Author Archives: Suzy Farbman

Beloved choir director Judy Stafford, though no longer on this earth, brings hope to sister-in-law and knitting pro Candy Watson and others

THOSE RED CHOIR ROBES: From left—Jenn Stafford, Judy Stafford, Candy Watson, Wendy Amuso (Judy’s sister) and Amy Bloomer (Wendy’s daughter).

At a time when so many of us are suffering losses, the late Judy Stafford manages to bring comfort.

Judy was “larger than life,” says sister-in-law Candy Watson.  “Caring, funny, irreverent.”

Judy died 6 months ago.  Way too soon for the family, church members and community who adored her.   Judy was choir director of Williamsville United Methodist Church outside Buffalo, NY, and “the backbone of our family,” Candy says.

3 generations of family, including 12 grandchildren, lived within a few blocks of each other. Judy’s  packed schedule included hosting frequent family dinners for 25.  Judy and her sister Wendy were superb pianists.  Their church started the 2 Sisters Foundation to honor the sisters’ over 30 years of service.   Judy was Candy’s best friend.

Judy and Dave dancing in 2009.

Every summer, Judy and husband Dave threw a pool party for 80 family and friends.  Judy entertained guests playing the piano and singing songs with lyrics she revised.  Such as a spoof about church donations “… Each time we turn around they’re asking for more.  We throw it in the plate/ And it evaporates…”

Judy was working on a memoir she hoped might someday interest her grandchildren.  She wrote about her 6 year on-and-off relationship with Dave.  She and her date and Dave and his date saw a movie and returned to Dave’s apartment.  She went into the kitchen to help Dave fix drinks.  Dave said he’d heard she was engaged.  Was she happy?  “I suddenly burst into tears and said, ‘No, I still love you.’”  She broke off the engagement; gave back “a very impressive solitaire.”

Judy’s unfinished memoir ends with her sitting in her and Dave’s first house—a “fixer upper” Cape Cod.  She’s holding baby Marc on her shoulder “…looking out the picture window at our lovely street.  I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world! Then Marc threw up down the back of my shirt…”

Despite her talent, humor and spunk, Judy was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic adenocarcinoma last year.  Roswell Cancer Center told her chemo might buy her 2 more months.  Judy said: Bring it on.  She lost her hair, her stomach swelled up.  But she stayed alive to care for Dave who died of COPD.  Judy died 2 weeks later.  She was 70.

Members of the Buffalo Philharmonic played at the memorial service.  Judy’s choir was so respected that the associate director of the Buffalo Philharmonic belonged and had accompanied her on organ or piano many times.   Judy’s brother Ron gave her eulogy.  Speaking of Judy’s devotion to Dave despite her weakened condition, Ron said, “I don’t know, on Judgment Day, if there will be long lines of people waiting to get into Heaven.  But if there are, Judy was in the TSA Precheck Express line and didn’t have to wait at all.”

Days later, the Godsigns began…

In October, a week after Judy’s service, Candy and Ron took time off from the heartbreak at their condo on Siesta Key in Sarasota.  Candy was sitting on the sofa, knitting.  She heard a knocking on the window.  She looked up.  A striped woodpecker perched on the ledge.  She walked to the window and took a photo.  “Judy?” she asked.   She later learned black and white stripes are a symbol for neuro-endocrine cancers.  (Candy feels great but has recently been treated for neuro-endocrine pancreatic cancer.)

Candy mentioned the bird visit to her girlfriend Diane Falso.  Diane told her to look for pennies and/or flickering lights as signs from Judy.  “I didn’t listen,” Candy says.  “I didn’t believe in that malarkey.”

Soon she changed her mind.

A talented knitter, Candy designs patterns she sells on her own website www.candylou.com.  And on Instagram (@candyloucreations).  She creates photo shoots promoting her designs.  3 weeks after Judy died, Candy set up a display of her knitting on a patio table she styled with candles and shells.  She posted a shot to Instagram.   Minutes later, she returned to the patio.  A shiny penny sat on the tabletop.  She asked husband Ron if he’d put it there.  He shook his head.  He hadn’t been outside.

Candy said, “We never carry around coins.”

Ron: “It must be Judy.”

Candy studied her photos.  No penny in any of them.

