Friendship is a current beneath the surface of our lives

Having written this column for more than 3 years, I looked back at the columns I’ve published.  While I haven’t blogged directly about friendship, it’s a theme that runs through many of my stories.

Friendship is a current beneath the surface of our lives that buoys us and keeps us moving forward.

Here are just a few of my subjects who were saved or propped up by friendship…

Natalie Myerson and her overflowing community of friends.

Natalie Meyerson, 97 and ½, who has 45 “courtesy daughters,” friends really, who help her run errands, take walks and keep her independent and vital.

Tony Acosta, a tennis pro who happened to be hitting balls with some doctor friends.  When Tony mentioned he couldn’t catch his breath, they sat him down, took his pulse, and drove him to the hospital where he had multiple bypass open heart surgery.  They’re all back on the courts.

Doug Leith, a personal friend and fine golfer with a devoted group of golf buddies.  After Doug died prematurely of pulmonary cystic fibrosis and was cremated, his friends scattered his ashes on his favorite golf holes around the world.  They still carry some of his ashes in their golf bags.

Ellen Kahn, in her 90s.  She fled Berlin as a child on the Kinder Train.  She went on to lose both her daughters over the years.  She credits her friends for pulling her through.

Photographer Monni Must

Photographer Monni Must, who was inconsolable after losing her daughter Miya.  Monni’s friend Linda  Schlesinger-Wagner accompanied her to Europe several times, assisting in photo shoots that turned into a landmark series of books about Holocaust survivors.

I’m blessed with many good friends.  One is my husband, Burt.  The stage 4 cancer diagnosis I received 13 years ago was so frightening I knew I couldn’t make intelligent decisions.  I asked Burton to take over.  He was relentless in tracking down doctors, calling and re-calling, keeping notes, taking me to every appointment.   He saved my life.

Another dear friend of more than 50 years is Brenda Rosenberg.  Throughout my complicated diagnosis, Brenda also came to every doctor’s appointment.  She designed a card printed with the Misha Beirach (Jewish prayer for healing) on one side and a meaningful photo she’d taken on the other.  She cried with me when my head was shaved, designed my wig, talked me through many meltdowns.  This same Brenda Rosenberg is one of the guiding lights behind this book and the Women of Wisdom.

The Torah commands Jewish people to fulfill the concept of tikkun olam, or making the world a better place.  Brenda, I’m so proud of how hard you work and how much you accomplish in helping to heal the world.  On a personal and global level, thank you, dear friend.



Taking responsibility in the community: Alexis Farbman shines at her Bat Mitzvah

Alexis Farbman (center) with Farbman and Lazerson families around her on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah.

I used to wonder why people got so carried away by their grandkids.  Now I’m one of them.

Burton and I are blessed to have 6 grandchildren.  The oldest, Alexis, just had her Bat Mitzvah.  In case you don’t know the word kvell, Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “feel happy and proud.”  Alexis’ Bat Mitzvah propelled it to a new level.

I must objectively state: Alexis is a mensch.  Sweet, smart, loving, fair, funny, generous and capable.  This is the girl who, at 12, created a spread sheet and figured out the details of our summer family Olympics.  That meant which t-shirt in which color and which size went to which member of 2 teams of 12 each.  (I was looking for sweatshirts.  Alexis said, “T-shirts are cheaper.”)  And which team member should play volley ball and which shoot hoops.  I was frazzled by the logistics; Alexis, cool.  This year, when it came time for the shuffle board competition, Alexis strode over to me with a pep talk.  “You’ve got this, Gigi,” she said.  (P.S., I didn’t.)

Bat Mitzvahs at Temple Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, aren’t part of a larger service.  They are the service, entirely performed by the celebrant.  Rabbi Steve Lowenstein and Cantor Andrea Markowicz create a sense of warmth and informality.  (The rabbi’s talit, or prayer shawl, is made from a maize and blue U of M t-shirt.  Perfect for Andy’s family as he and Amy are U of M grads and have indoctrinated their daughters to Go Blue!)

I knew Alexis would be poised and competent.  I didn’t realize how grown up she’d  look in high heels, cloaked in her great grandfather’s prayer shawl.  Nor did I realize how verklempt (Yiddish for emotional) I’d be.  Surviving stage 4 cancer and living 13 years to be present for this milestone?  Wow.

Through blurry eyes I managed to read the opening blessing.  After, the rabbi asked what I‘d like to say to Alexis.  Instead of uttering something matriarchal or profound, I could only croak: “You knock me out, girlfriend.”

