His brother Michael’s suicide led Rabbi Danny Syme to work toward suicide prevention

Click on this image to learn more about the documentary Rabbi Syme helped to produce in 2016, called Death Is Not the Answer.

Detroiter Michael Syme was a brilliant musician.  He taught himself to play 20 instruments.  He read in an ad that Frank Zappa was looking for a flutist, borrowed a flute and played so well he was noted in a Detroit Free Press review.    He played guitar with John Lennon.  Was a guitarist with Chairman of the Board.

Wanting to be a concert pianist like his older brother David, Michael borrowed a violin, taught himself to play and, at 20, won a full scholarship to a music academy in the South.  But he  became “disenchanted,” says his brother Danny, and dropped out   He moved to Little Rock to play the fiddle with a country western band as a fiddler.

To hear Michael play, big brother Danny, then a suit-wearing rabbi, attended a performance at a “dive bar” in Little Rock.  The band’s guitarist broke a string and stopped to fix it.  To fill the time, Michael played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.  “The audience went crazy,” Danny recalls.

A love of music ran in the family.  The boys’ father, Monte, was a cantor at 13; mother Sonia played piano and accompanied Monte in high school.   Danny loved music, too, but fate took him in a different direction.  At 20, he had testicular cancer and wasn’t expected to survive.  When the tumor proved contained and was successfully removed, one of his surgeons said to him, “God saved you for a reason.  In my opinion, you should become a rabbi.”

Though his father was a rabbi for a prominent Detroit congregation, Danny hadn’t wanted to follow in his dad’s hallowed footsteps.   But he found himself saying, “Then I will.”  He applied to rabbinical school and became a rabbi at 26.

At 21, Michael broke up with his girlfriend and moved back to Detroit.  Danny, then a young rabbi in New York, returned to the D to visit.  Michael said to him, “I’m coming back to Detroit to get my head together.”

“That sounds like a mature move,” Danny said.

Michael added, “I’ve never felt worse.”

That day Michael had visited a psychotherapist he’d seen before.  That night, when Michael’s parents returned from services, they found their son dead in the garage, asphyxiated in their car.

“I’d just thought he was looking for attention,” Danny says.  “No one talked about suicide in those days.”  But not taking his brother’s last words more seriously proved “a mistake I’ve never forgiven myself for in 45 years”.

Ever since, Danny has devoted himself to suicide prevention.  He often speaks to youth groups about the need to get help for depressed teens.  “In most cases, kids tell someone they’re in pain and just want the pain to stop.  They usually confide in a friend, almost never a parent or teacher or clergy member.  They swear their friend to secrecy. That friend is usually torn between wanting to help and honoring their vow of silence.”

Danny quotes the Talmud (the body of Jewish law), “for one who saves a single soul, it is  as though they’ve saved the whole world.”

Danny started Reach for Hope, a 3-day program that trains people in techniques for intervening in suicide ideation.  Under the umbrella of Reach for Hope at JFS (Jewish Family Service), Danny’s recent session was the most diverse yet, attended, among others, by 2 psychologists who work with the LGBTQ community.  Danny cites an almost 100% risk of suicide attempts by those who’ve had transgender surgery.  He also says the 2nd leading cause of death among people 10-24 is suicide (the first: car accidents).

Common denominators: depression, chemical imbalance, dysfunctional families.  Someone in the US commits suicide every 13 minutes, he says, including 20 vets a day.

A problem with depressed youth: Most hospitals won’t treat people under 18.  In those cases, he recommends sending a kid to a clinic that prescribes medicine.

Danny says, when dealing with a depressed relative, families are advised “means limitation.”  Locking up pills or guns that might be used “until equilibrium is restored.”   The time in which someone decides to attempt suicide and carries it out: “usually under 10 minutes.”  Danny adds someone with a gun in their house is twice as likely to die by suicide as someone without available pills or weapons.

Reach for Hope training in Detroit is led by Gigi Colombini, a “brilliant clinician” who’s focused her practice on suicide for almost 30 years.  She started the Institute of Hope & Human Flourishing in Birmingham, MI.

In retrospect, what should Danny have done about his brother’s confession 45 years ago?

Having spent most of his adult life asking himself that question, he responds, “I should have called  his therapist and taken him to the hospital.”

For others who hear an admission such as Michael’s, Danny advises the same.   Although their friend might be angry with them, “Underneath they desperately hope someone will care enough to get them help.  They may be angry at first.  Ultimately they’ll be grateful, relieved to know someone is listening.”

Danny doesn’t know how many suicides his efforts have helped prevent.  He only knows one thing: “People say if my brother was determined to end his life, he would have no matter what I did.   But that’s an intellectual, not emotional, argument.  For me, every time I intervene in a teenager’s ideation, it’s as if I’m saving my brother.”

Statistically, Danny says, someone in the U.S. dies by suicide every 11.8 minutes.  “And that doesn’t include so called accidents like falling off a roof or dying in a car crash.”

My favorite Jewish prayer begins, “Grant us peace, your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth.”

Thanks for the insight, Danny, and for all the souls you’ve helped save.   May God grant you, and all of us, that most precious gift.

