My mum, Renee Grabiner, was born Renee Geller at home in Stamford Hill on the 5th of May 1927. She was the second child of David and Betty, who already had a daughter, Joyce (Zichrona Livracha), and went on to give Renee a little brother, Seymour.
Joyce, Renee, and Seymour were the second generation of their family to be born in this country. Their grandparents had emigrated from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.
Renee was a teenager during the war years, growing up in Edgware, until a bomb demolished a pub very near to their home, and her mother Betty refused to step foot in the house again. Following this they moved to St Albans and lived above the family business in Victoria Street.
Although Mum was very bright and spirited and certainly could have pursued further study, she had to leave school at 15 to help in “Betty’s”, the family women’s outfitters business. Like her mum, she was a gifted saleslady, and rarely let a customer walk out of the shop empty-handed.
After the war my dad, Henry, a dashing young man, returned to his family in St Albans, from RAF service in the Far East. He went into business with David Geller, Renee’s father, but got more than he bargained for. Renee and Henry were married on the 6th of July 1948 in Walm Lane Synagogue in Cricklewood. According to Seymour, even as a teenager, mum had set her sights on Henry
Both Henry and Renee’s families were founder members of St Albans’ United Synagogue
before he went off to the war. They went on to have a family of four children; first my older brother Michael, and then me, before Stephen and Robert came along. Although mum and dad were quite surprised, the twins were a welcome bargain; two for the price of one!
She was always very active and fully engaged in the business to support dad, and also took the major responsibility for running the house and the family. In the local community, she was a keen member, and for some time Chair, of St Albans’ Jewish Ladies’ Guild. Despite so many responsibilities and such a full and busy life, she still found time to play Kalooki on a regular basis.
Both Henry and Renee’s families were founder members of St Albans’ United Synagogue and were actively involved in the leadership of the shul and the community. Later in her life, mum continued to volunteer her time and energy with weekly visits to Jewish Care Sobell Centre in Golders Green.
An amazingly energetic and vivacious woman, who enjoyed being in company; she also had a fun and mischievous side. Mum frequently boasted to her children and grandchildren that she had never taken a driving test, since, during the war, they just handed licenses out. It goes without saying, that, despite being an immensely smart and talented woman, her driving was not one of her greatest talents!
Henry and Renee have twelve grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. As a younger grandmother, she spent many hours looking after her grandchildren, entertaining them with Duplo in the early years and traipsing round the shops choosing clothes. Later, she taught them Rummikub and played many hours of Kalooki. Even as they grew up, the grandchildren could never beat her fierce card and table tennis skills!
She enjoyed baking when she had the time and her apple strudel was the best in town.
Mum had a great sense of style, and she did all the buying for the women’s shop. Along with her fashion instincts, she inherited brilliant sewing skills from her mum, my Grandma Geller. In the shop, Renee would alter any dress to make it fit rather than lose a customer. She also spent hours shortening her grandsons’ school trousers at phenomenal speed, sometimes even as they were still wearing them.
Unfortunately, the last few years of her life were taken from her by such a cruel illness. It was only due to dad’s amazing care that she was able to remain at home for such a long time.
We are also all very grateful to the staff and management of Rubens’ House in Finchley for the wonderful care and support they have provided over the past five years.
Mum’s life can be summed up by the devotion and energy she gave her husband and children. The memory of this wonderful woman will continue to support and sustain us all throughout our lives.
As Renée’s eldest granddaughter, I wanted to share with you a collection of memories of our very special Grandma on behalf of her twelve grandchildren.
Before I begin, I just wanted to reiterate my thanks on behalf of all the family, as we are truly amazed by the number of people who have come to support us during this difficult time. We all greatly appreciate all the love, support and kind words, so thank you.
Unfortunately during the last few years of her life Grandma was severely affected by such a cruel illness. However, we will always remember her as a loving, vibrant, fun and devoted grandma when we were growing up and the unique memories we all created and shared together.