Nor was my emotional state helpful when it came time for Alexis’ grandparents, Carol, Bob, Burton and me, to sing 2 Hebrew blessings.  I was the only one who could carry a tune… sort of.  Ahead of time, Burton had practiced for hours.  I learned Bob had, too.  We must not have sounded too melodious because the rabbi chimed in.

Alexis read fluently from the Torah, using a left handed yad (pointer) to follow the Hebrew.  Her Torah portion, toward the end of Deuteronomy, discusses how God punishes Moses for losing his temper by forbidding him to enter the Promised Land.  Alexis drew a meaningful lesson from it.  She said, “It’s important to listen to one another.  If Moses had listened to God, God would have built trust in Moses.  I believe listening and trust can go hand in hand because listening leads to trust.”

Alexis excels at soccer and basketball.  She said, “If a coach is teaching a play, it’s necessary that all players hear and understand because one person can mess up an entire play…  We should all realize that listening to one another will help the world become a better place.”

A Bar (for boys) or Bat (for girls) Mitzvah calls for the celebrant, who’s turning 13, to do a good deed (mitzvah) for others.  This past summer Alexis volunteered at a non-profit, ministry-run restaurant.  The Front Porch is in Ellsworth, near  Charlevoix in northern Michigan, where our family spends much of the summer.  The Front Porch, staffed mainly by volunteers, has done wonders for the community.

Alexis helps out at the Front Porch restaurant as her mitzvah project.

Alexis spoke about her Mitzvah project.  “Ellsworth is a small farming town where many families are struggling financially and cannot afford things like eating at a restaurant.  The Front Porch is a miraculous place as it is a pay-what-you-can restaurant.  If you cannot afford to pay, you simply put the bill in an envelope and leave.  No one will ever know you could not afford your meal and you can enjoy the restaurant experience with dignity.”

Alexis bussed tables, cleaned booths, rolled silverware into napkins and took orders.  (One day Grandpa Burt rolled napkins with her.)  About the experience, she said, “I was able to really help a place I had gone to since I was little in a community I love.  I never realized how special a place this was and how much charity work went on behind the scenes.”

Alexis thanked the members of our family for the roles we play in her life.   Sisters Camryn and Lindsay “for being there for me and making sure we stick together. “  Dad Andy: “Shooting hoops, fishing, playing cards–you are always up for family time.”  Mom Amy:  “Running together and waterskiing… You give the best advice.”  (Ed note: Remember that, Alexis, as you grow into adolescence.)

Well done, Alexis!

As your mom said in her remarks, “You are good to the core… Your smile lights up an entire room.”  Everyone you meet knows how special you are.  Thanks for teaching Grandpa and me the true meaning of kvell.

Keep on knocking us out, girlfriend.

Submariner Don Spear goes deep to protect his country

Don Spear as Officer of the Deck, underway on the surface in his submarine in the mid 1980s.


On a June trip to Peru, I met an engaging guy. Don’s an entrepreneur whose latest company,, is the largest collection of online business training courses. It’s what he did before that intrigued me. Don was a Lieutenant in the US Navy and served aboard the USS Tunny (SSN 682), a fast attack nuclear powered submarine.

Talk about a challenge…

I had no idea how difficult submarines are to run. Nuclear sub engineer Russell Canty writes on Quora that young people with a bent for engineering, math or science are drawn toward being pilots or submariners. Canty says, “Pilots get all the glory.” He calls becoming a submarine officer “a hard sell… Other than Seals, no other community asks more of its men and women than the submarine service.” It is, he says, a badge of honor.

Sleep deprivation’s the norm, Canty reports. “One day you might work 34 straight hours and you can grab 2 hours of sleep before waking up to do it all over again.” Underway, a submariner is cut off from the outside world for up to several months. “Imagine locking yourself in your house with 100 friends you love to hate, with no TVs, radios, telephones.” In a craft that’s packed with a nuclear reactor, intercontinental ballistic missiles and the rockets that propel them.

As opposed, Canty says, to pilots on an aircraft carrier, mandated 8 hours sleep before flying a mission. On board the ship, they enjoy satellite internet, email and Facebook. If their plane needs maintenance, someone else does the work. On subs, the people who operate the equipment fix it when it breaks. There’s no one to fly in spare parts.

Don Spear as Officer of the Deck, submerged underway on the USS Tunny in the mid 1980s.

Don served from 1976-84, during the Cold War with Russia. The job of his fast attack sub was to “track enemy subs, keep tabs on the bad guys, and stay invisible.” Their other major mission was providing sea lane safety for American and world commerce. They were often in the Straits of Hormuz, south of Iran, maintaining open passage for 60% of the world’s oil as it shipped. To this day, Iran threatens the flow of oil through this passageway and could cripple economies worldwide.