Ron had gone to work.  The Watsons’ border collie, Abby, tracked in mud.  Candy vacuumed and washed the floor, then went out for groceries.  When she returned, a penny lay on the floor of the back hall.  Candy told Diane about the pennies.  Diane advised, “You need to be receptive.”

Days later, Candy vacuumed her closet.  When she returned, a penny sat on the closet floor.  She told Diane about the episodes.  Diane said, “When someone you love dies, they exist as pure energy.  They look for ways to let you know they’re still here.”

Dining at their local club with the family, Candy said to Wendy, “The idea of life after death is part of our religion.  I guess I shouldn’t be so skeptical.”   Minutes later, lights above the table started flickering.  They flickered for about 5 minutes.   Over the next few days, lights in the Watsons’ family room flickered periodically.  “Ron and I would say, ‘Hi, Judy.’”

The weekend after Thanksgiving, Candy and Ron set up their Christmas tree.  After, as they watched TV, the lights on the tree “flickered like crazy.”  Candy says they were “too lazy” to jiggle the cord.

“Maybe it’s Judy,” Candy said.

“Maybe it is,” Ron said.

Just then the lights stopped flickering.

Judy had always hosted the family Christmas dinner.  Everyone looked forward to her baked ham, cheesy potatoes and deviled eggs.  Candy deemed Judy “a great cook” who’d written cookbooks for different charities.

After Judy died, her daughter Jenn posted a message on Facebook.  “When my glorious mother was given a short time left, she didn’t crumple up like she could have.  No, she got out a yellow pad and started making her to do list.”  That list included organizing her 7th cookbook.  Jenn’s post concludes:   “She got most of it done and Wendy valiantly finished the rest.  We are selling them for $10 as mom had wanted.”  Judy’s latest and last cookbook benefits the Two Sisters Foundation.

Back Row: Wendy, Amy (Wendy’s daughter), Candy, Judy, Lisa (Candy’s daughter), Heather (Candy’s daughter-in-law), Amy Jo (Judy’s daughter-in-law). Front Row: Jenn (Judy’s daughter), Laurie (Candy’s daughter), Christina (Wendy’s daughter-in-law).

Last Christmas, Candy and Ron hosted the family Christmas dinner.  The dining room of their house overlooks the front porch.  Ron had hung icicle lights on the porch and bushes.  “We’re known for the worst lights on the street,” Candy says.  “We’re a neighborhood joke.”   Sitting around the table, Candy was telling the family about the pennies and flickering lights she’d experienced.

“All of a sudden all the outside lights turned off.  Every 4 or 5 seconds, they’d turn on or off.  The little kids were all screaming: On!  Off!  On!  Off!  It lasted about 10 minutes.  We were all crying and laughing and saying ‘Judy’s here’.   And we were all there to see it.”

Candy’s friend Diane sent her a book called Signs.  Author Laura Lynne Jackson discusses the notion of “crossing over” and how to connect with a lost loved one.  Jackson  advises the reader to pick something unusual and ask the deceased to somehow show it to her.

Judy loved coming home and putting on her red robe to watch TV.  And Judy’s choir robe was  red.  Candy asked Judy to show her a red robe.

A few days passed without a sign.  Ron and Candy spent a weekend at their cottage.  The TV was on, but Candy, busy knitting, paid no attention.  Ron and brother-in-law Paul were watching “Patton.”   The cabin lights started flickering.

Candy and Ron said, “Hi, Judy.”

Just after, Ron turned up the volume on the TV, causing Candy, who’s hard of hearing, to look up.   Patton (George C. Scott) said he’d been re-reading Caesar’s Commentaries.  To distinguish himself from his men in battle, Patton said, Caesar had worn a red robe.

David Kessler, an expert on hospice and palliative care, was a colleague of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.  (She wrote about the 5 Stages of Grief:  denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance.)  Kessler, who lost a young son, believes there’s a 6th stage: meaning.  Gratitude for the meaningful moments we’ve shared with a loved one and for what we’ve learned from them.  In Judy Stafford’s case, I’d guess the meaning she brought to so many others is the joy in life she felt and shared.

Thanks, Candy, for introducing us to your joyful, red-robed sister-in-law.  Thanks, Judy, for the idea of writing down your memories.  It’s something we might all consider doing during these long days at home.  Thanks, too, for the pennies from heaven and the light you bring.  We can all use a little more hope.

