My grandmother Vivian Sweibel Smith died this past Monday. She was 88 years old. Vivian was the last of my four grandparents, and with her passing comes some kind of new turning I don’t yet comprehend. My sister has a child, and now our parents are the eldest people in the family. Somehow I’ve been shifted from low-on-the-totem-pole grandchild to AUNT, and my parents are the grandparents. This is weird.
Anyway, this entry isn’t about me, it’s about Vivian. I fly to Oklahoma tomorrow to attend her memorial service. I have mixed feelings about this whole experience…mostly because Grandma and I were not close. I was the fourth of six grandchildren, and I grew up in upstate New York. I didn’t even see my Oklahoma grandparents once a year, but they faithfully sent me gifts for every birthday. As a child, I only understood that Grandma was sweet and baked the BEST Melt-In-The-Mouth Cookies in the WORLD – okay, only place you could get them was her kitchen. It was only after Grandma started to decline that I started focusing less on the cookies, my appetite, and myself and started to realize what an amazing woman she really was.
I still don’t know many of the details, but this is what I can tell you of my grandmother, Vivian Sweibel Smith:
Vivian was born to secular Jewish parents in Brooklyn, NY in 1920 – the year women won the right to vote. She graduated high school at the age of 16, and though her family had only saved money for her brother to continue school, she attended Hunter Women’s College, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology, Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa – at the age of 19.
After graduation, Vivian studied parasitic disease at Johns Hopkins University as a “special student” – but was told she would not be officially admitted to the graduate program because she was a woman. Instead, she attended the University of Illinois where she earned her PhD at the age of 23.
The University of Illinois is also where she met my grandfather, Philip E. Smith. Grandpa once told me she was SO focused on her research when he was trying to court her, that he took her shoes and threw them into a tank of snakes just to get her undivided attention. They married in 1942, and my grandfather earned his PhD shortly thereafter. They moved to Oklahoma City, where they raised four lovely daughters (my mother Diane being the eldest). Grandpa became the Dean of OU College of Medicine while Grandma taught classes in comparative anatomy and zoology here and there. Her status as a wife and mother kept her from pursuing much of a career beyond that, though I’ve been told my grandfather always thought Vivian was even more brilliant than he was.
Vivian and Phil became active in the Oklahoma State legislature after Grandpa retired, and Vivian frequently testified before state legislative committees, becoming a tireless advocate for the needs of the elderly. The organizations and research she worked to support goes on for pages. After my grandfather passed away in 1998, she stayed active with her work. When S and I visited, she took us on tours of the Oklahoma State capitol and introduced us to just about everyone we passed.
Grandma was so on top of it, she even used email – which seems trivial until you realize how many elderly people struggle with the concept.
Vivian was not herself for the past few years…it was difficult thing to see happen, especially knowing what I do now about the amazing life she lived. I’m not a spiritual person, but I hope that I can honor my grandmother Vivian, carry on some iota of the !!!!! that she was in life, and maybe someday try to pass it on in some form to a new generation. Anyway, in my own feeling-less-than-brilliant words: Vivian, you ROCKED. I wish I’d known you better than this, and I love you.