US subs also protected aircraft carrier groups from other subs. Groups consist of up to 15 ships and over 10,000 sailors. Submariners have a saying, “There are only 2 types of ships: submarines and targets.”

It was the Reagan era. Don, Weapons Officer, says, “The USA beat the Russians economically. I never had to fire a shot.”

Serving on a submarine is voluntary. Don was interviewed by legendary Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. (He directed the development of the naval nuclear program and ran its operations for 3 decades.) Don says the rigorous selection process assured that officers were “smart, competent and hard-working.”

120 men worked on Don’s sub, 95 of whom shared 3 showers and 3 toilets. Women were admitted in the last few years, which meant reworking already cramped quarters. (And I get impatient waiting in line for the ladies room during intermission???)  The Tunny ran 24 hours a day. Every year, 1/3 rotated off. At any time, 40 crewmates were new.

“For a sub to operate safely and succeed, everyone needs to know their job,” Don says. “If someone screws up, the whole ship could die. Even the cooks stand watch. Our commanding officers took great care to develop each newcomer. As an officer, I had to know every piece of equipment. The nuclear reactor, the turbine generators, the air conditioning, the weapons systems, the steam generator, the propulsion systems. There were hundreds of pieces of equipment to operate, maintain and monitor.”

USS Tunny, as it was launched in 1972 at Pascagoula, Mississippi. The submarine was officially commissioned in 1974 at Charleston, South Carolina; served many years and was decommissioned in 1998.

Nuclear submarines make all their own electricity, oxygen and water. The only limit is food. Once the food ran out, usually about the 90th day at sea, it was time to head back to port.

Don still remembers his first night as a newly qualified Engineering Officer of the Watch (EEOW). They were transiting the ocean serenely when a siren blew, a reactor SCRAM. It meant the reactor shut down and all power was cut off. “Gary Jensen, my commanding officer, shows up at the Maneuvering compartment, dressed in our underway blue jumpsuit uniform, chewing on a big cigar, smiling. It was a drill. The Commanding Officer, Captain Karl Kaup, was testing me on my first watch. That was in 1981. I still remember the 5 emergency actions for a reactor SCRAM.” Nuclear power training was and is “rigorous and comprehensive.”

Submarine officers’ wives are also dedicated, Don says. As a young man on the way to join his ship in the Philippines, he was picked up at the airport in Hawaii by Bev Jensen, the wife of his Executive Officer. She welcomed him with a lei and drove him to the home of the Commanding Officer for lunch. The Tunny was already deployed on the other side of the Pacific, but these wives wanted to be sure Don knew the board game of Uckers. The Captain liked to play it with his officers after dinner. It gave him a chance to know his men better, to see how smart and risk prone they were.

Military service runs in Don’s family. His father was an officer in the army in the ’50s. “He suggested we all join the military to learn responsibility and leadership. But he warned us: don’t join the army or you’ll have to sleep outside in tents.” Don’s middle brother Scot spent 6 years as a US Marine Corp officer including 2 as a general’s aide. His youngest brother Jeff attended Duke on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and served 23 years as a career Air Force pilot. “We all share similar stories of the camaraderie and excitement of being officers in a military unit.” (Their sister became a public school teacher, like their mom. “Even though she didn’t serve in the military, as the oldest, she still thinks she’s in charge.”)

Don and wife Ione recently held a dinner party for Don’s Tunny shipmates at their home in Portland, OR.  Being back together reminded Don “how interdependent we were and why we formed such tight bonds.” He was especially pleased to see executive officer Gary Jensen, his wife Bev and their family. After becoming the commanding officer of a sub, Jensen was commodore of a fleet of nuclear subs. (Following a long career in the Navy, he served in Homeland Security and retired at 70.) 37 shipmates, including wives and kids, attended the Spears’ dinner. Don was reminded of “the respect I have for Gary, for the expectations he had and the care of took of me and everyone on board.”

Where would we be without those who serve? There’ve been times, especially in WWII, that our military saved the world as we know it.

What did service mean to Don?

“Creating, protecting and maintaining freedom around the world is our mission. … I’m honored to have served and contributed to that legacy.

“As President Reagan said, ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.’ We don’t pass it down through our bloodstreams. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for others to do the same. Or we will spend our sunset years telling our children and their children what it was once like in the United States when people were free.”

Amen, brother, to you and all the brave men and women in our military. Thank you ever so much for your service.

After 25-year rift, sibling artists Brenda and Steven Goodman bury some big hatchets

As someone who adores her sister, I’m saddened to hear about rifts between siblings.