Judy with her grandchildren.

Seeking divine intervention in a time of crisis

It is not given to human beings—happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable—to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.
Winston Churchill, eulogy for Neville Chamberlain

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

With a book and a column called Godsigns, you know where I stand on theology.  A listing service I’d never heard of but now revere ranked my book Godsigns #7 on their list of best books to learn about God.  Given the current crisis the world faces, having a higher power seems more urgent.

A few thoughts…

For the past 2 years our family has been dealing with a different ordeal—my husband Burt’s brain cancer.  His left side was paralyzed due to a stroke he suffered during brain surgery.  We’ve been self-quarantined for several days.  Burton, Fayez our caregiver and I are all considered “high risk.”  Prayer helps me to cope and be compassionate (most of the time).

In recent years, among the intelligentsia (whoever they are), belief in God seems to have gone out of fashion.  Case in point: a smart and sensitive friend, going through a cancer crisis, sent out an email about his condition.  Acknowledging his disbelief in God, he asked friends for positive thoughts.  I responded that while he may not believe in God, I do.  And I would pray for him.

This past week on TV, Cardinal Dolan was talking about the COVID-19 health crisis and the need for God in this perilous time.  He mentioned the word “Emmanuel” and explained its meaning: “God is with us.”  To hear an esteemed Catholic priest quote a Hebrew word was somehow comforting.  An acknowledgement that we’re all in this together; we all need reassurance; and God is looking out for us.

Months ago I was talking to girlfriend Pat about our friend Peggy’s husband.  Bill had been an ace pilot and a general, but at that point lay dying.  My voice broke as I said to Pat, “I choose to believe in God.  At times when I feel so helpless, it’s a comfort to believe in something other than frail, fallible human beings.”

I feel that way, too, about international leaders who make decisions that affect all of us.  I don’t want them considering themselves ultimate authorities.  The definition of hubris is “excessive pride or self-confidence.”  In Greek tragedy it means defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis, or downfall.  I prefer leaders, who might otherwise be tempted toward self-interest, to consider themselves accountable to a higher authority.

A belief in God given possibility, in something bigger than my limited self, has helped me through serious problems.  Problems that could have taken me or my marriage down.  Bolstered by prayer, I wrote books that helped me and and others get through such problems.

In 2004, I was treated for stage 4 cancer.  The first diagnosis of my health crisis occurred on July 26th.  During that frightening time, the number 26 kept coming up.   Wondering why, I turned to the Kabbalah, the tradition of Jewish mysticism, dating  back to the first century A.D.  In the Torah (the beginning of the Old Testament) the name of God is mentioned 72 different ways. According to a system called Gematria, each name has a numerical equivalent.  Each number, a meaning.  If we’re guided to a certain number, we should pay attention to its meaning.  (For more about this, turn to Godsigns, the book.)

#26: Order from Chaos.  Recognizing that order could someday ensue helped me to cope with the chaos into which cancer had thrown my life

In this era of COVID-19, a crisis of biblical proportions, I looked up #19.  In the Bible, #19 represents a symbol of faith.  It proposes that people who have faith in the divine will lead more peaceful lives.

I heard a quip that seems relevant: They say God doesn’t give me more than I can handle.  I just wish He didn’t think so highly of me.

I’m praying for a cure and a vaccine, STAT.  Meanwhile, God helps those who stay quarantined.  With a worldwide pandemic depleting populations and decimating social interactions, with science and medicine only able to move so fast, I’d welcome some more divine intervention.  How about you?

God bless us all.

Multi-talented animal lover Karin Billings hosted a gay Jewish cat wedding

Gypsy and her portrait painted by Karin.

.

While many women of a certain age were agog at JLo’s Super Bowl half time performance, I’m impressed by a wunderkind who remains a wunderkind at 80.

Jim and Karin Billings

Karin Billings has been a member of 2 Olympic equestrian teams (‘72 in Munich, ‘76 in Montreal); has a silver medal; scored her favorite trophy “Liberty Bell” with Liostro, a Hanoverian that won the ’76 Derby in PA.  She’s a Cordon Bleu trained chef.  She also paints.  And, Karin and husband Jim are  this year’s mixed golf senior champions at Laurel Oak CC in Sarasota, FL.

