Grandmother's Stories Live In Woman's Writing

July 10, 1991|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

HAMPSTEAD — A century ago, a teen-age orphan named Dorothea Schmidt worked hard leading oxen and keeping house for a family that rewarded her with little more than moldy bread, thick milk and potatoes.

Today, her namesake and granddaughter, Dorothea A. Gross, 74, is comfortably retired in her brick farmhouse off Lees Mill Road south of here, surrounded by 250 acres of fertile fields she leases out to another family to farm.

But all the stories she had heard from her grandmother and then her mother still live with her, preserved in two small books Gross wrote and had published at her own expense by a vanity press -- a publishing house that will print anyone's book as long as they're willing to pay for it.

"Recollections of My Immigrant Grandmother" is aboutDorothea Kress Schmidt, Gross' grandmother.

Gross paid $6,000 to have 300 copies printed by Carlton Press Inc. in 1988, after she saw its ad in a writer's magazine.

"The ad just said, 'Would you like to have your book printed?' " Gross said of the New York-based Carlton Press.

"I wanted to do it," Gross said, even though the price was high. "I thought my grandmother deserves that much."

Then she decided to edit and publish her mother's memoirs, but found a more reasonable price at the Opera House Printing Co. in Westminster, across East Main Street from the Mawlsby Building, which Gross owns.

"Ragtime Ganny: Memoirs of Amelia S. Herrmann," is about Gross' mother, who died in 1986 at the age of 91.

Gross paid $1,500 for 100 copies of that book in 1989.

"Ganny" was the nickname Herrmann's grandchildren had given her. The "Ragtime" part was added by a daughter-in-law who loved to hear Herrmann play piano. Herrmann had played since she was 5, including a paid position in a movie house.

Gross laughs off the thought of calling herself a writer, despite the two published books. The unpretentious writing style is chatty and informal, described by one reviewer as more like an oral history.

Gross said both printing houses put out her books exactly as she wrote them, without making any changes or deletions.

Publishing the books was more achance to preserve family stories and remain active than it was any attempt at a career as an author, Gross said.

"After my husband died, I had so much time," said Gross, whose husband, Charles, died just a month after he retired from his teaching career in 1978. "I got into lots of things -- ceramics, painting. I started reading some of the things my mother had written down."

Using both her mother's andgrandmother's rich stories, Gross started out in the early 1980s putting them to paper. She audited a few evening writing classes at Western Maryland College and pounded out her heritage on an electric Smith-Corona in a sunny room overlooking the fruit trees and grape arborsin her backyard.

The resulting stories are pleasing and homey andread as if your grandmother was telling you a story as she went about her baking or needlework. The tone reflects Gross' own easy, friendly manner.

Dorothea Schmidt, Herrmann's mother, immigrated to the United States at 19. Although her plans were to go on to Pittsburgh after docking at Fells Point, she accepted a job offer to care for a family in Highlandtown.

The book includes her hard childhood in Germany, where as an orphan she was raised by friends of the family and had to work hard in fields and kitchens even before going to school.

"Ragtime Ganny" is essentially about Herrmann's childhood and teenyears, and stops just as she accepts a sweet marriage proposal from Fred Herrmann.

Both books include vignettes of the two women's lives, as well as descriptions of Baltimore -- especially Highlandtown -- around the turn of the century through the 1920s.

"People tell me I should write about my own life," Gross said. She has started working on her own story and plans to incorporate descriptions and pictures of the many places she and her husband visited around the world.

"If I get it done, I would do it at the Opera House," Gross said. "I think it would be nice for my grandchildren. I was thinking my grandchildren could sell it after I'm gone."

But Gross never expected to make money off her books -- and she hasn't. She has received a total of about $500 for both books.

"I give a lot of them as gifts," Gross said. A few have been bought by libraries and such bookstores as Locust Books in Westminster.

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