And inspired by those who overcome them…

Artist Brenda Goodman at her current show.

I’ve admired Michigan artist Brenda Goodman’s work for 4 decades. I also admired that of her brother Steven, a successful jeweler in the 1970s. While I lost touch with Steven, I kept up with Brenda. Her current show in Brooklyn is such a knock out that I reconnected with her. She mentioned her brother had stopped speaking to her years ago but that, in the last few months, they’ve become friends again.

Hmm, I thought. This week marks the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a time to atone and make amends. A perfect time for a story of grace and forgiveness.

Brenda’s work is always powerful, never easy.

She once said, “I want to remove the veils between myself and the viewer, and communicate the palpability of needs met, of needs unmet… of rage, of fear, of vulnerability…” She’s still making tough paintings, but lately in what seems to me a more universal, less angry tone.

Brenda’s partners with Linda Dunne, an academic administrator who was dean of the New School in NYC. Brenda and Linda lived on the Bowery and summered in a house they’d bought in Pine Hill in the Catskills. In 2009, they chose to remain in Pine Hill year round. Brenda built a new studio.

Brenda says, “I’ve never had such a large, open space, with steady 70-degree temperature all year long. For me, it was a big deal.” At 25’x35’, it was huge. And with 10′ concrete walls, sound proof. “Because of the studio and the peacefulness I feel in the country, something shifted in me. A clarity started to emerge. With over 50 years of painting behind me, I’m confident in my work.” She titled her blockbuster recent show “In a New Space.”

But Brenda missed her brother. After 9/11, she’d written Steven a note mentioning all the brothers and sisters who’d lost each other and hoping for a reconciliation. Steven, 3 years younger, sent back a long letter laying out past and current issues. Brenda said, “I don’t remember much from our childhood. We each have our own reality. If what you said is true, I’m sorry. It’s over. Let’s move on.”

Steven wasn’t ready. Brenda tried again in 2015 when she had a retrospective at Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies. She invited Steven to a dinner in her honor. He declined. Having been out of touch for so long, Brenda didn’t realize he was “still in the throes of grieving his wife.”

Steven Goodman at his studio.

Steven and Sue were married for 33 years. She was a v.p. of a big wellness company. After work and on weekends, she helped her husband create intricate inlaid stone and wood cabinet handles. In 8 years the couple traveled to over 100 art shows and dozens of craft shows

Steven met Sue at a point when he’d “burned out” of the jewelry business.  “Sue really believed in my talent,” Steven says. In his late 30s, he taught himself to become a master craftsman, working with wood, metals and minerals including fossilized ivory unearthed from the Frozen Tundra.  Sue supported him for the first couple of years while he acquired equipment and learned inlay techniques. Sue started a website for Steven and posted some of the inlaid handles he made for cabinets.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the Grand Canyon,” Steven says.“I looked at pictures of it all the time. Sue and I never had children. Instead we decided to become explorers and go on an artistic Grand Canyon adventure. We knew it could take a lifetime.” They looked forward to visiting the actual natural wonder together someday.

A few days after their decision, they received a phone call. A wealthy couple from Sonoma Valley, CA, with art world connections, came across Steven’s website. They were building a big home. Could Steven create panels for their living room? Would he consider a Grand Canyon theme?

It was meant to be. Or so they thought.

The couple visited Steven and Sue in their Berkley, MI, home. They gave him a commission “that set me up for 2 years,” he says. Steven and Sue turned their garage into a studio. Steven bought industrial equipment, brought in specimen woods, recruited art students to help.

“It was a joy. I was perfecting my techniques. Sue and I were cruising along. Until one day I heard a thump.” Upstairs, he found Sue. She’d fallen. They rushed to the hospital. Sue was diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma, brain cancer. 5 years to live.

“She’d taken care of me. I vowed to  take care of her. We married for better or for worse.” It proved a full time job. He was forced to give up his commission. Sue went from cancer induced depression to dementia to Alzheimers. She lived for 7 years. “By the time she died, we were broke.”

Sue died 4 years ago. Steven was devastated. Sue had handled all their affairs. Steven, who’s dyslexic, had to take over, learn to use a computer. Before she died, Sue asked him to finish the Grand Canyon project. He’s determined to do so and has converted most of the house into a background for the project. 3 different patrons were going to underwrite him; all fell through.

Steve Goodman’s Grand Canyon project in process.

