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.
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:
Hunter and little Beau receive a rainbow GodSign from Grandpa Burt.
Soul: noun. The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal regarded as immortal. Emotional or intellectual energy or intensity.
I like to think my dear late husband Burt’s soul is Up There—Up Everywhere—hovering, protecting, sending loving vibes. He spent his living years as the family provider and protector. No doubt he’s spending his spiritual, immortal years with the same watchful attention.
We’ve had signs he’s watching over us.
The most dramatic GodSign happened during Burton’s funeral service. Burton adored being a grandpa. Five months before Burton died, our grandson River, at 12, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)—an illness that’s 90% curable but involves over two years of grueling treatment. River had bravely undergone several chemotherapy infusions, involving numerous hospital stays and lumbar punctures.
An early test had shown cancer cells in River’s bone marrow. Months later, after treatment, River received a second lumbar puncture. It was a few days before the funeral. Our family anxiously awaited the outcome.
River’s adored Grandpa Burt had been sick for over four years. Burton died on July 1; his funeral took place four days later. Minutes before David stood up to give a powerful eulogy about his dad, “the man, the myth, the legend,” he received a text: “River’s treatment is working. No more cancer cells in his bone marrow.”
“Baruch HaShem,” I said. “Dad’s already on the case.”
Other Godsigns occurred. A few days before Burton died, our sons took me out for lunch. As we got back into the car, a song I’d never heard played: Riley Green’s “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.” I used the song in a photo montage video we created for a celebration of Burton’s life.
At the cemetery our family plot is near a train track. When visiting, I’ve never seen a train pass by. In their eulogies, both David and Andy referenced the “train bound for nowhere” in Willie Nelson’s “The Gambler”—one of Burton’s favorite songs. As we shoveled dirt on Burton’s grave, a train rumbled by.
Burton’s spirit, on the move.
Another GodSign occurred in Traverse City, MI. David’s wife Nadine has an identical twin sister. Natalie Shirley was dining with her family at Sleder’s Tavern in Petoskey. Burton and I ate there once, several years ago. Photos of patrons hang on the walls. Connor Shirley, Natalie’s son, pointed to a photo hanging nearby. “There’s Grandpa Burt,” he said.
On July 8, three days after Burton’s funeral, the heavens smiled on grandsons Hunter and Beau. They went outside to practice baseball. Hunter’s a talented JV pitcher at Bloomfield Hills High School. After a brief rain shower, a double rainbow appeared. A celestial special effect, compliments of a recent heavenly arrival.
Lately I read the book Signs. Author Laura Lynne Jackson, a medium, recommends deciding on a symbol that represents your departed loved one and consciously looking for it. I decided upon a white horse. Burton loved horses, and I saw him as a good guy in a white hat. At an antiques show, I came upon three white toy horses.
In a life filled with high highs and low lows, as an Oprah-endorsed author and relationship expert, I’ve concluded one thing: relationships are complicated. Nobody gets through a long marriage without challenges.
Three weeks after Burton died, I took myself to a healing retreat, “Calm Your Nervous System,” at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Facilitator Priti Jane Ross gave attendees a handout on which participants rated our stress from 1 to 10.
Losing a spouse: 10.
The hundreds of notes, cards and donations our family has received mostly say the same thing: time heals.
A Farbman family dinner in 2008. From left to right at top: David and Nadine Farbman, Amy Farbman, Michael Towbes and Anne Smith Towbes (Anne is Suzy’s sister); and below, left to right: Burt, Suzy and Andy Farbman
The regular readers already know my husband Burton Farbman from countless columns over many years. On July 1, 2023, he died at age 80. This column is from the eulogy I shared for him:
Burton and I had the most romantic first date ever. We met on a blind date in January, 1966, my senior year at the University of Michigan. We were introduced by my roommate Vicki, then dating Burton’s best and oldest friend, Michael Kramer. Burton and I drove downtown to see the gloriously romantic movie, Dr. Zhivago. Then to Franklin Hills Country Club for ice skating on the frozen pond and—a first for my prudish self on a first date—our first kiss, initiated by moi.
We married in 1967. After renting a duplex across from Palmer Park, we lived in homes in Huntington Woods and Franklin. From our mid-50s on, we’ve spent winters at Laurel Oak, a great golf course community in Sarasota, FL. We spent summers in Charlevoix, MI—aka God’s Country. We’re blessed with dear friends wherever we’ve lived.