A very Detroit story of rebirth, recovery and romance

Affliction comes to us, not to make us sad, but sober—not to make us sorry, but wise.”
Henry Ward Beecher 

My friend Gretchen Ruff has welcomed a beau into her life as gracefully as she’s incorporated his many collectibles.  Gretchen’s home on Hammond Lake, bought in ’93 with her late husband Frank, is filled with Dale’s art deco statuary, old toys, maps, lighting, coin and stamp albums, photos, 2000 books, American and Chinese antiques and even a monstrance (communion host receptacle).  Dale was raised Catholic.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy…

Thanks to Diego Rivera, and Match.com, the twosome met.  Gretchen’s entry included her photo in front of the Detroit Art Institute’s famous “Detroit Industry” mural.  Dale’s a fan of Rivera’s work.  The picture, and Gretchen’s reduced age, caught Dale’s eye. Reduced age? Well, more about that later.

The couple  met during a snowstorm in January ’16. From then on, if they weren’t together, Dale called Gretchen nightly at 9:30.  They discovered many commonalities.  Both considered T.S. Eliot their favorite poet.  Both enjoyed the symphony and other arts.  Both were caught up in the ’67 Detroit riots.  Both had been affected by alcoholism.  Both loved travel.   A year and a half later, Dale and his umpteen collectibles moved in to Gretchen’s striking house in W. Bloomfield, MI, on Hammond Lake.

Dale was a lawyer, known for successfully litigating asbestos cases.  Of Irish background, he inherited a fondness for drink.  Alcoholism ended his career.  It almost ended his life.  Recently divorced, he’d been on and off the wagon for years.  A car accident in 2011—so bad he doesn’t remember it—rendered him unconscious, comatose over a month.  He fractured 45 bones, broke his neck in 3 places and suffered brain damage requiring 2 years of retraining in Ann Arbor.  He resigned from the law firm in which he was a partner and lost his driver’s license for a year.

As part of Dale’s probation, he needed to reside in the county where he’d been ticketed.  He lived in a trailer in Wixom, MI, and relied on AA friends to drive him to and from countless medical appointments and AA meetings.  For 4 months, he lived in a locked-down treatment facility.  An insurance company refused to pay on a policy because of the alcohol level he registered at the accident.  He wasn’t able to travel to Canada where he was from.

Recovery took more than 2 years.  After many months of “rigorous” PT, OT and speech training, Dale has recovered most of his brain and body function.  Residual effects from his injuries continue to decline.  This past September marked his 8th anniversary of sobriety.  In October he completed the 5 year probation required to be able to cross the Canadian border.  Because his parents were from Nova Scotia, he was born with dual citizenship.  He looks forward to returning to Nova Scotia soon.  His “plenty pissed off” family is back in his life.

Despite recovering what he deems 85% of his faculties, Dale recognizes the price he paid.  As he says, “It was an extremely difficult chapter.”

Gretchen says, “Dale made a choice to live.  He fought to get his skills back.  He finally made a series of good judgments.”  After 4 years of recovery, Dale met Gretchen.  Having been married twice before, for a total of 49 years, Gretchen views Dale as her 3rd husband, though the couple has no plans to marry.  Dale says, “I’ve felt married since the day I moved in.”

While Dale was recovering, Gretchen, who hadn’t yet met him, suffered challenges of her own.  Gretchen’s corporate career spanned 43 years.  She started with the legendary JL Hudson Co. (where we first got to be pals).  She became Director of Events and Publicity for then 27 Hudson’s stores.  She next held senior VP positions at 3 ad agencies for the Big Three  (GM, Ford & Chrysler to non-Detroiters) until she retired in ’07.  In post-retirement, she was a personal shopper and brand ambassador for Brunello Cucinelli, one of the top 2 luxury brands carried by Saks Fifth Ave.

Gretchen’s first marriage to Greg Snow lasted 28 years.  His alcoholism contributed to their eventual divorce.  She started attending Alanon meetings 10 years before the divorce, “mostly as a support system but also to address and take responsibility for my co-dependency.”  She‘s been meeting with an Alanon based support group for 35 years.  She and Dale “revere” the 12 Step program.

Gretchen had been married to 2nd husband Frank Ruff for 21 years when he died after a 7- year battle with Nuclear Parkinson’s and dementia.  Gretchen was Frank’s primary care giver.

A few months after Frank died, Gretchen joined some friends for a ski week in Keystone, CO.  Though a good skier, she slipped on a patch of black ice, ran into an Aspen tree and shattered her pelvis, resulting in 44 fractures.  She ended up at a rehab facility in Denver where it was decided she should (and did) heal without surgery.

“Away from family or friends, incapacitated and in hellish pain,” Gretchen says, “I had my own come to Jesus moment.  I recognized how alone I was.  I decided I had not only the de)sire but the courage to do something about it.”

She resolved to try online dating.  Several male friends advised her to deduct 10 years from her age, admitting to 63, not 73, “or all I’d get was calls from men in their 80s.”  (Personal testimony: Gretchen’s always looked, thought and acted young.)  Her photo in front of the Rivera mural caught Dale’s eye.  He was looking for a gal with taste and intelligence.  If Gretchen was a museum goer, she might be that gal.  He called.   They went for coffee and talked for hours.

18 months later, Dale moved into Gretchen’s home—she now calls it “our” home.  They still talk for hours, in mornings over coffee.  They’ll have been together for 4 years in January, 2020.

Buying tickets for a trip to Paris in 2016, Dale asked Gretchen for her passport.  “That’s going to require another cup of coffee,” she said, preparing to hand over the evidence of her chronological fabrication. Gretchen’s 6 years older than Dale.