Meanwhile, Steven’s home is an extraordinary environment. Dozens of photographs of the actual Grand Canyon are tacked to walls. Slabs of exotic wood also line many walls. Hundreds of boxes and bins contain thousands of rocks, sorted by type. (Most are dug up from past landscapes in his yard. He changes his landscaping every year.) Other trays hold beautiful little constructions Steven’s made of spiraled paper. All these are components for his planned 8’ tall Grand Canyon installation.

25 years ago, Steven says, he and Brenda argued often.

“One day we had a really bad fight.  We had different perceptions of how we grew up. I realized our fighting could go on for the rest of our lives. Our anger was making a wreck of both of us. I decided it was best for both of us to break off our relationship.”

In 2015, Brenda was coming to Detroit for the opening of her retrospective at CCS. She attended the school and received a certificate in 1965 (when it was the Society of Arts & Crafts). She returned for a BFA in 1972, and taught there as well. Brenda sent Steven an invitation to the opening.

“I couldn’t go,” he says. “I was embarrassed and afraid.”

Steven has been seeing a very sensitive grief counselor. Recently, he showed her pictures of Brenda’s work. Viewing it, she said, “She’s in pain, too.” It was a breakthrough moment. Something began to change in the way Steven saw his sister.

Last May, Brenda was coming to Detroit to receive an honorary doctorate from CCS. She invited Steven to the ceremony and dinner in her honor. Steven says, “I was blessed with a gut feeling. It was time to put our issues to rest. I went to the ceremonies and dinner. We had a beautiful reunion. We talk most every day now. Dealing with my wife’s illness, I learned to let go of a lot. The past is past.  I’m excited for my future with Brenda. I’ve always loved her work. I never stopped loving her.

“A huge hole in my heart has been filled. I’m a better man for it. I’m freer. I sleep better. I smile more. It’s a gas to say I have a sister.”

While in Detroit in May, Brenda and Linda visited Steven’s home. They saw the makings of his Grand Canyon project for the first time. Brenda and Steven talked for 4 hours. She taped much of their conversation to be sure she’d remember it.

“It’s nice to have a brother again,” she says. “I’ve learned we’re a lot alike. We’re both obsessive. My studio is spotless, tubes of paint all lined up. I’m a stickler with my paintings, taking care to prepare every surface properly. Steven’s a stickler for detail. I see creative connections between us.”

Brenda and Steven are now both in their 70s. Both have grown up in their relationship as well.

Rabbi Joseph Krakoff works with hospice. He sees, first hand, the challenge and the peace that come from healing a relationship. He says, “Yom Kippur is a time for repairing relationships that are broken or need attention. In the human realm, all we have is each other.”

Finding forgiveness in the face of such pain is the epitome of grace. Thanks for the inspiration, Goodmans.

“Siblings” (50x70in. Oil on Wood) is Brenda Goodman’s 2017 reflection on her reunion with her brother.

Care to learn more?


Karen Raff takes the plunge, literally, and becomes Jewish

With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, occurring this week,you’ll enjoy this story of one woman’s conversion. 

You’ve met her before! Recently, I brought you the Adventures of Karen Raff, a story so engaging that I needed 3 of these columns to do it justice. Karen is the nurse from Kentucky who traveled far and wide in search of a more worldly life. She and nurse friend Nancy threw a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner party and invited strangers to their home. If you missed the story, it’s priceless.

By the end of the 3rd column, Karen had married Gil, the doctor/stranger she invited to the party. I promised you the story of Karen’s religious conversion. Here we go…

As young marrieds, neither Gil nor Karen observed religious traditions. Gil was Jewish; Karen, Presbyterian. Karen had occasionally asked Gil if she should convert.She says, “We were surrounded by Jewish friends who seemed smart, up on current events and respectful of women.”

Gil had a different take. He said, “Who would want to join a religion known for its pogroms and the Holocaust?”

“So,” Karen says, “I let it go.”

When they became pregnant with their first child, Karen brought up the notion again. She knew Gil wanted to raise their children as Jews. She also knew that Jewish lineage is handed down through the mother. (The Mishnah is the first major written version of the oral Jewish traditions known as the Oral Torah. This ancient record includes the concept of matriarchal lineage.)

While living in Albuquerque, 3 years before, Karen and Gil had had to “search around” for a rabbi willing to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony. The Reform rabbi they found agreed only after Karen promised they’d raise their children Jewish.

In 1982, Karen took weekly one-on-one conversion classes with Rabbi Isaac Celnik. (Confession: As a lifelong Jew myself, I’m impressed that converts usually know more about the religion than I do.) After 8 months, the rabbi asked Karen if she felt ready.

Yes, she said. What did she need to do? Submerge yourself under water in preparation for the ceremony, the rabbi said. (Submersion is the final act in conversion. It represents purification and is the precursor to the Christian baptism. Orthodox Jewish women go to a mikvah, or ritual bath, once a month.)

