An 80th birthday party becomes an opportunity to showcase a true Detroit gem: MMODD

Last week I shared my thoughts on turning 80.  This week I’m sharing my biggest celebration. (Yes, there’ve been more than one.  I’m squeezing every drop out of the occasion.)

While in Florida, I was trying to plan a party in Michigan as well as a birthday summer family trip.  I was stressing out from the details.  And, yes, I realize these are good problems—but, at 80 it’s harder to keep multiple balls in the air. I’m blessed with two capable, connected and helpful daughters-in-law. Nadine suggested I talk to Melissa Vitale Feldman, who took over the Detroit party. Amy put me in touch with New York travel agent Michelle Boyarski, who steered the overseas aspects. Both resources were godsends.

A few months earlier, BFF Brenda Rosenberg had taken me to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Design Detroit (MMODD).  I was delighted to see such creative displays and to meet director Leslie Pilling.  I also met Chuck Duquet, on the first floor.  Chuck’s an obsessive collector who runs what is supposed to be a gallery.  In reality, it’s more of a warehouse for the fine art Chuck obsessively acquires, mostly by Detroit artists.  Having a decent collection of Cass Corridor Art myself, I was delighted to meet a like-minded enthusiast.

Spending so much time away from Detroit, I’m eager, when I return, to see all the city has to offer.  If I’d been unaware of these two venues, I thought, many friends must be as well.  I decided to host my birthday celebration at MMODD.  And to invite not only dear girlfriends, but others with whom I’d like to be dear friends if only I spent more than a nanosecond in my hometown each year.

Problem: MMODD is fairly small, sizewise, and contains displays around which one must tread carefully.

Solution: Melissa’s idea to for a “strolling brunch” in a limited time frame.  That meant mostly high-top tables and less elaborate settings and food.

Quite a few invitees were still in Florida or California or in transit. But a good number were in the D.  I loved seeing them. Rather than bring a gift, I requested friends donate to MMODD.  Happily, most obliged.

Leslie recommended singer Kimmie Horne to provide background music.  The grand-niece of famed singer/actress Lena Horne, Kimmie was perfect.

My adored sister came from California to spend the week with me.  Anne’s a talented singer.  (Sadly I didn’t inherit that gene, but I’m an enthusiastic listener.)  At her wedding several decades ago, Anne sang Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” to her about to be husband, Bob Smith.  That started a tradition; Anne has sung the song on every special occasion since. At my party, I requested it, and Kimmie joined Anne in a delightful impromptu duet.

Both my daughters-in-law attended and spoke beautifully about me. The highest compliment of all: even if we weren’t related, they’d want me for a friend. Ditto!

Currently in the D, I run into others I wish I’d invited.  With Burton’s illness, I’ve been out of social commission for five years.  The bad news is over time  I’ve lost so many fabulous women friends I wish could have been there.  The good news: I still have many wonderful ones, though most tend to be younger than I.  That’s how the ginger snaps crumble when you’re lucky enough to hit 80.

So far, so good, thank God.  I savor the cookies I can.  And am grateful, dear friends and readers, for your birthday wishes and support over several decades.

At MMODD with director Leslie Pilling in front of painting by family friend Jamie Wineman, aka WolfgangGang

From left: Henrietta Fridholm, Beth Singer, Brenda Rosenberg, Suzy, Grace Serra

With my two daughters in law: Amy (left) and Nadine

With my sister Anne Towbes and singer Kimmie Horne


On turning 80 and considering the potential that lies ahead

Suzy Farbman with her family at Timber Ridge farm.

We post war folks who’ve made it to our 80s have been through astounding changes.

We’ve lived through two different centuries and breathtaking shifts. Party lines to cell phones. Typewriters to iPads. Tricycles to Teslas. Life-changing Polio to life-changing gene therapy.

It’s been quite a ride.

Launching a new decade, as I did on May 6th, gets your attention. Especially when your new decade starts with an 8. Having been married on April 8 and borne a fabulous son on October 8, I’ve considered 8 my lucky number. I hope to thrive the next ten years in my 80s.

Meanwhile, this July marks my 20 year cancerversary. At 60, I feared I wouldn’t make 61. You bet I’m grateful.