But this column’s about Karin and her cats.

Having spent years around horses, Karin was used to cats that controlled the rat population in stables.

Gatsby was about 6 months old when he adopted Karin in 2010 by staging a sit in at her back door.  Karin then lived on Golden Gate Point near downtown Sarasota.  She “tried hard” calling animal shelters to locate his owner.

Nobody claimed him.

“I was happy,” she admits.  “I loved him.”

Now a neighbor in Laurel Oak (the golf course community where Burton and I live), Karin’s from Germany.   Karin took Gatsby back and forth on her flights to Dusseldorf.  He sat on her lap under a blanket, quietly undiscovered.  He loved flying, she says.

Karin’s friend Cindy Kahn had rescued a cat she named Parker. When Cindy was busy, she often left Parker with Karin.  And vice versa.  Parker and Gatsby became enamored of each other.  When Cindy arrived to pick up her cat, Parker hid from her.

Cindy and Karin agreed their cats belonged together.  They decided to formalize the feline friendship.

Karin owned a ring Cindy had admired.  Karin says, “Gatsby asked Cindy for the paw of her son with the ring Cindy loved.”

Karin published programs for the ceremony, one of which she shared with me.

Caution: Readers lacking a sense of humor about religion should skip the next few lines.  Otherwise, I share with you a brief interaction from a longer text in the printed program.  The exchange occurs between Jim (Gatsby’s father) and Dr. Lou Siegel, Cindy’s friend.  Dr. Lou had agreed to act as the “rabbi” for what Karin called “the gay Jewish cat ceremony.”

Rabbi Lou: We are gathered here to witness the marriage of Gatsby Billings and Parker Kahn.  I am privileged to be here today not only to officiate at your wedding but to celebrate your courage to marry given the social stigma today regarding the marriage of cats, not to mention gay cats, and the fact that this is a Jewish gay cat wedding.

Rabbi Lou to Jim: Has Gatsby been circumcised as required by Jewish law?

Jim Billings: Hell, no.

Rabbi Lou: In Jewish law the father of the groom may substitute.

Jim: Over my dead body.

Concluding the ceremony, Rabbi Lou says, “Your marriage will not be purrrrrfect, but your love and erection for each other will prevail.  I now pronounced you groom and groom.”

Considering that this ceremony took place in 2013 and gay marriage wasn’t legalized in the US until 2015, Gatsby and Parker were well ahead of the curve.

The two cats lived happily together until Parker died late last year.  After, Karin says, “Gatsby was in mourning, so sad he wouldn’t eat.”

Gypsy, at left, and Gatsby.

Karin brought home a young rescue female cat, Gypsy.  “Gypsy tried so hard to be feminine.  She’d go up to Gatsby and turn around as if to say ‘I’m here for you.’ Gatsby ignored her at first but has since succumbed to Gypsy’s charms.”

This is Karin’s 3rd marriage; Jim’s 2nd—which all goes to show:  Love can be lovelier, furrier and purrier the second (and third) time around.

Thanks, Karin, for the smiles.

 

When the going gets tough, friendship means everything

Burton with his buddies, left to right: Tom Barnett, Jeff Blanchard, Michael Klein, Burton, Barry Shapiro

Burt Farbman’s the guy who makes the call. When a friend is sick or down on his luck, or scores a deal or wins an award, Burton makes the call.  Having lost his father when he was 11, Burton has antennae that cue him with the right thing to say. 

Others may lament: “I wish I had” or “I probably should.” Burton never needs those words.  He doesn’t shy away from the tough or tender conversation.  

Now Burton’s taken on a new role. This legendary businessman-developer-philanthropist-farmer-equestrian-golfer-fisherman-hunter-father-grandfather-brother-husband-friend has been sidelined by brain cancer and the after-effects of surgery. This is a hero who didn’t flinch (well, maybe a little) when I published a memoir about our marital struggles; who even went on national TV with me and owned up on Oprah.  A hero whose contrition influenced thousands of viewers and readers to give their relationships another try.  This is a partner who oversaw and championed my recovery from stage 4 cancer.  A fun maker who creates full-sized trophies for family championships from ping pong to Boggle. 