Karen recalls thinking, “Egads. That sounds terrible. I don’t want to go to a mikvah, and I’m too pregnant to wear a bathing suit to get into a swimming pool. Besides, it was November.”

Her Jewish girlfriend said, “In your condition, submersion seems extreme. Tell the rabbi you’ll stand outside in a shower stall and he can spritz water on your head a few times. That should qualify as your symbolic rebirth.”

“Oh no,” said the rabbi. “You must be completely submerged. I will literally push your head down under the water.”

Ever resourceful, Karen asked, “How about a hot tub?”

He rolled his eyes heavenward, contemplated what his mentor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would advise.

Pregnant pause.

Okay,” he said. “You arrange the place, bring two Jewish witnesses, and I’ll be there.”

They met on the appointed day, Nov. 22, 1982, at Karen’s friend Barbara Maddoux’s home. The hot tub was heated to “the perfect temperature.” There were Karen’s 2 Jewish girlfriends, Roberta Ramo, who became the first woman president of the American Bar Association, and Susan Cohen, who had previously converted to Judaism under Rabbi Celnik. Gil was also a witness. Karen wore a “way too tight” bathing suit, under a white terrycloth cover-up.

After those present recited the ritual prayers and Karen professed her faith, the rabbi asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” Karen said. She dropped her robe and stepped into the hot tub.

Karen recalls, “Before I got dunked, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and said to myself silently, “Oh dear Lord Jesus, if you really are the true Savior, forgive me.”

And under the water she plunked.

“I dipped down a Presbyterian, and I popped up Jewish.”

Adam Benjamin Raff was born on December 16 of that year. Evan and Marika came next. All are practicing physicians. And practicing Jews.

When Adam and Evan were boys, studying Hebrew for their Bar Mitzvahs, Karen wanted to support them. She had wondered “If I were the only Jewish person alive, would I know enough of the prayers and rituals to pass them on and keep Judaism alive?  The answer was no.”

Their cantor happened to be gathering some women to be the first adult females in their synagogue to become Bat Mitzvah. The women, she says, “were seekers like me.”

She was in. That process was completed in 1993.

Thanks, Karen, for being such a generous and open seeker.

Wishing you and all our Jewish friends Shana Tova, a happy and healthy 5778!

Karen’s entire group in 1993.

Artist Sue Bolt’s creativity is celebrated in a blockbuster retrospective

Sue Bolt (left) and her friend Abbey Adler at the exhibition of Sue’s work.

Anyone who’s visited Charlevoix, MI, for more than 24 hours has run across blue and white tiles, vases shaped like women’s heads, bowls decorated in sunflowers or angels and fanciful paintings of starry skies and barns and roosters. The source of this decorative bounty is a local legend.

She’s also a pioneer.  Sue moved north 42 years ago to see if she could “make a living.” She had 2 of 3 teenagers in tow.  Husband Russ remained in Detroit with the 3rd. Russ worked in design for GM while Sue blazed the trail.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Sue Bolt magazine cover from 1967, featuring a cover story about Detroit’s Greektown community.

Many Detroiters got to know Sue’s artwork in the 1960s and 70s. Sue did frequent cover illustrations for The Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine. If good manners were the standard by which she was hired, she’d never have had the chance.

When Sue’s son Russ Jr. was a boy, he had a paper route for the Free Press. One cranky customer kept complaining that he never put her paper inside her storm door. Problem was the lady kept her storm door locked.

Sue sometimes drove Russ Jr. on his route and was aware of the issue. One morning Sue got a call from someone at the Free Press. Assuming it was Russ Jr.’s manager, Sue ranted, “I know about the problem. It’s not my son’s fault. Mrs. Dougherty forgets to unlock her storm door.”  She slammed the phone down.

Fortunately, the caller called back. He was Mort Persky, an editor starting a Sunday supplement. (He got Sue’s name from his wife Yolanda who took Sue’s class at Wayne State U.) Mort hired Sue to create the cover of his first magazine. It would illustrate a story about Woodward Avenue, the main artery in Detroit. (Persky went on to share a Pulitzer for editing at the Free Press.)

Sue continued to freelance for the paper. In 1963, she spent a week at Motown. “I met Marvin Gaye, who gave me a big kiss. And Smokey Robinson. I was in the recording booth with Berry Gordy’s brother when he was mixing sounds for ‘Heat Wave’ by Martha and the Vandellas and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.”

About the Motown studio, she says, “It was a hokey set-up. At the time I didn’t realize what a thrill it was to be there. A life experience.”

