Side, a vibrant Minneapolis community of Jewish immigrants. Her father, Irv Rudick, was a newspaperman. “Hubert Humphrey used to call him ‘Little Irv,'” she said. Her mother, Ann Rudick, was a St. Paul girl who modeled on occasion. Freeman has one brother, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. They call him “Art, the little guy.”

Freeman, also as big as a minute, attended college for two years. In 1949, she married Earl Freeman, of St. Paul, who owned a business with his brothers manufacturing marine equipment. They met on a blind date.

“Everybody got married by 20,” she said, “or something was wrong with you.” She was 22 when her first son, Doug, was born. “That was the other rule,” she said. “Three children before 30.”

Sons Todd and Rich arrived soon afterward. Freeman volunteered with the National Council of Jewish Women and Head Start, and helped to form one of the first senior citizens groups in the country, at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center.

When Earl died at 82 in 2006, a grieving Freeman called together the roundtable for comfort. Then the tables turned in a big way.

A year later, 78-year-old Freeman began dating widower Bobby Rubenstein, whom she’s known her whole life. “How do you date at this age?” she asked them. Jenny’s husband, Aaron, took her through it.

“First, you see each other on occasion … then more frequently … then you have the talk.” Everybody rolled their eyes at that.

“They were thrilled about Bobby,” Freeman said of her “constant companion,” who will be 92 in November. “They love him. We are poster children for senior citizen romance.”

And she is proof of what generosity of spirit can foster. Freeman recently asked her grandchildren to reflect upon the heyday of Grandma’s Roundtable.

From across the country within days, loving letters flooded in. (Grandma Gretta does not have e-mail.)

“After I got their stories, I just cried,” Freeman said. “All you have are memories. My footsteps are in the sand with my grandchildren.”

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