“I just laughed,” Dale says.  “By then I didn’t care.”

Paris proved a dream trip.

They happened upon a private concert at Sainte Chapelle, commissioned by Louis IX.  Violinist Paul Rouger was playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”  Gretchen says, “There was something about being there together, with the sun setting outside the stained glass, that struck both of us as meaning things between us would work out, that we were in a thin space.”

(A thin space is a place or experience in which heaven and earth seem more closely connected and God’s presence is keenly felt.   NYT columnist Eric Weiner writes, “The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places like the windswept isle of Iona /now part of Scotland/ or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick.  Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”)

Before her mother died in 2012, Gretchen had asked how she’d know her mom was looking out for her after she’d passed away.  Her mother told her feathers were a sign of new growth. Look for feathers, she’d said.   While in Paris, Gretchen sought a strategically placed feather to signal her mom’s approval of her new relationship with Dale.  She never found one.

But on their return: a Godsign.  Gretchen says, “When we got home, right in front of the door to our house, I found this.”  She picked up a cup containing several feathers and pulled out a delicate cream colored feather.

Gretchen wanted to give Dale a piece of jewelry to commemorate his 5th anniversary of sobriety.  Dale agreed to Claddaghs, matching Irish rings, if he could design them.  He collaborated with Gretchen’s nephew by marriage, Jacob Snow, who makes fine jewelry in the Celtic tradition.  They chose symbols from the Book of Kells.  Gretchen and Dale’s beautiful gold bands incorporate a Celtic cross, angel wings and a Chi Rho, the Greek symbol for Christ.  Chi, the first letter in the Greek word for Christ, is depicted as an X.  Hence, the abbreviation Xmas.  (Love the things I learn through this column.)

An active member of AA, Dale does not drink.  Gretchen drinks socially.  Both swim and sail every day Mother Nature permits.  Gretchen prefers to paddleboard.  Dale circles the lake twice by kayak.

Both are grateful to have been given another chance at life and love.  Thanks, Gretchen and Dale, for sharing your stories of hope and healing.  May you continue to feather your nest.

How I learned the unexpected benefit of not belonging

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place… The price is high.  The reward is great…”  Maya Angelou

As a girl, I attended Washington School in Royal Oak, a northwest suburb of Detroit.  When old enough to cross Woodward (a main thoroughfare), I rode my bike to school.  Public school was a happy academic and social experience.

In 6th grade, a girl I will call Carolyn was a favorite friend.  My mother considered Carolyn “fast.”  When Carolyn went on to our local public junior high school, Mom decided to distance me from her influence.   I tested for, and was accepted by, Kingswood School Cranbrook.  My across-the-street neighbor and pal, Bobbye, had attended Brookside, the elementary school that was part of the Cranbrook system.

How hard could it be?

I learned.  The toughest part of the switch was social.  Finding your footing as a young teen already dealing with hormones and mood swings is a hazardous experience.  A new environment makes it more so.  Girls who’d been to Brookside, the private elementary school that fed into Kingswood, already had friendships.  Bobbye seemed to me a solid member of the cool clique.  As an athlete—good at field hockey and tennis—she had an extra advantage.  And her older sister Kay at Kingswood helped pave the way.

Though we’d remain friends for life, Bobbye had an edge.  She was busy with other friends and boyfriends.  I was an outsider.  Though I didn’t  admit it to her (and tried not to admit it to myself), it hurt to hear my old friend talk about some gathering to which I hadn’t been invited.  It hurt when the Cranbrook mail (correspondence from the boys school) arrived and Bobbye had a letter when I didn’t.  When photos of Cranbrook events showed up in the Kingswood store (yes, we had a sundries store on the lower level and our own checkbooks), and I wasn’t in them.  And later, at the U of M, when Bobbye was invited to join AEPhi.   I preferred, and joined, SDT, the house known for brainier girls (most brainier than I, btw).  But I’d have liked to be asked.

The plus of attending private school was discovering I was a writer and photographer.  My English teachers, especially Miss Waldo and Miss Bennett, were amazing.  The yearbook my freshman year featured my essay about our dog, a mutt named Mickey.   In my senior year, I was the photo editor of that yearbook, The Woodwinds.

It wasn’t until I grew up that I appreciated the value in being an outsider.   It helped me become a truth teller—essential for a career in journalism and memoir writing.  Outsider status broadened my horizons. I could become friends with people who had virtues other than being cool.  It gave me permission to marry another outsider, a guy without social or academic or monetary credentials.  But a guy with a great heart and work ethic who developed his own credentials.

I willed myself to become an extrovert and to develop social courage.  With connections I made as a journalist, I got to know wives of auto execs (queens of the social ladder in the D).  Burton and I gained entrée to events we couldn’t have afforded.  My husband’s hard work and street smarts paid off.   As an adult, I no longer worried about being, or not being, cool.

Author/scholar/ journalist David Brooks refers to an “annunciation moment,” meaning a pivotal choice or time in one’s life that leads to future choices and opportunities.  Kingswood represented an annunciation period that led to the adult I’ve become.  Throughout our married life, I’ve sought out and made a variety of friends.  Some remain friends and have been attentive during Burton’s—hence our—recent health trials.  Not belonging to a clique meant not always knowing whose aunt was sick or whose kid won which baseball game.  But the diversity of relationships we’ve established has been worth the price.