Sue Bolt’s four-seasons angel.

Sue found work in several areas. She created cards for Hallmark and in-store posters for Hudson’s design department. She restored furniture for popular antiques dealer Fran Weiss. Her art was shown at a frame shop, a coffee house, an arts theater.

While she sold well enough, Sue says, “I don’t think the Midwest appreciates its artists. It’s important to recognize artists. They represent the culture and history of their era.”

When her kids were all in school, Sue spent 3 years at Detroit’s famous Pewabic Pottery. She studied salt glazing and raku. “3 years at Pewabic was like getting a master’s degree.”  The family lived in Pleasant Ridge, a suburb of Detroit. But older son Russ was “being a teenager.” Sue wasn’t crazy about suburbia. She decided to try a different environment, northern Michigan.

Sue scraped together the funds and bought Grange Hall, built in 1910, a few miles south of Charlevoix. (The grange hall movement started in the U.S. after the Civil war. It was an organization supporting the business and social lives of farmers.) Sue says, “We fell in love with the land and the building.” The real estate taxes were $58/year. Sons Russ Jr. and Robert joined Future Farmers of America. (Russ Jr. grew up to run Bolts’ Farm Market across the road from our farm. Wife Cindy and brother Robert work with him. Their sweet corn is the best in NoMI.)

That first year was “rough,” Sue says. But she cobbled together freelance jobs and sold her wares where she could. She made enough that first year to finance everything but the family’s health care. Meanwhile Russ Sr., whom she’d met when they were students at the Cleveland Institute of Arts, wanted to find work more creative than designing auto interiors. After a year, Sue and Russ sold their home in Pleasant Ridge. Russ Sr. joined the family at Grange Hall and began making art with Sue. It was a dream come true. “Russ and I had always wanted to work together and start a business.”

Sue and Russ Bolt fireplace.

The first winter Sue “didn’t know a soul.” But other artists, including popular potter Bonnie Staffel, found and welcomed her. They developed an informal group. “We all helped each other out.”  One member, a talented photographer, was “so poor I’d feed her.”

A group of about 10 eventually grew to around 60. They organized shows and talks. They fixed up an old building at Brownwood Acres, staffed the gallery and sold their work there. They petitioned the state for the seed money to help buy an old church in Petoskey, MI. (It’s since become the thriving Crooked Tree Arts Center.)  Sue and Russ wrote a newsletter. They helped start the Charlevoix summer art fair, which today ranks among the country’s best. (The Bolts’ booth is always in the center of the action.)

Sue and Russ sold their work in art fairs and shops as well as at Grange Hall. They participated in art fairs in Florida, Kansas City and more. Bolt blue and white tiles appeared on fireplace surrounds and bathroom walls around northern Michigan and as far away as Florida and Wyoming.

Sue says, “We didn’t care about being rich. We just wanted to be able to do our work and be independent.”

Sue is currently featured in a 1-person show at the Charlevoix Circle of the Arts. I attended a talk she gave in the gallery, backed up by her friend actress Abby Adler. As Sue discussed her paintings, Abby read poems Sue had written while painting certain pictures. Abby lent a dramatic Irish brogue to poems often filled with color. As in these lines:

Inside the green
On top of a hill
Cindy and I pick delicate beans
They are the last to come along
The sun no longer strong
A slit of light
On the horizon
As purple shadows
Whisper night.

“I’m a storyteller,” Sue says.  “Writing helps clarify my painting.”

For a northern Michigan legend, Sue is self-effacing. “I don’t even want to say I’m an artist. It sounds so arrogant. What I do is just a matter of observation and using different materials.”

“The Seasons of Sue Bolt” is on display until Sept. 23. One reason Sue agreed to it, she says, was to help inventory the large body of work she has made or been given by others. She plans to turn some of the latter pieces over to descendants of the artists who made them.

After living 10 years in their studio, Sue and Russ Sr. moved to a comfortable home overlooking Lake Charlevoix. Grange Hall remains their studio. Their work has been shown at the DIA, the Cleveland Museum and numerous other spaces.

What’s her advice to aspiring young writers?

Many years ago, as a young reporter for The Detroit News, I asked that question of Max Shulman, best known as author of novels including Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, co-author of The Tender Trap and creator of Dobie Gillis. I’ve never forgotten his answer.

He said, “It’s always the same: Seek truth and marry money.”

Sue took the question a little more seriously. She said, “Love what you do. Do it and don’t be afraid. You’ve got to love it ‘cause it’s a lot of hard work. But if you love it, somehow everything works out.”