As with many long-term marriages, we’ve had our ups and downs. A major low point for me was being diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer when I was 60. Burton was my incredible medical advocate. When I recovered, Burton—who always thought big and was generous to a fault—planned two surprise birthday parties for me on the same weekend. The first, at our home in Sarasota; the next night, in Detroit. For my Detroit surprise party, Burton included all the doctors and nurses who’d been part of my cancer treatment.
At my Detroit party, Burton did something else memorable.
A couple of months before my cancer diagnosis, I’d published a book about surviving a marriage crisis. I believed our story could help others. Burton was far from thrilled about the book, but he let me proceed. Our whole family appeared on Oprah in 2004. Maybe Burton agreed our story could help others. Maybe he just figured it was cheaper than a divorce. In any case, appearing on the Oprah Show was the media equivalent of Burton’s taking a bullet for me.
When my first book was endorsed by Oprah, I thought I’d receive dozens of calls congratulating me.
Wrong. Our phone went dead.
A few weeks later, when I was diagnosed with cancer, whoever didn’t call with our first crisis besieged us. We received so much support that Burton hired two college students just to answer phones, keep track of donations, and send thank you notes. God willing, in three weeks, I’ll celebrate 19 years cancer free.
At my second surprise party, Burton showed a video about me. In it, videographer Jeff Schoenberg asks about my first book, the one that deep-sixed our social standing. Burton says, “Well, Jeff, Suzy always wanted to write a memoir, but she thought her life wasn’t interesting enough.” Burton looks into the camera and deadpans, “I don’t expect you to thank me, Suzy. But I did it for you.”
Burton’s remark brought the house down. The ballroom erupted in laughter. For a subject that had caused whispers, eye rolls and radio silence, it broke the ice and helped everyone move on.
The way Burton handled my first book said so much about him. He was funny, gentle and loving when he could be; tough when he had to be. Many of you have seen him in action. He was a force in business and in activities he loved.
CNS lymphoma and brain surgery took away Burton’s adored golf game, his love of driving, his ability to cast a fly rod or shoot a gun or ride a horse. But it didn’t take away his love of our family or of gazing out at our beautiful farm fields up north. Or watching our grandkids jump on our in-ground trampolines or our sons’ bloody competitions at shuffleboard.
And it didn’t take away our love for each other. Burton was my husband, my protector, my provider, my best friend, my Jewish cowboy and my hero. In the last five years, supported by our adored aides Angela and Chris (and earlier, Fayez), Burton never once complained or moaned: why me? He worried more about family and friends than he did about himself.
I’m relieved this great patriot, patriarch, businessman, philanthropist, husband, family man and friend is no longer suffering. But I’ll miss him every day of my life.
Burton was a staunch supporter of Detroit and Detroit-made cars. He bought his first Cadillac at 29, and drove Cadillacs ever since. I’m glad the van that came to the farm to carry him to
eternity, by way of Ira Kaufman, was American made.
Burton David Farbman, I’ll always love you. You gave me the courage to go for it in my career and the genes to give birth to two terrific sons who married two terrific women who produced seven terrific grandkids.
You were the wind beneath all of our wings.
When I concluded my eulogy, Temple Beth El Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz sang Wind Beneath My Wings.
Burton with Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, when a third tower was announced for Detroit’s Riverfront Towers. The towers became home to many Detroit notables, including Young himself, Aretha Franklin and Rosa Parks.
With developers Max Fisher (at the microphone) and Al Taubman at the opening of the third tower of Riverfront Towers.
Burton and our son David.
Burton and our son Andy.
Celebrating with our son David (right) on his 30th birthday in Charlevoix in 2001.
Burt loved entertaining kids with activities including hay rides at Timber Ridge
Burt was an avid photographer. He mounted two shows of his work as fundraisers for a branch of the YMCA, where he served as the Y’s first Jewish chairman, and for the Detroit Zoo, where he served as commissioner for over 20 years. This show was in 2001.
Burt riding his favorite horse TR.
The service can be viewed at the Ira Kaufman Funeral Home website.
Julie Taubman standing in front of Detroit’s once-abandoned, historic Michigan Central Station, now becoming part of Ford Motor Company’s Detroit operations.