Burton’s Forum friends visit for his birthday: Greg Smith, Bill Baer, Richard Aginian, John Broad, Doug Blatt, Jim Nicholson (holding cake), John Piceu

This all-around good guy is now on the receiving end. Because Burt extended friendship to so many others—they now are strengthening him through those relationships.

Barry Shapiro, one of his besties, drove from his condo on the Sarasota bay to our house in the boonies to watch every football game last fall.  Michael Kramer and Curt Slotkin, 2 more Burt besties, drove across state from Palm Beach to hang out with my man while I was in the D. 

Recently, 8 more FOB came to visit: Richard Aginian, Bill Baer, Doug Blatt, John Broad, Jim Nicholson, Ron Palmer, John Piceu and Greg Smith.  They belong to a forum formed more than 30 years ago through YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization).  They flew to Sarasota to join Burton for dinner.  (Richard, already in SRQ, drove.)  Forum member David Fischer, now overseas as a US Ambassador, called from Morocco.  The next morning, the group came to our house to share birthday cake with their buddy. 

Burt’s cousin Judie Koploy joined us for dinner most nights in the D and flew to Florida to facilitate our move.  We often dine on rotisserie “fenceless” chicken.  Years ago Judie was making dinner.  Son Edward, then about 4, asked what she was cooking.  Judie showed him Cornish game hens.  He said, “We’re eating those poor little fenceless chickens?” 

Support of many friends has boosted our morale. Sue Hokamp invited us to her house to celebrate Burton’s birthday.   Lee and Patty Chaplin invited us for a bird ballet. Thousands of winged creatures swooped down on the island below. Our adored aide Fayez (aka Faisal J, the in-house rapper) facilitates our outings.  Roger Kasle played checkers with Burton most days in the D.  Artie Greenstone brought over a nurse consultant.  In SRQ, Jim Billings, Bob Fritsch, Stephen Proctor and others drop by to keep Burton company.  Our family provides off-the-charts comfort.  And many girlfriends check in or make plans with me.      

It’s easy to be a friend during the good times.  In 52 years of marriage, there’ve been loads of good times.  But as for friendship, when the chips are down—that’s the true measure.   

Recently, Richard Francis, a Florida friend from Montreal, and his wife Maureen visited.  In October, 1991, Richard was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  His doctors didn’t think he’d make it to Christmas.  

Richard kept fighting.  In 1993, Dick Rebolledo, Richard’s friend from New York, called him.  Dick, then 80, said, “Sydney, Australia, was just selected as the site of the 2000 Olympics.  Let’s buy tickets.”

Richard says, “We laughed and joked about which events we’d attend. The call really touched me.  Dick’s message was clear.  Never stop making plans.  Never give up.  Friendship is everything.”

Dick died of a heart attack soon after.  Richard’s still alive and kicking and telling good stories. 

Thanks, Richard, for the reminder.  Thanks, pals near and far, for being there.  For keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.  Your friendship makes all the difference.      

The Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer of healing, heals hearts as well as bodies

Burt, Suzy and our grandkids on the last day of 2019.

15 years ago, recovering from stage 4 cancer, I attended a service at Detroit’s Temple Beth El.  Our son David was speaking that night.  I was there for the singing of the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish Prayer of Healing.  I’d spent 8 months in treatment and didn’t realize my name had been read every Friday night on the Sabbath, as a member needing healing prayers.  It was a comforting surprise.  As any cancer survivor knows, I was still feeling vulnerable.  Waiting for the next shoe to drop.  And since I hadn’t gone out socially for so long, you can be sure the shoe wasn’t a Louboutin.

15 years later, I’m familiar with the Mi Shebeirach, with its soulful tune and moving lyrics.

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M’kor Hab’racha l’imoteinu
May the source of strength
Who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage
To make our lives a blessing
And let us say, Amen.
Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M’kor habrachah l’avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing
With r’fuah sh’leimah
The renewal of body,
The renewal of spirit.
And let us say, Amen. 

Now my husband’s the one dealing with a health challenge.  Instead of spending his retirement on the golf course as he intended, Burton has spent way too much time in hospitals.  In those hospitals I sought out chapels where I could weep in private.  There on my cell phone I discovered a beautiful version of a guitarist singing the Mi Shebeirach.  I played it over and over.