Sue continues to love what she does and still creates imaginative artworks that many others love, too. Daughter, Lori, an artist, and son-in-law Frank Hasseld, a sculptor, help with the heavy lifting and run the business side of the business.

At 85, Sue looks back on a life filled with opportunities, good friends, enthusiastic collectors and staying true to herself. “It’s all been a great adventure,” she says. “It isn’t over yet.”

Russ and Sue Bolt.

Jane and Lew Johnson lived on the sunny side of life

Jane and Lew Johnson


For Northern Michigan newbies, a visit to Barbara May’s uber cool handbag shop north of Petoskey is a must. Recently, I took friend Jeanne Schupan, from Kalamazoo, to B. May. (For more, see post: Marc Schupan’s grief over his son leads him to write letters and tell the story)

Jeanne fell in love with a bag and bought it. (She has a long way to go to catch up with moi.) On our way out, Jeanne noticed a skin she preferred. Lingering a few minutes to make the exchange, we were still there when a vivacious blonde walked in.

Jeanne looked at her and said, “Linda?”

She said, “Jeanne?” This was followed by squeals and OMGs and hugs. Turns out they both come from Pigeon, MI, pop. 1000, in Michigan’s Thumb. They both graduated from Laker High School. They hadn’t seen each other in over 20 years.

You know something’s a Godsign when you say, “What are the chances?”

Linda and Dave Johnson

Seeing these two had much to discuss, I invited Linda Johnson to join us for lunch. Which led to dinner with our husbands as well. I learned Linda was a licensed mental health professional (M.A., L.L.P.C.) and life coach.

And she’d written a book called: Chapter 3, Stories of inspiration, life lessons and good things to know… for wherever your next chapter beginsThe book is smart and insightful. Linda tells different peoples’ stories and life lessons to be learned from them. An especially sweet story focuses on Linda’s husband Dave’s parents, who raised 2 sons, were married 75 years, and were in their mid 90s.

Linda writes: “After all those years together, Jane and Lew had their routine. It consisted of morning coffee. Breakfast. Lew reading the newspaper. Jane working the crossword puzzle. A walk. Then errands. Together. Maybe a round of golf. Lunch. An afternoon nap. And just like clockwork, a 5 o’clock glass of wine. They used to call it their ‘fix.’

“Eventually their remarkably good health gave way to old age. In their older years, Jane developed macular degeneration and was legally blind. Lew’s vision was compromised by cataracts. They had one good ear between the two of them and even that one wasn’t very good. Their bones became brittle. They walked a little slower, stood not quite as tall, had some bad falls.”

Linda and Dave often took Jane and Lew out to dinner. One night, when they drove them home, Linda and Dave got out of the car to walk his parents to the door. “We were told—in no uncertain terms—that they could manage just fine on their own. Thank you very much. I think they were insulted.”

The couple sat in the car and watched while Dave’s parents climbed the stairs to their 2nd floor condominium. There was an elevator. But, as Linda tells it, “to quote my in-laws, ‘that’s for old people.’ Ninety years and change didn’t qualify as old in their opinion.”

Linda and Dave watched his parents at their front door. They waited for Lew to find his keys. Neither parent could see or hear well. They didn’t realize Lew was also suffering from dementia. Lew fumbled with the keys, tried one after another. Then Jane tried, twice. No luck.

Linda writes, “Just as we were about to go to them, Dave and I watched Jane and Lew do the craziest thing: they doubled over—with laughter! The hanging-on-to-each-other, laughing-so-hard-you’re-crying kind of laughter! Then a hug. Followed by the door finally being unlocked. They went inside still laughing and didn’t give us a second glance.”

Within a year, Jane was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died. Lew’s dementia worsened. He couldn’t understand why his partner of more than 75 years wasn’t with him. He died soon after.

The life lesson Linda draws from that night with her in-laws was suggested by Linda’s daughter, Julie, in a letter to her grandparents during their last years. She called them “a living example that attitude in life is everything.”

Their attitude, Linda says, is “why everyone loved Jane and Lew. It’s why they looked forward to every day. It’s why everyone else was ‘old’ because in their minds they stayed perpetually young.”

Now, nearly 10 years after watching her elderly in-laws cope with a trivial but exasperating incident, Linda chooses to remember them in that moment. “The moment when I realized in spite of all their challenges, they found humor where most of us would find frustration.”

Some memories are too painful to escape. Other times, we can choose the memories we hang on to, curate them for our memory museums. Treasure them.

Thanks, Jane and Lew, wherever you are, for the inspiration. And thanks, Linda, for the valuable lesson. I know others will enjoy Chapter 3 as much as I have.

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