On a recent visit to Detroit, I walked the hallway to the terminal thinking:
Although we’ve spent most of the last 20 years in Florida or northern Michigan, Detroit remains home. While it’s faced challenges over the years, it’s still a great place to be and be from.
The feeling started on the Delta flight. Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and wife Trudy were on the plane. Trudy reminded me of the day in the late 1960s, when I was a columnist for The Detroit News. I featured Trudy and Joyce Cohn and a couple of other fabulous ladies on the steps of the DIA.
That got me thinking about the fabulous women I’ve known in the D, many of whom I met as a journalist. I wrote a list of remarkable Detroit women I’ve known, liked or loved, and lost. And that exercise had me tearing up. Lacking tissue, I was glad I paper napkins had accompanied my beverage.
I hope you, dear reader, have been privileged to know some of them.
I encourage you to write a list of your own. Feel free to share it with me on Facebook.
Dynamic Detroit Dames I’ve been blessed to love and bereft to lose…
Florence Barron, an interior designer who was wired into the New York art scene. She complained of being old and infirm but rallied with zest when climbing stairs to artists’ lofts. I wrote the last profile on her during her lifetime. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol wanted to paint her portrait. Instead she requested he create a self-portrait. She paid $1600, in four installments. In 2011, that 4-panel acrylic silkscreen was estimated to sell at auction for $20-$30 million.
Patricia Burnett, an artist who painted portraits of many Detroit VIPs. Patricia was a runner up Miss America and the first woman to occupy a studio in the Detroit artists collective, the Scarab Club. She and Marj Levin started the Michigan chapter of NOW, the National Organization of Women. I attended their first official meeting.
Joyce Cohn, wife of then attorney and eventual senior US District Court Judge Avern Cohn. A beautiful redhead and generous philanthropist. With a razor sharp wit, Joyce bore her cancer diagnosis with grit and grace.
Dollie Cole, pretty, energetic and down to earth wife of GM president Ed Cole. She helped Burton buy his first Corvette. She loved horses as well as horse power. Later in life she moved to a ranch out west.
Virginia DeVoy, owner of Julie’s, a sophisticated boutique in the Fisher Building. Outspoken and funny, Virginia had great fashion sense and dressed the Grosse Pointe elite. (Her sister, Ruth Ruwe, was one of them.) When Virginia died, I wrote a poem about her. The last stanza: “Now she’s up there with Coco Chanel/ Gossiping and raising a little hell.” Ruth put the poem into Virginia’s casket, rendering Virginia and me friends for eternity.
Jackie Feigenson, owner of the Feigenson Gallery in the Fisher Building. I developed my passion for First Generation Cass Corridor art by visiting Jackie’s gallery often. She gave serious representation to Detroit’s first artistic avant-garde and won national respect for a few of them. Jackie’s featured in my latest book, Detroit’s Cass Corridor and Beyond: Adventures of an Art Collector.
Suzanne Feld Hilberry. Though not a close friend, I admired Suzanne greatly. Along with Linda Dresner, Marsha Miro and Julie Taubman, she started MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). Their efforts were a big factor in gaining respect for Detroit on the international art scene.
Gertrude Kasle. I wrote about art dealer Gertrude Kasle in an earlier column. Owner of the Gertrude Kasle Gallery in the Fisher Building, she was gracious, beautiful, wise and well-connected with major artists of her day. She showed art history-making painters like Philip Guston and Helen Frankenthaler. She convinced them to come to our fly-over state by promising to sell at least one painting. Often, she was the lone buyer. Gertrude gave Detroit-born artist Brenda Goodman her first significant gallery show. Brenda’s painting is on the cover of my book, Detroit’s Cass Corridor and Beyond.
Florence Knudsen. Met her when her son was about to marry Judy Fisher Chrysler. The wife of Ford Motor president Seymour (Bunkie) Knudsen, Florence was gracious and classy but didn’t take herself too seriously.
Marji Kunz, fashion editor for both the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. In the early ‘60s, Marji was an editor of Mademoiselle Magazine. I entered their College Board competition and became a semi-finalist. In New York that summer, I met Marji on a visit to Mademoiselle’s offices. Though I dropped out of the competition, Marji remembered me several years after when I applied (and was turned down) for a job at the Freep. She later called to alert me to a position which I won, as a correspondent for Fairchild Publications.