Though my eyes, bladder and other organs aren’t fooled, my spirit still feels young. And so, I carry on with optimism. I take the eyedrops and blood pressure meds, relish friends, revel in family, travel when able and continue struggling with my golf game.

Jane Fonda, who’s reached the august age of 83, speaks of a new paradigm. “Philosophers, artists, doctors, scientists are taking a new look at ‘the third act,’ and asking: How do we use this time?” The new concept around aging, Fonda says, is seeing it as a period of “wisdom, wholeness and authenticity. Age as potential.”

According to studies, Fonda says, most people over 50 report being “less stressed and happier.” This change in attitude, she says, is deemed “the Longevity Revolution.”

In Nirvana in a Nutshell, author Scott Shaw, a practicing Buddhist, offers 157 Zen reflections. Number 85 is wise and succinct:

“You can be dominated by external circumstances, or you can BE.

“If you allow yourself to be dominated by things outside of your control, you will forever be locked into desiring that things were different.

“What is outside your control? Life.

“What is under your control? How you experience your life.


Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and other nonfiction best sellers, recently escaped dying from a burst aneurysm. The experience impacted him. A “lifelong atheist,” Junger, unconscious in the trauma ward, was visited by his dead father. And by an ICU nurse who visited him in the trauma ward. She’d suggested he view his situation as “sacred rather than scary.” Once recovered, Junger sought her out.

No one in the hospital reported knowing her.

The experience changed Junger’s attitude toward death. In a recent WSJ feature, he concludes, “Without death, life does not require focus or courage or choice.” Whether the experience affected his atheism, he doesn’t say.

As a newly minted octogenarian, I know death looms ever closer. Meanwhile, I choose to focus on life. To enjoy what I can and spread joy where I may in whatever time I have left. And to give thanks to a force I count on in good times and bad—a sacred force I call God.

Burton and Suzy at their anniversary dinner in 2023.


In a bar mitzvah, another generation is stepping up into community leadership

Some 30 years ago, my husband, Burt, decided to drive out west in a big Ford truck, corral a wild mustang, bring it back to our farm in northern Michigan, and train it. I accompanied him on the journey. When we personally witnessed these handsome untamed beasts in person, Burton saw how impractical and unfair the plan was. We returned home, steedless.

Over the last five years I watched illness overtake the wild mustang I married 57 years ago. We made it through high highs and low lows. As low as the lows were, I’m glad we stuck it out.

In Back from Betrayal, my first book, I shared how I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing, at a future child’s or grandchild’s wedding or bar mitzvah, another woman on Burton’s arm. I thought about that a few weeks ago at my grandson River’s bar mitzvah. While I wished Burton could have been there, I didn’t have to leave early, as he’d have insisted. I stayed on the dance floor ‘til midnight. And felt grateful for the hard work we’d both done to save our marriage.

Several other things also made River’s bar mitzvah special. For one, his age. River is 14, rather than the usual age of 13 when most bar mitzvahs are held. He’s recovering from ALL leukemia, which is—thank God—highly curable. A year ago, his parents realized he’d lost a lot of weight and was unusually tired. They rushed to Beaumont ER, which diagnosed the problem and sent River directly to Michigan Children’s Hospital in Detroit. He remained there, in treatment, for three weeks. He’s still in treatment, but living at home, and able to visit for the painful lumbar punctures he still receives. He’ll continue in treatment for three more years. Whew!

Like his late grandfather, River’s been a remarkably brave, stoic and patient patient. He’s a very smart young man, and—as I expected—he sailed through his reading of the Torah.

Another special aspect of River’s bar mitzvah: He’d connected with Diego, a teenager from Lafayette, LA, also undergoing treatment for cancer. River and Diego met in a Tik Tok comment section and talked for hours on Snapchat. River’s mom and dad, Nadine and David, invited Diego and his mother, Mary, to the bar mitzvah. The boys met in person for the first time that weekend and relished the interaction. Mary kept up with me on the dance floor, though I admit she’s a far better dancer.

Other special touches included cotton candy on paper cones that were snapped up and devoured. Also appreciated: sugar cookies imprinted with the hard-earned phrase: F*#K Cancer.