What started me thinking about this was a recent visit to granddaughter Alexis’ new private school, Lake Forest Academy in IL. The campus stretches out over several acres with multiple buildings in a landscaped setting similar to Cranbrook’s, though Cranbrook is one of a kind.  Unlike her grandmother, Alexis, a sophomore, is an athlete.  I trust that eases her transition.  I’ve always admired her comfort level with people of different ages and backgrounds.

When we built our house in Franklin, MI, I incorporated a line of poetry on the clerestory windows in our kitchen.  Five windows overlooking the ravine behind our house bear a phrase from one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Taken.”  The line appears etched in glass, though the letters are made from acrylic.  It reads:

Two roads
diverged
in a
yellow
wood…

I’ve tried to photograph the windows in daylight and at night.  The photo never works.  And the woods behind our house turned out to be filled with sugar maples that redden rather than yellow in the fall.  I love those windows nonetheless.  They remind me of the choices I’ve made—mostly good ones.  And the privilege of getting to be a human on this planet, capable of making choices, for a while.

…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
.

 

Yolie and Gerry Mauriz love America but appreciate their Cuban heritage

BEFORE THEY HAD TO FLEE CUBA, Loly (Delores) and Gerry Mauriz pose happily in front of their family home in Havana, which later was seized by the government and now is a hotel.

We’re blessed with good friends at Laurel Oak CC in Sarasota, FL.  Among them, Yolie and Gerry Mauriz, both of Cuban descent.  Their stories are a reminder of how one man can change history.  And peoples’ lives.

Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959. “We were used to changes in government,” Yolie says.  “Initially Castro was considered just another phase that would pass.”

Gerry’s Story

Gerry, then 9, and his family lived in the Havana 5th Avenue mansion, Villa Eulalia.  The home belonged to his grandfather, Gabriel Palmer Bestard, who owned shipyards, ships, a fishing fleet and dredging barges. Bestard arrived, alone, in Cuba in 1904 at 15, from Spain.   He went through many trials before starting his business. He ultimately employed thousands. As a result, Bestard’s businesses and bank accounts were among the first to be confiscated. (You’ll find more of his dramatic story at the end of this column.)

Gerry remembers being “terrified by Castro’s people,” especially when a bomb blew up in a neighbor’s garbage can.

In 1960, Gerry, his parents, grandmother and sister left for Miami as tourists. They were accepted in the US with indefinite voluntary departure status. “We arrived broke,” he says.  “Even so, we were ecstatic to feel free and unafraid.”

Gerry’s dad had contacts with NY-based shipping magnate Malcolm McLean, who originated container ships. McLean put Gerry’s father in charge of his refrigerated cargo division in NJ. Most of Gerry’s father’s family stayed behind in Cuba, thinking they could “correct what was clearly a mistake.” 6 months later, many of Gerry’s uncles and aunts arrived in Miami.

Gerry explains Castro’s rise this way: He first destroyed Batista’s army, executing officers after mock trials. He then attacked the wealthy, promoting socialist/communist ideals, accusing the wealthy of graft and corruption. Next he demanded allegiance from the masses.

Gerry says, “In a few short years, the government took over all businesses, down to gas stations and bakeries, and destroyed any means of opposition.” Gerry’s anti-Castro uncle, Atanasio (Cuco) Palmer, was imprisoned and tortured at the infamous La Cabaña, which housed a dank centuries-old Spanish dungeon run by Che Guevara. Daily, Cuco was taken outside and stood by a wall before a firing squad. Though the bullets shot at him were blanks, the experience so affected his health he died soon after. (Today, La Cabana is a tourist attraction with live bands and a full bar at the very wall where Cuco stood. Villa Eulalia is now a swank hotel.)

THE DAY BEFORE YOLIE’s FAMILY LEFT THE COUNTRY,, they posed for a final photo in Cuba on August 4, 1962. Yolie’s cousin Silvia and her parents are on the left; Yolie and her parents are on the right. The boy in front of Yolie is her little brother Emet, who arrived in the U.S. later with Yolie’s parents aboard a Red Cross ship.

Yolie’s Story

Yolie, 8, lived in Varadero Beach, about 2 hours east of Havana.  Her dad, Emeterio, had a successful architectural practice and occasionally worked for the county. Yolie attended a private Presbyterian school, La Progressiva, where her mother and great aunt had both taught.  Her school was taken over by the government and pro-Castro teachers brought in. Yolie soon realized when her teacher called on her, whatever she said was “wrong unless it was an ‘approved’ answer.”  Yolie’s parents took her out of school; she was tutored by her aunt. Her mom was threatened with revoking Yolie’s food ration card unless Yolie returned to school.

Castro began separating children from parents and sending them to “educational” camps in the country. Yolie’s family, especially her father who’d attended university with Castro, understood the danger of staying in Cuba .

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April, 1961, “everything changed,” Yolie says.  A CIA-trained force of 2500 Cuban exiles, the 2506 Brigade, invaded Cuba from the south at Bay of Pigs. A CIA-sponsored anti-Castro faction within Cuba was ready to fight, backed by promises from JFK of  military support once the beachhead was established. The invaders planned 3 airstrikes using B26 WWII bombers. The first attack destroyed 1/3 of Castro’s air force.  JFK stopped the next 2 planned airstrikes.  As American warships sat just outside Cuban waters, the anti-Castro forces ran out of supplies. Without promised US support, Yolie says, “the invasion was doomed.”