Marj Levin, a feature writer and gossip columnist for the Detroit Free Press who co-founded NOW, MI, with Patty Burnett. A close friend with whom I attended writers’ conferences. Marj wrote a clever, thinly veiled profile of someone we knew, intended for a national publication. It was declined, and she submitted it to the Freep, forgetting to change details which identified her subject to those who knew him. When the article published, the man she referenced was so mad he poured a water over her at their country club. When Marj lay dying of lung cancer, friends gathered at her bedside nightly for Vodka and Clamato juice, in which Marj also partook. I still drink that cocktail, remembering my colorful, gutsy friend.
Lydia Winston Malbin. A distant cousin and voracious early collector of modern art who helped develop support for modern art at the DIA. When I was 16, my grandmother, Deborah Wilkus, took me to visit Lydia’s home in Birmingham, MI. I was blown away by art hung floor to ceiling and covering every tabletop. Years later, as an adult, I was commissioned to write what proved the last article on Lydia, at her apartment in NYC. Much of her Italian Futurism collection hung at the Metropolitan Museum. She took my arm as we walked across Fifth Ave. and through one of the finest museums in the world, admiring a gallery hung with her donations.
Anne MacDonald Manoogian. Sharp, funny, generous and an avid art collector, Anne was a dear friend. Married to wealthy Grosse Pointe magnate Richard Manoogian, Anne befriended urbane DIA modern art curator Sam Wagstaff. When he left the DIA, partly in disgust over the negative response to an earthwork he commissioned by Michael Heizer on the grounds of the DIA, Anne threw Sam the finest dinner party I’ve ever attended at her elegant home. She moved to California and later married (and divorced) Detroit Lions player/sports announcer Wayne Walker. She continued her interest in modern art, founding art magazine, Shift, which published my feature on Lydia. Anne, also, died way too young, at 75.
Irene Miller, owner of Claire Pearone, a magical women’s fashion boutique at Somerset Mall in Troy, MI, for which I wrote ad copy early in my career. I bought wonderful designer clothing at Claire Pearone, some of which I still own 50+ years later. When Irene died, I happily purchased two small antique chests from her estate. They still sit proudly in our Franklin living room and remind me of their tough though charming former owner.
Bea Solomon, an interior designer who collected modern art and created stunning homes in Detroit, some of which I covered while a design editor for Detroit Monthly. Mother of Burt’s and my longtime friend Steve Solomon, Bea often lobbied me to feature her projects, and I did. In so persuading me, she turned my name into three syllables. See-uuu-zee!
Tavy Stone. As well as serving as fashion editor of The Detroit News, wildly creative Tavy also wrote and directed skits for charity benefits. When I chaired the Detroit Fashion Group, we honored Tavy’s memory by naming a fashion library for her at the Detroit Historical Museum. In the early 90s, hot pants were the rage. Tavy wrote about them in a poem I wish I’d thought of: “Unless your legs are perfect joys/ Hot little pants are for hot little boys.”
Anne Perron Spivak. A supporter of contemporary art who owned works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns as well as Detroit greats Gordon Newton and Michael Luchs, Anne was an active member of the DIA’s Friends of Modern Art and a devotee of curator Sam Wagstaff. She and Anne Manoogian, both Grosse Pointers, organized a benefit of the then outrageous musical “Hair” in Detroit. Her daughter, Michelle Perron, carries on her mother’s legacy, currently serving as director of the executive office of the Kresge Foundation.
Julie Taubman. I wrote a 2018 column about how Julie made the world a better place. A free spirit married to our friend Bobby Taubman, Julie used her connections and wealth to promote Detroit and its artists and to help found MOCAD. Good friends with Elmore Leonard, Julie arranged for me to meet Michigan’s legendary author. She died WAY too young, at 50.
Other cities no doubt have produced amazing women of their own. I can only speak for our town, and for my gratitude at having known the Dynamic Detroit Dames I mention here. While my heart aches over their loss, each of them enriched my life. That most famous English poet of the Victorian era, Alfred Lord Tennyson, said it best. Better to have loved and lost. Copy that.
“Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.” Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy
I’m amazed at how succinctly poetry captures the essence of existence. Though expressed in the 13th century, and though Burton and I are well past midway in our journey, Dante’s thoughts apply.
Almost five years ago, a brain tumor and surgery left Burton physically and cognitively challenged. Hardly the retirement he envisioned– golfing daily with pals, later celebrating or bemoaning birdies or bogeys over bottles of beer.