Recently, I received a call from Temple Beth El’s Cantor Rachel.  She thought I was in the D and wanted to visit and give me a hug.  I told her I relish every hug I can get these days, but was in Sarasota.   Only God’s arms stretch that far.  I asked if she’d sing a Mi Shebeirach for us.  I took my phone into the family room where Burton sat in his comfy motorized recliner.  I perched on the arm of the chair, held Burton’s hand and said, “Hit it, Cantor.” The voice of an angel wafted through the phone.  Music shoots straight to the heart.  Evidence of my physiological response streamed down my cheeks.  A sacred and painful yet hopeful moment.

I’m grateful to be here.  I’m grateful to be anywhere.  I’m especially grateful to be here for Burton, who  was a better caregiver than I’ll ever be.  Still, I believe in miracles.  I hope our family didn’t use up our entire allotment in my recovery almost 200 full moons ago.  Burton could use a miracle of his own.  The side effects he suffers from brain surgery in 2018 are daunting.  Partial paralysis.  Cognitive impairment.  But so far he’s progressing.  He helps himself (God helps those…) by working hard at PT, staying positive and participating in whatever he can.

Recently I took him to see the new Sarasota Art Museum.  A miracle in itself of hard work, architectural genius, generosity and faith.  Burton patiently listened to me expound on Vik Muniz, whose smart, creative photographs were (still are) on display.  Our morning visit to the SAM wore Burton out.  We returned home soon after.  Later, friends Larry Thompson and Anne Garlington of the Ringling Art & Design College visited.  That night Burton was too pooped to make it to dinner with friends Jill and Scott Levine.  I went without him.  I told the Levines about our Mi Shebeirach solo.  And how often I’d listened to a You Tube video of a woman singing it with a guitar in a chapel.

“Debbie Friedman,” Jill said.

I hadn’t noticed the name of the woman serenading me on You Tube.  The next morning I checked her out on the internet.  Not only did Debbie Friedman perform the song countless times in countless synagogues, but she had composed the tune.  Sadly the power of the song wasn’t enough to heal her.  She died in 2011, at 59, of an undisclosed illness.

According to Debbie’s eulogy by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Reform worship was once characterized by organs and choirs.  “Debbie taught us to sing… as communities and congregations.  The guitar became a sacred instrument in her hands.”

Surely the angels in heaven are as entranced by Debbie’s singing as I was.  Thanks, Jill, for the heads up.  Debbie, for the hope and consolation.  Cantor Rachel, for the acapella solo.

Thanks, friends, for the prayers and well wishes.  May we all find the courage to make our lives a blessing.

Burt calls Bingo in December; Alexis Farbman (in New Years hat) won. Her name is now engraved on the Annual family Bingo trophy (left) held by Fischer Farbman.

Born in Germany, Rita Dunker creates a happy home for lucky dogs in Detroit

Rita Dunker and her daughters.

Rita grew up in post-war Germany in Weseke, a rural town of under 2,000 on the Dutch border. Her father had been pulled out of school and drafted into the Nazi German army at 16.  “He had no choice,”  his daughter says.  His brother was drafted, too, and died in the war.  “It was a very oppressive time,” Rita says.

During and after the war, famine was rampant.  Even in the 1960s, the country was still recovering from destruction and shortage of supplies.  The family lived on fruits and vegetables from their garden and meat from their own livestock.  In the early 1970s, the Dunkers still lacked a refrigerator and TV.  Nor did they have a pet.  Rita says, “The only animals I knew were farm animals we’d slaughter and eat.”

That would change.  Years later, as an adult living in Birmingham, MI, Rita’s in charge of around 100 dogs.

How this came to be is a saga…

In her teens, Rita loved France and studied French.  After WWII, when France and Germany were adversaries, the governments of both countries introduced a policy of rapprochement, or reconciliation, through youth exchange programs.  Wishing to leave her village, Rita grew interested in international relations.  In 1982, a businessman from Detroit hired her to start and run a division of his company in Germany, dealing in low carbon iron.

Divorced with full custody of 2 young daughters, Rita became romantically involved with her boss, Gary.  They  dated for 2 years “until he convinced me to come to America.”

In 1991, Rita moved to the US with her daughters and applied for a green card, enabling them to stay in the US.  She and Gary married.  Gary was Jewish.  The move proved an adjustment.  Rita says of her  generation, “We were born after the Holocaust but still felt a lot of guilt.”  When she first moved to America and into a Jewish community, she says, “I didn’t know how to address my past.  I felt very uncomfortable.  Still, it was my history.  I had to own it.”