Yolie remembers opening the door for soldiers who searched her house seeking 2 of her uncles. They found them elsewhere and threw them into a Spanish dungeon in Matanzas. Like Gerry’s uncle, her dad’s brother was taken out repeatedly, stood against a wall, and shot at with what turned out to be blanks.

In July, 1962, Yolie’s parents learned their daughter and her cousin Silvia could obtain visas to leave.  Her cousin’s father remained in jail. Yolie, 9½, and Silvia were sent to the US on what became known as the Peter Pan Migration of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors. The concept was begun by a Catholic priest in the US; other American churches joined in. 2 months later, after the Cuban Missile crisis, the Castro regime shut down the program.

Yolie lived briefly with relatives in Miami, then went to the home of her mother’s sister, Bertica, in Chicago. She knew some English from reading  Dick & Jane books. Silvia went to a way house organized by Cuban exiles in Miami and to 2 foster families before being claimed by Yolie’s family.  “We didn’t know if we’d ever see our parents again,” Yolie says.

In March, ’63, the US sent 2 Red Cross ships to Havana with medical supplies—ransom, Yolie says, for freeing captured invaders. To obtain housing for Russian immigrants, Castro returned the ships filled with refugees, including Yolie’s mom and dad and Yolie’s brother Emet. “Fortunately,” Yolie says, “there was little time to check credentials. As a ‘professional,’ my dad wouldn’t have been allowed to leave.”

Yolie’s family arrived in Miami “with just the clothes on their backs, empty suitcases and no money.” Again relying on faith-based contacts, Yolie’s father was hired by the National Board of Missions for the Presbyterian Church in NYC. He designed churches for the rest of his life. The First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, NJ, adopted the family and provided them with essentials, including housing. Her grateful mom became a full-time volunteer for the church.

Gerry and Yolie are in the center of this 2019 family photo from a vacation they enjoyed together.

Yolie and Gerry Meet

As the only Cuban families in Springfield, Yolie and Gerry’s parents met. Yolie and Gerry met later, as teens.  Yolie became a microbiologist; Gerry, a worldwide surety director for a large insurance company.  The high school sweethearts married in ’75 and have 2 adult sons.

Yolie’s become a birder, having spotted and identified 400+ species.  Both enjoy golf and photography.

Their attitude toward immigration?  Gerry says, “Billions of people around the world want to come to the US.  We’re a nation of immigrants.  We should continue welcoming immigrants, but there have to be reasonable rules and procedures.  When we arrived, we didn’t ask for free medical care or food.  My dad did whatever it took to take care of us.  All we wanted was opportunity.”

Would they return to Cuba?

No.

Yolie says, “It doesn’t take much to change the course of a nation.  Castro promised equality, but except for the elite in the armed forces and government, Cubans got equal misery.  He promised freedom but gave us oppression and subservience.”

Gerry says, “We don’t want to provide tourist dollars to the Cuban government—an important source of revenue.”

Americans should learn from the Cuban story, Gerry says.  “Know and understand your rights.  Protect them.  Don’t be swayed by rosy promises.  If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  No one but you will protect your family.”

Thanks, Yolie and Gerry, for reminding us how lucky we are.  As imperfect as this nation may be, I stand, cover my heart and tear up whenever I hear “The Star Spangled Banner.”  I can’t say it often enough: God bless America.

WHEN THEIR HAVANA SHIPYARDS WERE IN THEIR PRIME, Gerry’s grandfather stands at left and his brother Bartolo is at right.

Gerry’s Grandfather’s Story

Gerry’s “rags to riches” story of Gabriel Palmer Bestard, his grandfather, was so fascinating I’m including it…

Gabriel Palmer Bestard arrived in Cuba from Estellencs, Majorca, Spain, at age 15 in 1904.  In Spain he finished 5th grade and was then trained to build ships as a “Carpintero de Rivera.”  In Cuba, he did many jobs to survive, including one which required wading in waist deep dirty water for 16-17 hours a day.  He was hospitalized for a leg infection.  When the doctor planned to amputate, Gabriel waited until night and escaped out a window.

After he married, Gabriel worked odd jobs during the day.  At night he built boats on the roof of the building where he lived.  The landlord threw him out.

He met a wealthy man who saw Gabriel’s potential and helped him go into business.  Around 1919, he was able to buy the land along Havana Harbor.  The shipyard he started grew to be the largest in Cuba.  Over the years, he expanded into dredging, a fishing fleet, tugboats, real estate and a small distillery.

In the 1930s, a hurricane threw a large ship ashore in Cardenas.  US and French salvage companies declared the ship beyond saving.  Gabriel approached the insurance company with a price, offering to fix the ship.  If he failed, he said, the insurance company wouldn’t pay him anything.   Using his dredges and tugboats, he dug a channel to the ship.  At high tide when the channel filled, he pulled the ship out.  “A huge financial success,” Gerry says. In the early 1930s, the Cuban government refused to pay its external debt.  Gabriel bought large amounts of Cuban bonds for pennies on the dollar.  When the government eventually paid the debt, he made another fortune.

Gabriel returned to his small hometown in Spain every 2 or 3 years.   Each time he implemented some major project, including putting in a power plant and electrifying the town in the early 1930s.  “He was his town’s guardian angel,” Gerry says.  “He solved many problems.  To this day his name is revered in Estellencs.”