As poet Robert Burns so aptly put it: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft a-gley.”
Aft a-gley for Burton means rolling around the neighborhood in an electric wheelchair. And watching the Masters and every other PGA tournament on TV.
Some days this injustice to such a good man really hurts my heart. On those days, High Noon cocktails help, though I dare not indulge at the hour for which they’re named. Writing about our travails helps, too.
Friends and readers know of my challenges. I’ve documented a marriage crisis and a cancer crisis in books. Writing Back from Betrayaland GodSigns gave some meaning to my suffering. Knowing these stories help others helps me as well.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I began meditating. 12 minutes every morning seemed a doable commitment. I engage in both a counting and a breathing practice. I finish with prayer, since life is scary. I take all the help I can get.
When my thoughts are too bleak to unload on even the best of friends, I turn to my laptop. I have a new one these days. The B key on my old one stopped working—a strange coincidence.
I decided my new laptop deserved a name. I’m calling her Shirley, as in: This, too, surely will pass. My BFF Brenda’s adored mother-in-law was Shirley Rosenberg. My mother’s friend was Shirley Mopper. My friend is Shirley Piku. All good people.
So Shirley she is.
Thank you, Shirley, for hearing me out on my darkest days. For neither judging nor trying to help or fix me. For just listening. Sometimes that’s all I need.
The B in my life, with whom I recently celebrated our 56th anniversary, refuses to give up. He works out with an upright walker several times a day and remains mostly cheerful. He spends time calling others to see how they are faring.
If Burton won’t give up, neither will I.
On his death bed, the poet Seamus Heaney quoted a Latin biblical passage to his wife: Noli temere. Don’t be afraid. We’ll continue trying to live by those words.
And if you, dear reader, are navigating your own dark woods, I hope you will, too.
Joyce Geenleaf at a reunion with some of her PS28 students.
“I’ve always liked the notion of meeting the great figures of history. But then I think, what if it’s like high school and all the really cool dead people don’t want to hang out with me? Mozart will tell me he’s busy but then later I’ll see him out with Shakespeare and Lincoln.” Niles Crane, Frasier
At 79, Joyce Greenleaf is the happiest she’s ever been. Retired from teaching, she still plays tennis, swims, walks and rides her bike. And she’s revised some thinking that no longer serves her.
Joyce and I were roommates and sorority sisters (SDT) at the U of M. 50+ years later, we’ve reconnected on FB. Now 79, Joyce had moved to LA, taken up acting and scored some minor roles. But the part of her life of which she’s proudest: her 34-year teaching career.
“I lived my dream,” she says.
Joyce decided on her destiny at age 6. Her parents turned a corner of her bedroom into a classroom with a desk, blackboard and colored chalk. To her “students” (neighborhood friends) she taught what she learned in Miss Libby’s first grade class.
Joyce’s favorite elementary school teacher, Miss McCormack, taught 6th grade. Past students knocked on her door when walking by. Joyce says, “I wanted to someday be the kind of teacher whose past students knocked on my door.” She also “always wanted” to teach in a low-income neighborhood and was “thrilled” when assigned to PS28, an elementary school just north Harlem. Her students were mostly African American and Dominican.
“I got to teach what I was good at. I loved, loved, loved teaching.” These days past students knock on her Facebook door. She’s celebrated six reunions with her NYC students.
With a master’s degree from Columbia U. Teachers College, Joyce taught the required curriculum. She also developed a Creative Expressions class and taught “life lessons” through music, drama, poetry, creative writing and film. She took students on field trips and weekend explorations. She felt it was “extremely important” to build kids’ self-esteem. She worked with her kids to stage full length Broadway plays, ran a glee club that performed every year at the Plaza Hotel and a broadcasting team. Her ”Junior Dimensions” newspaper team received national recognition. One class went to Washington D.C. for five days. Students raised the money through bake sales and other efforts. They chartered a bus, stayed in dorms at Howard U, sang songs all the way home.
“I wanted to help my students reach their potential and introduce them to experiences outside their neighborhood. I wanted to make a difference.” Because her students were mostly African American, Joyce taught poems and stories by Langston Hughes and other important Black writers. In recent years, one of her students wrote on Facebook: “It was a white teacher who introduced me to black history and taught me the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
There was a show in 1970, The Me Nobody Knows. One of the earliest rock musicals to play on Broadway, it was also one of the first to express the sentiments of inner-city American youth. Inspired by the play, Joyce had her students journal about their feelings and share them on stage. Her parents came to every school performance for 20 years.