Yet another highlight: the special appearance of BabyTron, a popular rap artist from Ypsilanti, MI. (Of course, you already knew that.)

On a personal note, one of River’s nurses, Brandon Fitzgerald, introduced himself. He admired my silver t-shirt (found online by my fashionista BFF Brenda. Being chic takes a village.)

Brandon said, “Thank you for the gift of River.”

Yes, I melted.

David spoke beautifully about how Nadine had risen, make that soared, to the occasion and been such a remarkable advocate for River. The Yiddish term kvell—bursting with pride—only begins to describe my reaction.

As for my response to the whole evening, I quote River’s nurse, Brandon. Thank you, David and Nadine and Andy and Amy, for a legacy beyond miraculous—the gift of our grandchildren.

Elie Wiesel and Mitch Albom share timeless wisdom: “Write to find truth.”

In 2011, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke at a Sarasota Town Hall. When I hear a powerful speaker, I jot down meaningful remarks in the program. Recently, coming across that old Wiesel program, I was struck by the similarities of his remarks to the book I just read.

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

Mitch Albom’s The Little Liar is a sometimes hopeful, sometimes heart-breaking look at four characters who interacted during the Holocaust.  With the current resurgence of antisemitism, Albom’s book is all too relevant.

Wiesel was 15 when he and his family were deported to Auschwitz where his mother and younger sister died. He and his father were deported to Buchenwald. His father died there before the camp was liberated in 1945. Wiesel’s 1960 memoir, Night, is considered the bedrock of Holocaust literature. Wiesel himself eventually was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

In 2011, Wiesel explained his motivation for writing Night.  At that point, I had written two memoirs. The first, Back from Betrayal, about surviving a  marriage crisis, was met with widespread silence—and, for me, doubts about the wisdom of what I’d shared.

Wiesel’s observations reassured me.  “For the survivor,” he said, “writing is a calling. Failing to transmit an experience is to betray it. I write to find truth, to touch the bottom of madness.”

Such madness underlies Mitch Albom’s latest book, a parable told from the viewpoint of Truth.  The story includes character Nico Krispis who, at 11, is known for his honesty. The story also includes Nazi officer Udo Graf, who deceives Nico for his (Graf’s) own hateful ends.

I live near Mitch in a Detroit suburb. Once, taking a Metro car to the airport, I asked my driver who was his favorite passenger ever.

“Mitch Albom,” he said.

I, too, am a fan. Mitch’s book, Tuesdays with Morrie, about the wisdom of a dying favorite professor, is the best-selling memoir of all time. It sold over 17 million copies.  In 2010, following a devastating earthquake in Haiti, Mitch and wife Janine adopted an orphanage along with a little girl, Chika. Despite the couple’s desperate efforts to save Chika, she died two years later from a brain tumor.

Mitch’s latest book is set in Salonika, Greece, where Nazis herded 50,000 Jews into concentration camps. Their success at doing so begins with lie. In the book, officer Udo Graf convinces 11-year old Nico that Jewish Greeks are being “resettled” elsewhere. Nico spreads the word through his village. Because he’s known for truthfulness, his neighbors believe him. How that responsibility affects Nico is one compelling theme of the book.

In this new novel, Mitch displays his gift for explaining complicated subjects with simple language…

“All humans are inclined to hate others if they believe they are the cause of their unhappiness.”

“Never be ashamed of a scar. In the end, scars tell the story of our lives, everything that hurt us, and everything that healed us.”

I’m grateful for authors like Elie Wiesel and Mitch Albom for the strength they show and the wisdom they impart.

I, too, am proud of a scar. Though the scar below my navel has faded to a barely visible line, it tells the story of my battle with cancer. It is, as author Lynley Wayne put it, “a badge of honor…  that shows the world you were strong enough to survive.”

As for The Little Liar—two simple words apply: Read it!

Mary Jo Zaksas’s bonds with feline friends extend from one life to another

Caspurr enjoyed jumping through a hoop.

Cats may have nine lives, but nine’s not enough for Mary Jo Zaksas.

Mary Jo and Joe Zaksas. (Photos with this story courtesy of Mary Jo.)