In Cuba, Gerry says, Gabriel took care of his workers, paying their medical bills when they were sick.  His wife Eulalia spent thousands of dollars sending toys and food to less fortunate families.  “My grandfather taught me to respect all people, no matter how humble their condition.”

Our sisters trip to New York City is filled with signs that the universe looks out for us

Our recent annual sisters trip to the Big Apple turned out to be a reminder that bad things can lead to good things.

Aka: Godsigns.

The lessons started when I left my handbag on the plane.  Duh.  Realized it in the LGA terminal ladies room. Raced back to the gate. Turned out I was happy to see 2 friends I hadn’t seen in a while, waiting for the return flight to the D. Happier still when the flight attendant marched out holding my bag.

Godsign #2. Because I forgot my purse, I didn’t get to the taxi line right away. A gal from my flight recognized my name on my carry on and introduced herself. Turned out Roz Blanck’s involved with JVS—the organization honoring me next spring. (April 22.  Save The Date.)  Roz and I shared a cab to the city and became fast friends.

Suzy and her sister Anne take an earlier hard-hat tour of what is now Hudson Yards.

Godsign #3.  Our cousin Howard Elkus was an architect for part of the new Neiman Marcus at Hudson Yards.  While it was under construction, on an earlier sisters trip, Anne and I took a hard hat tour of the space, arranged by Howard’s firm.  This year we headed to the new Neiman’s for lunch.  Sadly, Howard died before the store was finished, so Anne and I toasted to our cousin with our cups of consommé.  (5 o’clock rule on anything stronger than consommé.  Plus, we followed up lunch by walking the 1 and ½ mile High Line—a former elevated train track imaginatively and wonderfully transformed into a landscaped park.)

Godsigns by Suzy Farbman

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Godsign #4.  After lunch at Neiman’s, I spotted and bought a blazer featuring French expressions about the moon.  I’m a Moonatic.  The title of this blog and my book cover feature a full moon.  Since recovering from stage 4 cancer 15 years ago, I cherish each chance I get to view a full moon, still from the earth’s perspective.

Godsign #5.  Anne and I walked through the new mall at Hudson Yards.  I’m crazy about the fashion illustrations of Donald Robertson, aka Drawbertson.  The mall featured a Drawbertson mural, with words intended to express the mood of and serve as a photo backdrop for  shoppers.  Anne and I stood by “Epic” and got the best selfie of our trip.

Godsign #6.  Anne went a little overboard at Uniqlo.  (What else is new?)  She needed to ship purchases home.  I accompanied her to FedEx, but there was a line.  Stuck waiting, I Googled the Metropolitan Museum.  There were 2 must see shows at the Met.  One, a display of musical instruments by famous Rock & Roll performers.  (Anne adores music and sings well.  See Motown Fan Makes Her Broadway Debut 2013 column.)

Anne and I at the Met wearing our phases-of-the-moon scarves.

The other: an exhibit about the Apollo moon landing.  Not only did we relish both exhibits, but the museum shop had scarves featuring phases of the moon.  Guess who walked out with 2 of them.

Godsign #7.  We loved the musical “Hadestown,” a fresh take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  15 years ago, seeing the play “Metamorphosis” about the same theme reminded me of the need to trust in and be patient with my recovery.  The same message rang out in “Hadestown.”  With Burton’s current health challenge, the love song “Whichever Way the Wind Blows” was hazardous to my eyeliner.

Godsign #8.  We forgot to make a dinner reservation before seeing Jeff Daniels in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”  (Fabulous, btw.)  Our favorite pre-theater restaurants (Orso, Joe Allen, Milos) were full.  Concierge recommended Marseille.  A great new find with superb bouillabaisse.  With my food issues, je connais bouillabaisse.

Godsign #9.  I recently read The Flight Portfolio, a novel based on Varian Fry, a Harvard grad and journalist who ran a rescue network in Vichy, France, helping artists and intellectuals to escape Nazi Germany.  Fry lived in Marseille (Double Godsign.  See #8) and was the first of 5 Americans Israel later honored  as a Righteous Gentile for risking their lives to save endangered Europeans during the Holocaust.  As Anne and I walked back from Broadway, a couple of young men walked behind us, singing.  At a corner, I said, “Thanks for serenading us.”  One of them said he can’t sing (true) but does speak often in public, fundraising.  For what?  For an international rescue organization started by Albert Einstein.  “And Varian Fry,” I said.   Our serenader nearly fell over with astonishment.


A sisters trip filled with reminders that the universe looks out for us.  Especially when we pay attention.  We walked a lot, ate a lot, shopped a little, slept even less.   A great getaway.

I might even say: Epic.

T.S. Eliot and a friend named Sharon help Kansas City’s Mary Lou and Tom Brous write their own love story

Tom Brous reading from T.S. Eliot at Burnt Norton

While touring sites related to T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Mary Lou took this photo of Tom reading some of his poetry at Burnt Norton.

My friend Mary Lou is a quintessential survivor.  I’m  happy to see how gracefully she’s landed on her feet.   We met 30+ years ago at a tough time in her life. Our sons, Reed and Andy, were in a class at Cranbrook School, Bloomfield Hills, MI.  Mary Lou and I met at parents’ day; we bonded instantly.