When I asked her other grandchildren for their favourite memories of Grandma, everyone seemed to mention a common theme….food!
we were sworn to secrecy as we left each visit with a Cadburys chocolate animal bar for the journey home.
A champion baker to rival Mary Berry, Grandma was an expert strudel maker. Whenever any of us visited Grandma or there was a family event or yom tov, you could be rest assured of one thing – freshly baked strudel. We all knew you had to get in there fast because if you hesitated for a second, it had been demolished. In fact even when I was home during university holidays, I used to put in my order for Grandma to bake me strudel and fruit cake to keep up energy for my studies!
One of our fondest memories was her deft ability to sneak us biscuits, whilst at the same time telling us not to tell our mums and we were sworn to secrecy as we left each visit with a Cadbury’s chocolate animal bar for the journey home. I know whenever I see this chocolate bar I always smile thinking back to my childhood, not to mention the vast consumption of orange and lemon barley squash which was a firm favourite of all the grandkids.
Aside from food, another recollection of Grandma was teaching us Kaluki and the endless hours of card games and Rummikub we played. She was fiercely competitive and in her later years still proved incredibly hard to beat.
Other memories include:
· Playing for hours in our grandparents’ big garden in St.Albans and picking home grown tomatoes to eat for lunch and berries & apples which Grandma would then expertly whip up into a delicious pie.
· As a special treat, visits to the waffle house in St Albans and trips to Clarence Park to feed the ducks.
· Grandma picking us up from school in her red Nissan. As we have heard in the last few days, Grandma never took a driving test and she says licenses were just dished out during the war – and you could definitely tell from her driving.Something clearly and unfortunately inherited by all her children!
· Once they moved to Stanmore, going for walks on Bentley Priory with Grandma to see all the deers and other animals.
· Her incredible comic bluntness and timing as Grandma would often rub several of our tummies asking if we had put on a pound or two? (probably from eating too much of her baking).
· And when Joe had long hair, Grandma threatening to take a pair of lawn trimmers from Grandpa’s shed for a trim.
And some more personal memories I have myself- I was very fortunate to spend lots of time with both Grandma (and of course Grandpa) growing up visiting in St Albans.
Grandma was ahead of her time being in essence a ‘working mum’, something less common all those years ago.
Being the eldest granddaughter (with six boys sandwiched around me before all the girls arrived) meant as a young girl I remember rummaging through Grandma’s jewellery boxes, trying on her pearls, her shoes, Grandma teaching me to knit, her making me very fashionable snood scarves for school, and of course as I hit my young teens, our countless visits to Brent Cross shopping together, Grandma happily traipsing around after me with all the bags and lending her fashion advice from her days working at Betty’s. It was never a problem if I had set my heart on something and it didn’t quite fit or was too long or baggy, because as soon as we got home and Grandma set her tailoring skills to them, and they would be perfect.Grandma was always full of energy and had a sense of fun even with four children and twelve grandchildren in tow.
In fact when I was heavily pregnant my mum kept reminding me that if Grandma could give birth to twins with no drugs and have the greatest surprise, or possibly shock, that when one baby appeared they said that there was another one coming, then having one baby would be a piece of cake.
I was reflecting on how Grandma was ahead of her time being in essence a ‘working mum’, something less common all those years ago. We have heard over the last few days how she jointly ran the businesses, partnering Grandpa, yet still managed to run the whole household and bring up and mother her four children. I realise, now being back at work myself with just one young daughter Amelia, what an achievement this was and my admiration for her to juggle this and seemingly always being so supportive and genuinely being there for anyone when they needed her.
Everyone has said family was important to Grandma and it really embodied what she was about. It is a real testament to her that this is reflected in the strength and closeness of our family today. Nevertheless, I know as I attempt to work yet still raise my family in the future as Grandma did herself, I have a true role model to aspire to.