Mary Jo, my Sarasota neighbor, grew up with field cats on a farm in Iowa. She’s always had a special bond with feline friends. Several cats have “just shown up” in her life. Her first “house cat” was Tuffer, a kitten found abandoned in the corn field of the farm.

Her next kitten came from Mary Jo’s beautician. Another was huddled in the window well of her and husband Joe’s house in Barrington, IL. Still another jumped into her car at a gas station near her Barrington home.

Mary Jo’s beloved Torti appeared at the Zaksas home at about six months of age.

“She was very lovable and special,” Mary Jo (MJ) says. When Torti died, MJ determined to find “a replacement friend” for her and Joe’s other cat, Spikey.

Joe insisted that Torti send his replacement. Mary Jo believes Torti did just that in the white kitten she found at a shelter in northern Illinois. Three times in a row, the kitten picked up a toy ball, raced around the room, jumped into MJ’s lap and gazed into her eyes.

She named him Caspurr for his white fur and continuous purr. She taught him tricks. Caspurr learned to sit, shake, roll over and jump through hoops.

Mary Jo had an active business career in Human Resources. She ran her own executive search firm in Chicago. Lacking human children, Mary Jo adored her feline offspring.

In recent years, when Caspurr and his pal Kaylee passed away a month apart, the Zaksases were devastated.

“I needed to find a replacement for our irreplaceable pets,” MJ says.

Joe insisted she look for a sign that Caspurr’s successor was sent by Caspurr. MJ checked out a cat adoption site online; no luck. She visited a few local shelters; nada.

Finally, she drove more than an hour to the SPCA shelter in Lakeland, FL. There she spotted Hugo—mostly white with unusual markings and a white tip on his tail. The kitten looked like a
cross between Caspurr and Kaylee.

Hugo was on meds and couldn’t travel that day. In another room, Sweetie, a tiger kitten, jumped into her lap and kneaded on her shoulder. “She wouldn’t let me get away,” MJ reports.

“She picked you out,” Joe said.

Soon after, both kittens became my new neighbors. Hugo already jumps through hoops, sits, shakes and rolls over. Sweetie, too, is learning some tricks.

Mary Jo’s “all in” on another passion as well. She’s a respected orchid grower. For her 70th birthday, she didn’t long for a necklace or diamond ring. Encouraged by Joe, she built her own climate-controlled growing room for exotic orchids.

MJ’s collection of around 100 Dracula orchids, which mainly grow in Ecuador and Colombia, are being studied by Sarasota’s Selby Gardens. The renowned botanical venue takes cuttings of Mary Jo’s plants for DNA research. A Selby photographer also shoots photos of the blooms.

At 76, though diagnosed with MS just two years ago, Mary Jo is faring well. Of her feline and floral children she says, “I hope I have many years to work with them.”

Her many fans in Florida hope so, too.

‘Heartache comes in many shapes and sizes’

EDITOR’s NOTE: In November, 2023, the whole world is overwhelmed with grief, wondering: How long? From Pope Francis to individual families on every continent, we know that grief—and often our sense of isolation in that grief—is a challenge we share. The many writers who contribute to ReadTheSpirit magazine have been writing about this challenge every week. And, this week, Suzy Farbman shares an important truth about this journey: It is long. We need to remember and honor that truth as we reach out to our neighbors. Here is Suzy’s column:

Grief returns and recedes in wave-like reminders. I write these words on Nov. 1, four months to the day my husband of 56 years died. I’ve asked friends who’ve lost husbands how long it takes to stop grieving.

The universal answer: It takes as long as it takes.

Four months isn’t enough.

Things bring back the memories. So many things. Having grown up poor, once he could afford them, Burton loved acquiring things. His adored aide, Angela, and I tried to de-Burtify the house. We put away the obvious things that reminded me of him, of the void he left behind—things that make me sad he’s not around to use them.

We put away his Laurel Oak sweatshirts and enormous shoes– size 14 near the end. They rest in closets behind closed doors. So do his clothes. Our sons and grandkids will come to Florida at Christmas. They might want a jacket or sweatshirt or golf cap. Ditto the golf clubs Burton once wielded with skill. Ditto the Titleist ProV1 golf balls.