Mary Lou came from Kansas City where she was a graphic artist and involved philanthropist.  She was married to a scion of a family of successful real estate developers.  She created stunning graphics for clients including the Nelson-Atkins Museum and the Junior League.  The cookbook she designed for the latter is in the Cookbook Hall of Fame.  (Cookbook Hall of Fame?  Who knew???)

Mary Lou’s then husband turned out to be a “dishonest” businessman (her tactful way of putting it).  He lured dozens of their good friends into dubious investments.

Godsign alert.  In 1987, newly aware of her husband’s travails, Mary Lou attended a lecture by Katherine and Michael McCoy at the Kansas City Art Institute.  The McCoys were then co-chairs of the renowned Design Department at the Cranbrook Art Academy.  Hearing them at what she calls “the darkest moment” of her life, she wished she’d been able to attend Cranbrook.

And then she thought: “Oh, my God.  Maybe I can.”

Mary Lou wanted her children to avoid the trauma of what became their father’s very public trial and  prison sentence. She moved to Michigan, with sons Brad and Reed, to enroll her boys at Cranbrook School.  She attended the Cranbrook Art Academy to obtain an MFA.  All received scholarships and lived in faculty housing. Later, she and her husband divorced.

After all 3 had graduated, Mary Lou moved to Chicago.  She was creative director for Arthur Anderson, which became Anderson Consulting/Accenture.  Though Mary Lou remained a single working gal in Chicago, she never lost her love for Kansas City.

Mary Lou and Tom Brous.

Mary Lou and Tom Brous.

Scene change.  10 years later, in Kansas City, well-loved Patty Brous died of lymphoma after a long battle.  Before she died, Patty asked her best friend Sharon Hoffman to “take care” of her husband, Tom.   Sharon was also friends with Mary Lou.  Wheels started turning.  After selling her house, Sharon suggested Mary Lou come for a last visit, and while in town, attend the Kansas City Art Institute Auction.  And by the way, would Mary Lou meet Tom’s daughter, Anna Brous, who’d moved to Chicago?  To help acclimate Anna to her new town, Mary Lou took her to lunch.

Unknown to Mary Lou or Tom, Sharon was executing her strategy.  She invited a few friends for “drinks in the kitchen” before the auction. She told Mary Lou who was coming, including Tom whose daughter Mary Lou had just met.  Mary Lou remembered him from high school.  He’d been a BMOC, 2 years ahead of her.  As she puts it, “We were all aware of the upperclassmen.  Tom was head of the senior class, voted Most Likely to Succeed.  An athlete.”

Mary Lou, Tom and I met for lunch several weeks ago.  She recalled Tom as “the fastest guy on the track team” in the citywide meet.  Tom said, “That means I came in 5th.”

Back to Sharon the Matchmaker’s kitchen.  As Mary Lou sipped pinot grigio, Tom walked in.  Mary Lou recalls, “I’d been single for 12 years.  I’d just met his daughter.  I wasn’t shy about walking up to him.  I gotta tell you sparks went off.”  The twosome talked all evening.

Tom, a corporate tax lawyer (now retired), was coming to Chicago the next week on business.  He took Mary Lou out for dinner, then asked for the next night.  When he came to Mary Lou’s apartment, he brought a book, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets inscribed with a note about what the poem meant to him.

Mary Lou said, “You’re not going to believe this.”  She led him to her reading chair.  Beside it: a stack of books including The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot.  One corner of one page was turned down; one passage highlighted in yellow.  It was from “Four Quartets.”  Mary Lou had read it many times.

“I said to my soul be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.  Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.  So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

Mary Lou says, “After being single for so long, the poem spoke to me.”

(Personal note: It speaks to me, too.  During Burton’s current health crisis, I’ve repeated the lines over and over, working to memorize them and accept the wisdom.)

The Godsigns continued.  That same night, on their 2nd date, Mary Lou had also inscribed a book to Tom.  She said, “I’m not in the habit of giving inscribed books to my dates.”

The book was CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed about the author’s loss of his wife.  Lewis and Eliot  were both intellectuals who worried about the aftermath of World War II.  Both were featured in Alan Jacobs’ influential The Year of Our Lord 1943, which argued that Lewis and Eliot were Christian Humanists.

Tom and Mary Lou married 4 months later in 2001.  I’m pleased to have attended their wedding.  During the service, they read from the “Four Quartets.”

“…We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Tom preparing to read at their wedding.

Tom’s an avid reader, especially of books about history.  His romance with Mary Lou rekindled his interest in Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”  For their 10th anniversary, the couple visited  the sites that inspired Eliot’s poems, 3 in England, 1 in Gloucester, MA.  Their favorite site was Burnt Norton near England’s Chipping Campden.  Burnt Norton was the title of and inspiration for the first of the “Quartets.”  The current owner of the Burnt Norton estate invited them to stroll the grounds.  They sat in the box circle mentioned in the poem and read from it.

Tom’s fascination with the poem and with Eliot’s interest in mysticism inspired him to write and publish a short book, Why Read Four Quartets? “Four Quartets” was composed between 1935 and 1942.  Eliot lived for 23 years after publication and lectured often but never published another significant poem.  Tom’s working on a sequel examining why.

T.S. Eliot is also known for The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  His body of work earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Thanks, Tom and Mary Lou, for reminding us of the wisdom of waiting.  And for sharing your own Lovesong.

