Forward Thinking

Why Ruth Messinger's Granddaughter Is Also Her Roommate

By Ruth Messinger and Francesca Sternfeld

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Francesca Sternfeld and Ruth Messinger / Courtesy of the authors

So, imagine sharing a large apartment with someone else who loves life, enjoys good food, cooks well, reads intensively and extensively [but not always the same material] and is not always but often willing to hear about your day or your life and offer wise advice. Those of us who throw ourselves into our work and our studies as we do need just such a person to share with, to collapse with and to consult at the end of what are often very long days.

Well, here we are, eight months in and planning on an ongoing shared living relationship over the next year or two. We each cherish the benefits and find few challenges and no obstacles. The fact that we are grand-daughter and grandmother is an added plus, but a very big one; it brings us together at a point in our lives when we might otherwise not be so connected — something which happens all too often and is a sad consequence of our modern lives.

New York, of course, is the key. Ruth has lived here almost all of her life, adores the West Side, travels a lot for work, but relishes coming home. And Francesca grew up elsewhere [Salt Lake City and Miami], had a few college years near the City, knew what it offered in terms of people, culture and food and decided on a visit a year ago that this was where her body and soul needed to be. And it is a city that a 28 year old student can live in with only part time work but to be sure not easily, and not on the West Side absent a large slew of roommates.

Ruth: I have a crazy travel and work schedule, and a husband who works in Connecticut during the week. I love, love, love having a smart, thoughtful, passionate, caring housemate — the fact that she is my granddaughter is the icing on the cake. I love knowing something about her life and sharing good food, wise discussion, the New York Times and shopping suggestions. I am glad she puts up with my penchant for old movies and bad TV [better than my husband I might add]. I love having a restaurant, movie, theater companion who nudges me to neighborhoods and experiences I might otherwise miss. I love being reminded what a serious exercise regimen looks like, understanding that Francesca benefits from meditation which I still need to learn to do, seeing her build a spectacular wardrobe out of the best of two local thrift shops and learning from her about parts of the world she knows intimately that I do not — including Egypt and Italy. Together we make the world’s best granola.

And I consider it a special privilege of this particular granddaughter and our relationship that I know some things I might otherwise never know [but also not too much] about her love life. And I adore her friends who often stop by for an evening, an exercise class she teaches, a week in New York City which would otherwise not be available to them. I treasure her spectacular “listening ear” [she will make a great social worker], her capacity to draw others out, her wonderful witticisms and sense of humor and the way she has been there for me over a few tough issues.

Francesca: We all have our heroes; those who embody our values and forge a path through the thicket of experience. For anyone concerned with global social justice, Jewish activism, feminism, or compassionate policy, my grandmother is likely on a short list. But heroes need help to carry their work forward, as I’ve learned this year.

The same woman who has the ear of presidents and venture capitalists is thrilled to find a new pair of potholders in the kitchen, or a fanciful objet d’art appear one day so she can organize her earrings. What strikes me is that the loftiest goals Ruth promotes — equality, recognition of human dignity, faith that truths we find together can guide through darkness — these are the lingua franca of our home life. We’ve both had our cultural frameworks expanded (me into New York Jewry and Intelligentsia, she into millennial seekers), and given each other a little more resolve to face our own fine-grain shifting inner struggles. Neither of us is where we started, and we’re both better equipped to love, explore and serve the world.

And a concluding thought from the writers: We see that the message is not very explicit, i.e.”living with a loved one who is demonstrative with their love improves resilience, including in the workplace,” but rather implicit; here are the sentiments of two working women discovering a new way to enjoy life, and perhaps there are others out there who could benefit from a similar arrangement.

Ruth Messinger is the CEO of American Jewish World Service, a life long New Yorker, a proud mother and grandmother. Francesca Sternfeld, granddaughter extraordinaire, is an independent child care worker and rising graduate student in social work in NYC, herself a world traveler and a lover of all things New York.

This blog post first appeared on the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Double Booked blog, an online conversation about work-life balance and issues facing working families.


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