Photo: Marje Jacobson with her first book, Grandma’s Birthday Balloon.
Marje Jacobson didn’t intend to write a book when she sat down at the computer to share a story of the playful antics of a birthday balloon; she mainly wanted to keep herself occupied and thinking about good things, rather than bad things, during the pandemic.
“I thought, well, this will be something that I can write a story about and give to my grandchildren and since they’re already grown and maybe they’ll save it for my great-grandchildren – whom they are taking their time producing!” jokes Marje.
Her family had a big celebration in California planned for her 80th birthday, and with COVID-19 they had to cancel the festivities. So two of Marje’s friends came over, hung balloons outside and left candy and flowers on her doorstep. When she went out the next day, the balloons were all tangled up. When Marje went to untangle them, one flew away and she caught the other one and brought it inside. “Then the balloon started to take on a life of its own,” says Marje. “All of the things that it did (in the book) were true up until the very end, which I changed a little.”
In her story, a birthday balloon given by friends helps a grandmother cope with COVID-19 and being isolated. The message is simple: if you have friends and family and a little faith in the unknown, you’ll never be truly alone.
After she finished the story, she thought. “Other people have published; what would happen if I tried to publish my story?” She knew she would need an illustrator, so Marje approached her eldest grandson, who is an architect, and “does all kinds of amazing things” to see if he would like to illustrate the book, but he was too busy. So she then asked her friend’s grandson, Youki Imori, who had just graduated with an art degree, and he agreed.
“He came over and he took pictures of my apartment and me, and I gave him pictures of my friends who are in the book, and then I gave him the layout,” says Marje. After reaching out to a couple of publishing companies and receiving offers, Marje decided to go with Dorrance Publishing Company and the children’s book Grandma’s Birthday Balloon was released in 2020.
Marje admits to learning a lot about publishing from this project and has an idea for another children’s book. She has also taken up watercolor painting, and she jokes that perhaps she could even illustrate her next book. She likes to constantly try new things and challenge herself.
“I have more time alone, and I’m a people person. I do Zoom and that kind of stuff, but it’s not the same as being with live people,” Says Marje. “So I have to keep myself occupied in a positive manner because I don’t want to sit here moaning and groaning because I’m old and achy.”
Marje took early retirement in 1998, and she had been in education her entire professional career teaching everything from preschool to adult education.
She was the administrative assistant at Portland Jewish Academy when it was known as Hillel Academy, before the merger with the Jewish Education Association.
“While I was there, I also taught Jewish Home Ec, with a portable burner and a roasting pan – that was really a kick,” she remembers. “I also went down to cook for their outdoor school.”
After leaving PJA, she went to public education, where she taught at Jefferson High School. After she retired, both her mother and husband became ill, and she took care of them. “Since then, I’ve been doing volunteer stuff, but I’ve not worked,” says Marje. “I substituted for a while, but mainly I’ve been too busy to work.”
Marje’s most extensive volunteer effort is connected with her synagogue, Congregation Shaarie Torah. Every year since 1961 (except for last year because of the pandemic), she has been making hamantashen with the Sisterhood, a fundraiser that started in the 1950s.
Everything from the fillings to the dough is handmade by volunteers that come from all over Portland. In the first year of the project, 100 dozen were sold. In 2019, they sold more than 2,500 dozen. That’s more than 30,000 cookies made in 12 days!
This year they will return to baking with special protocols in place. Instead of everyone working in the kitchen together, they will be spaced out in the social hall. People will also have to pick up their orders at the door instead of coming in and socializing.
One of Marje’s favorite memories is when she would teach the preschoolers who would come in to help. When her children were young, her father made kid-sized rolling pins, which are still used today by the children volunteers.
“It’s amazing and the best part about it? It’s not only keeping alive a tradition, but it’s multi-generational,” says Marje. “Kids who started are now adults and have kids of their own and in some cases grandkids. So they’re all coming in to help us. It’s a wonderful project.”