Charlevoix artist Bill Staffel finds the perfect Up North resting place

Bill and Bonny Staffel as the family of artists heads onto the road in the '60s.

A LONG AND WINDING ROAD—Bonnie and Bill Staffel head out on a journey in the 1960s with their daughter and Marell and Skippy peeking out of the roof.

Cremation surpasses burial these days.  The National Funeral Directors Assoc. predicts it will reach 80% by 2035.  Survivors scatter ashes in ways that reflect the life of their loved one. Andrew Leith dipped moistened golf balls into stepfather Doug Leith’s ashes and hit the balls into Lake Huron, propelling Doug into eternity by means of one of his favorite activities (if you missed it, here’s a link to that column).

Marell Staffel of Charlevoix, MI, came up with another creative final resting place for her father, Bill.

Bill in Charlevoix.

Bill and Bonnie Staffel, Marell’s parents, were artists in Maumee, Ohio. In 1961, they entered an annual juried art fair in Charlevoix, MI. The Charlevoix Art Fair has grown significantly since that 3rd one.  On the 2nd Saturday in August, it now features about 120 artists and draws over 25,000 visitors to a picturesque park overlooking the harbor.

The Staffels, like many of us, were enchanted by the beauty of the area. They bought an old farmhouse in the country north of town and set up a pottery studio. In the late ’60s, when Burton and I began coming to Charlevoix, we visited Staffel’s Pottery. Today the home’s occupied by the Cycling Salamander Gallery.

When Bonnie and Bill first bought in Charlevoix, she spent summers in northern MI; Bill visited on weekends.  In Ohio, he held jobs designing plaster wall plaques, instructional diagrams, Halloween masks.  But his heart was in Charlevoix, and eventually he moved Up North full time, helping Bonnie to run her pottery business.

Marell and her daughters Heather and Shannon with Grampa, 1980

For Bonnie’s studio, Bill designed and built a lift with pulleys to move objects up and down for storage.  Bill also created a small door by which wood could be brought in for the fireplace.   Marell recalls, “Every kid got to ride on my father’s elevator and crawl through the little door.  My father loved kids and made everything fun for them.”

Children loved Bill, Marell says,  because “he really listened to them.”  In his later years, Bill received a letter from Brian, a  childhood friend of Marell.  Brian thanked Bill for teaching him so much.  He wrote, “You took the time to explain things.  You told me about the stars.”

Bill loved nature and animals and especially enjoyed watching deer play in the field behind his house.  He began building a shed near the pond behind their home.  Marell says her father only worked on the shed during the fall hunting season, hammering loudly to warn the deer to skedaddle.

Bill loved discards.  In the ‘60s, he wanted some spikes from the railroad bridge being torn down.  Marell, then a waitress at the Grey Gables, enlisted the help of Dave Phillips, a chef at the restaurant.  Bill and Dave filled the trunk of an “ancient” blue Ford Mustang with so many iron spikes that the car dragged on the ground.  Her father turned the spikes into “beautiful” letter openers, Marell says..

Bill with his great granddaughter Alex

Bill was a blacksmith who created iron hardware and fixtures.  He made artworks from found materials.  He designed logos for the Crooked Tree Art Center and the Charlevoix Art Fair, both of which are  still used today.

In his last years, Bill suffered from dementia.  But when with his buddy Joe, he remembered all their escapades, including the time they spotted a house being remodeled.  Wood pillars had been discarded.  They were too good to pass up.  Bill and Joe rescued them, cut them into sections, painted them and turned them into containers.

Bill spent the last 5 years of his life living with Marell.  Bonnie, now 97, and divorced from Bill, lived with her, too, as did Marell’s daughter and teenage grandson.

5 and ½ years ago, Bill died.  He was 89.  “We didn’t have a lot of money,” Marell says.  “So we brought him back to the house in his simplest form—his ashes in a can.”

The funeral home director, Ron Winchester, asked if Marell would like to transfer her dad’s ashes to one of her mother’s pots.  She said,  “The last thing my father would want would be to spend eternity entombed in one of my mother’s pots.”   Wondering what to do with the ashes, she came up with the perfect resting place.  She put them into one of the scavenged containers Bill had painted.

Bill liked sweets.  After he died, one of his caregivers stopped by Marell’s shop, Picture This, a photo and framing business in the Olesons Shopping Plaza in Charlevoix.  The caregiver had kept candy in her car for Bill.  She handed Marell an unopened bag of M&Ms and a box of Good & Plentys.  Marell kept them on a shelf in her shop.

In January, 2018, a fire broke out in a nearby restaurant.  Picture This suffered smoke and water damage.  After, Marell was relieved to see the plastic bag with Bill’s candy remained unharmed.  She brought the candy home and created a little memorial for her dad. The container Bill painted sits with his ashes on a shelf in Marell’s home.  Beside it:  the 2 boxes of candy, 2 iron spike letter openers and a cd of Leon Redbone, one of Bill’s favorite musicians.

Joe, the friend with whom Bill had once scavenged pillars, has since moved to North Carolina.  On a recent visit north, he stopped by.  Marell put the container of Bill’s ashes on the coffee table and sat talking to Joe.  When her dad’s old buddy left, he reached over and patted the container.   He said, “See you later, Bill.”

A sweet story, in more than one way.  Thanks for sharing, Marell.  May your father rest in peace… in a piece of his own.