Rita became friends with many Jews; she worked to connect Jewish contacts to the growing German business community.  In 2002, the president of Germany came to the US on his way to the Salt Lake City  Olympics.  He spent 2 days in Detroit.  Rita organized his visit and included a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Gary had adopted Rita’s girls in 2001.  That same year Rita and her daughters became US citizens.  4 years later, Rita’s marriage to Gary failed.  “Gary wanted a different life,” Rita says.

Rita faced a predicament.   Her daughters were teenagers.  She wanted to put them through college.  She needed an income.   She spent a year researching business ideas on the internet.  Her daughters, Laura and Imke, loved animals.  Laura longed to, and eventually did, become a veterinarian.  (Caregiving’s in the family DNA.  Imke became a nurse.)

Influenced by Laura’s love of animals, Rita adopted a rescue dog from the Michigan Humane Society in 2005. Laura applied to vet school at MSU but was declined.  “She was devastated,” Rita says.  Her daughter’s disappointment put dogs on Rita’s radar.  She looked into creating a facility to board animals.  She realized most such facilities were “dirty, smelly and crowded.”  She decided to create a better mousetrap, or dog house, to be specific.

Rita wanted to create a home away from home for dogs, reflecting the changing dynamics in dog/owner relationships.  “Dogs are members of the family,” Rita says.  “They need appropriate care and attention instead of just being tucked away.”

It was 2010.  The middle of an economic downturn.  Still, she says, “It never dawned on me that I could fail.”  She invested all the money she had and borrowed the rest.  She’s “still friends” with her loan officer from Comerica Bank who “came up with creative ways to finance the project.”  Rita drove many miles investigating locations, eventually deciding on an industrial area in suburban Troy, MI.   She obtained rezoning approval.  The city wanted her to provide more parking spots; she objected, preferring to save square footage for dog play area.  Rita was determined to provide 60sf, inside and out, per animal.  “The main goal was to give dogs room to run around and enjoy their freedom.”

Rita estimates she spent about $1.5 million to get into business, including buying the building.   She opened The Barkshire (love the ritzy name) in 2011.  Despite what she calls “obstacles,” the business has grown steadily.  The Barkshire gains new clients every day.  (As with every good idea, others follow.  There are now at least 10 competitors within 10 miles.)

“We want our dogs to enjoy themselves.  Some play; some just watch others play.  The Barkshire is like a kindergarten or an overnight camp for dogs.”

The Barkshire provides day care and overnight boarding.  One of Rita’s favorite clients was Tommy, a German Shepherd.   Two days a week, Tommy would take his leash in his mouth, stand by the door to the garage in his house and jump into the car.  His owner drove him to the Barkshire where he proceeded straight to his group of doggie pals.

Her first 2 years in business were “really hard” Rita says.  “I placed a lot of trust in some people who didn’t prove trustworthy.”  One tried to sue her, but the judge ruled in Rita’s favor.  It took time to develop her staff, but she now has “a solid team.”  One employee has been with her from the start.  Her staff numbers 18.  She’s “the company mom.”

A tough part of the job is losing clients that don’t live long compared to humans.  “We hug our dogs and lie on the ground with them.  Over 8 years, we’ve lost a lot of them.  Our break room is plastered with their photos.”

Her favorite dog?  “I love pit bulls,” she says.  “Some people train them to be vicious, but those we accept go through a temperament test.  Often they’re rescued from abusive situations, trained for fighting with their ears clipped.  But they’ll roll on their backs in a sign of submission.  Socializing at The Barkshire gives them a chance to become normal.  So many dogs need help.”

Rita’s own pet is Dolfi, a pinscher/Chihuahua mix.  Found in the street with a broken leg, he was brought to a veterinary clinic where he underwent surgery, then waited 3 months to be rescued.  Rita was “drawn to his sad eyes.”

Rita’s parents spent their lives in Weseke.  They died in 2001 and 2003.  Rita’s father didn’t talk about his experiences as a young man in Nazi Germany until 5 years before he died at age 79.  When he finally did, she says, he cried.   “People of that generation weren’t used to showing their emotions.”