I haven’t found a home for Burton’s camera equipment. Until he became sick, my husband appointed himself unofficial photographer at Laurel Oak, our winter home. He captured pictures of friends and club members playing golf or tennis or celebrating birthdays, developed them on his own machines and gave them to their subjects. After his stroke in 2018, I touted the quality of cell phone photos. Couldn’t convince him.

There’s also the fishing equipment. Poles lean against the wall in our garage. Don’t want to give those away. Our grandkids use them when they visit.

There are knives. Too many of those as well. Burton loved good quality knives. If he came across one at a farmers’ market, it accompanied him home.

There are playing cards. Burton once enjoyed playing Bridge. Two decks of cards wouldn’t do. I counted the packs of Bicycle playing cards in a drawer in our living room: 34.

There are trophies atop laundry room cabinets from contests Burton organized for grandkids’ visits. They remind me of how Burton loved being a grandpa. He took the trophies to the trophy store every January to update them and proudly displayed them in the living room when family visited. Trophies for Bingo, Boggle, Rummikub, Pop-a-Shot and Tennis. In 2016 when Fischer was too young to win anything else, Burton ordered a trophy for Congeniality.

Sad reminders also remain. The handicapped shower chair. The exercise band and hand weights Burton used faithfully to strengthen the arm that still worked after his stroke (his non-dominant right arm). The golf cart I still use. Angela helped him into it. He drove it around the streets, waving at neighbors. Doing what he could to enjoy fresh air and sunshine and still stay mobile.

Thankfully the two sons who played golf with their Dad and took his phone calls every single day are alive and well and present in my life.

In 56 years of marriage, Burton and I experienced plenty of ups and downs, as readers of my first memoir and Oprah’s 5 million-plus viewers can attest. Heartache comes in many shapes and sizes. No one gets through a long-term marriage without scars But overall, on the four-month anniversary of my husband’s death, I’m grateful for the life we led together. For the family, the homes, the trips, the friends.

Burton not only cared for me, he took care of me. As a devoted believer in signs, I believe my husband’s soul is still looking out for me. In that spirit, I share the Godsign Burton left for me to see today. It’s small but significant: a tiny heart shaped mark on my kitchen sink.

For me, there’s no one who can fill Burton’s size 14s.

It takes as long as it takes.

As Queen Elizabeth II told the world after 9/11:

Grief is the price we pay for love.

Burt Farbman finds a creative way to connect from the Other Side

Suzy Farbman (second from left) and friends in Ascona, Switzerland. (Photo courtesy of Suzy Farbman)

I love to travel. But in recent years, my late husband’s health challenges, plus COVID, sidelined my passport.I’m happy to report my sea legs (air wings?) are back in action. I’ve just returned from a great trip to Europe with my sister.

While we were in Switzerland, Burton found an awesome way to let us know he’s still looking out for me.

Anne and I visited dear friends Eldean and Hubertus Hatlapa who have a vacation apartment in Ascona. I was delighted to see their cool new digs.

And even more delighted by a Godsign that occurred when the Hatlapas took us for a boat ride.

(Photo courtesy of Suzy Farbman)

We were cruising Lake Maggiore, a large body of fresh water surrounded by Alps, bordered by Switzerland on one side, Italy on the other. A single swan swam over to our boat and hovered beside us for more than a hour.

Eldean, who’s even more spiritually inclined than I am, said, “It’s Burt.”

“OMG,” I said, tears flooding my cheeks. “You’re right.”

Eldean brought out some wafers. We broke them in small pieces and fed them to the swan. He took each one precisely, biting the cracker, not our fingers.

We all know swans mate for life. They always appear in pairs. This graceful, white feathered animal was alone the whole time he circled the boat. He swam back and forth around the stern, as if looking for a way to climb up and join us.

I wondered why Burton chose to appear as a swan. I realized it was a perfect way to reconnect with the Hatlapas, whom we both adored and who love boats as much as Burton did.

I Googled swans. “If the swan is your spirit animal, you are a confident, determined, strong individual. You also have the potential to love deeply.”

Indeed he was and he did.

Later, I realized there was a second reason for greeting me as a swan:

Its shape. The letter S.