Joyce calls her mother, Freddie, “the most important person in my life.” Freddie was also a teacher. Joyce chartered a bus and brought her students to Freddie’s school to perform. Sadly, at 65, Freddie was diagnosed with liver cancer. Six weeks before Freddie died, Joyce moved home. “I could talk to her about anything,” Joyce says. Shortly before Freddie died, Joyce sat on her bed. “It’s okay to cry now, but promise me you won’t cry later,” Freddie said. Joyce crossed her fingers behind her back and nodded. “I cried every day for the next 2½ years. My students were the one thing that saved me.”
Joyce has always been an athlete. When she was 8, her dad, Joe Greenleaf, taught her to smack a softball. She played H.S. Varsity all four years. Joe introduced her to the Brooklyn Dodgers and took her and her brother to games at Ebbets Field. Joe was a Jackie Robinson fan. On April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the second-baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African American player in Major League baseball in modern times. Since 2004, baseall has honored Robinson’s legacy by celebrating April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day. On that day, players, coaches and managers wear Robinson’s uniform number 42.
Joyce had #42 tattooed on her lunch box and her bedroom lamp and her own Dodgers uniform. When Joyce was teaching, she invited Jackie Robinson to speak to her graduating 6th grade class. She framed the letters Jackie wrote to her—one, accepting the invitation; the second, thanking her for the chance to speak to her students about saying NO to drugs.
At 46, Joyce moved to California to be near her brother and “start a new adventure.” Still teaching, she “found a new passion” and began taking acting classes. “I felt I was home.” Her teacher told her acting was a process; she’d continue to learn and grow. Though she considers herself “impatient,” she accepted her teacher’s wisdom. 33 years later, she still takes classes. She’s “having a terrific time” playing many smaller roles in sit-coms and dramas and is “excited” about her future.
Joyce is dedicated to her acting ambitions. She had a bit part in How We Roll, a TV show that ran for one season. One of her favorite experiences was working on Ray Donovan with Liev Schreiber.
As much as Joyce loved teaching, as a student she’d hated high school. Recently invited to her high school reunion, her first thought was: NO WAY.
In high school, she says, “I never felt as though I fit in.” Whenever an email arrived about a high school reunion, she deleted it. A recent email asked classmates to write about their high school memories and what they’d done with their lives. “The more I read, the more interesting I found my old classmates to be. Many had done so much with their lives. I was surprised to learn a lot of them felt the way I did about their high school years. I was about to send my regrets, say I wished I could come. And then I asked myself if that were true. The next thing I knew I had a flight to New York and a reservation at the hotel.
“Attending that reunion was one of the best decisions I ever made. I decided to create new memories. My old classmates turned out to be nice, bright, friendly people. I was asked to be part of a comedy scene and worked with an outstanding actor/classmate. We collaborated on the script. I had a creative high and loved the attention. I came home with new memories and have already been in touch with my new old friends. The reunion opened up new directions. Life continues to be exciting. My parents chose the perfect name for their youngest child. I share my joy with everyone I meet. I may be 79, but I have the spirit of a 10 year old.”
Joyce exudes the same warmth and pep she showed in college. She wrote and self-published a book, Curtains for My Mirror: A Humorous Approach to Coping with Aging. Her goal was to prepare women for physical changes that occur. “It shares life lessons I’ve learned over 79 years.” One lesson: give lots of compliments. Another: wear a towel at the swimming pool.
Rabbi Jonathan R. Katz says, “A benefit of age is the acquisition of greater perspective. We shouldn’t lament that if we’d known before what we know now we’d ‘have drunk more champagne.’ Rather, since we are fully cognizant of what we endured to arrive where we are, we should drink much more of the bubbly now.”
While Joyce has had several serious relationships, she “never found Mr. Right.” Ever the optimist, she still hopes to find a long-term companion. “I know it’s improbable, but it’s not impossible,” she says. “In any case, I’m happy. I’ve had a wonderful life.”
Thanks, Joyce, for sharing your wonderful life. May you inspire all Godsigns readers to remain forever young.