Rita appreciates seeing her homeland take responsibility for its past.  “There are monuments to Germany’s shame all over the country, especially in Berlin.  The memorials make me feel like Germany has found its soul again.”

The Barkshire has brought Rita “a nice, happy life,” she says.  “It’s amazing how people can find happiness again.  But the stars have to align.  A lot of people struggle and things never fall into place.  I got lucky.  It worked out.”

100 dogs and dozens of dog owners are glad it did.  Thanks, Rita, for sharing your story.  And for the canine contentment you bring.

After navigating many rough waters, Michelle Brault finds smoother sailing (part 3)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Enjoy all of this 3-part story—Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here—and this is Part 3.

Michelle’s travails weren’t over yet.

The main air conditioning unit of her house died, creating what she terms “my next obstacle.”  For many months her daughter slept with her mom on Michelle’s king-sized bed in a room cooled by a window unit.

Then, another bombshell.  She learned her ex had overextended himself.  He was $1 million in debt, partly due to back taxes. It was 2010.  Michelle was liable for half of her then-husband’s debt.  Her ex filed for bankruptcy, leaving Michelle no option but to do the same.

Michelle was still working at Saks.  “I used the position as a network for meeting people,” she says.  A customer came into the store, looking for a gown.  She had a tracheotomy.  “The other saleswomen freaked,” she says.  “I was fine with it.  I just said: I love spending other peoples’ money.”  The customer’s husband gave her a budget: $1,000.  Michelle found his wife a gown for $500.

The customer’s husband was so impressed that he told Michelle his neighbor, a CEO with a non-profit, was looking for a salesperson.  “I’ll be there in an hour,” Michelle said.  She got the job for $25k a year more plus benefits.

Her luck had begun to turn.

In her second not-for-profit job, Michelle worked on a fund-raising event for a Circus Arts Conservatory organization.  Through that she landed a job as development director with an additional salary hike.

In 2017, Michelle was working on a golf tournament at Laurel Oak Country Club, where Burton and I are members.  Her friend Leslie Cornell, then membership director, mentioned she was leaving.  The salary level was significantly higher.  Leslie cautioned, “They’re looking for someone with membership experience.”

Michelle met with the general manager and 2 board members of LOCC.  They all preferred someone with membership experience.

“I told them if I could learn the term streptococcus pneumonia and what anti-biotics treated it—I could learn membership.”

Long story short.  Michelle was hired.  Generous commission structure.  Full benefits.  4-weeks paid vacation.  On Dec.11, 2019, Michelle celebrated 2 years at LOCC and a record number of new members.

Flashback.  On Labor Day, 2008, Michelle had learned her birth father, John Sweeney, was dying of liver cancer.  His other children were unable to get to the hospital to be with him.  Michelle drove to Ft. Lauderdale and sat by his bed.  He was thin and jaundiced.  He said, “Oh my God, Michelle, you’re the last person I thought would be here.”  She said she’d come to bring love from Kathleen and Kerry, the daughters he’d raised.  When a nurse came in, he said to her, “Have you ever seen a more beautiful girl?”

Michelle kissed his cheek.  He died the next day.

Michelle says, “The first person he brought into this world was the last person to say goodbye.”

A counselor came into the room and asked Michelle if she was okay.  “Yes,” she said.  “It isn’t about me.  I didn’t have a connection with him.  I was just a blood relative.”

Michelle’s on her way back to financial health.  “I have a great product to sell.  Beautiful people are  attracted to Laurel Oak.  I wish I’d known about this industry 20 years ago.  But you can’t live your life in shoulda, woulda, coulda.

“Through hard work I landed a good job and a high credit rating.  I bought a new home and new furniture and nice cars for myself and my daughter.  We even had a vacation.  Last summer Bella went to London and Italy with her father’s family.  I took my sons to Key West.”

2 weeks later, 4 family emergencies wiped out her savings.  But so it goes.  Michelle keeps moving forward.

“I always knew I’d make it.  It was a matter of when, not if.  And I did it myself.  That’s super empowering.  I hope I’ve taught my children a lesson about never, EVER giving up.”

Thanks, Michelle, for sharing your story of hard work, chutzpah and resilience.  Thanks for sharing the highs and lows of your journey.   As for your love life, hope #3’s the charm.  He’ll be one lucky guy.