Author Archives: Suzy Farbman

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.

 

Michelle Brault buckles down and goes to college (part 2)

THERE WILL BE A HAPPY ENDING … That’s the theme of the life of Michelle Brault. She’s center with the glass in this family photo from Thanksgiving 2019.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Enjoy all of this 3-part story: Part 1 is here; you are now reading Part 2; Part 3 is here.

When she graduated from high school in 1984, Michelle sold cosmetics until she turned 21—old enough to join Continental.  In her 20s, she traveled the world as a flight attendant.

“I never cared about school,” she says.  “Though my whole family was educated, when I was young, all I cared about what boys and fashion.”   At 30, she decided a college degree would improve her prospects.  She went to enroll at Florida’s Eckerd College.  A counselor said, “You have poor grammar skills; weak math skills.  There’s no way you can graduate from Eckerd College.”

Michelle glared back and said, “I will go to this school and I will graduate.”

Her father supported her family while she drove from Tampa to St. Petersburg for classes and tutoring.   “I took triple classes and sat eating humble pie in labs with 18-year olds.”   After 3 years she graduated, age 33, with honors and a 3.8 average.  A panel of professors approved her graduation.  Her birth mother and birth sister Kim came to the ceremony.  “It was one of the proudest days of my life.”

Meanwhile, she’d survived plenty of drama.  Within 1 and 1/2 years, Michelle had divorced a dashing Columbian con man; her mom had gotten cancer; and she’d met her birth family.  At 35, she married an attorney with a 7-year-old son.  Michelle’s sons, Nicholas and Matthew, were 7 and 5.  Together, she and #2 had a daughter, Bella.

“For me, work had been mostly a matter of hunt, kill and feed.  I just wanted to make money and take care of my family.”  She and #2 decided his income could support their family.  She quit her job as a pharmaceutical rep and became a stay-at-home mom.

Two years later, she says, “I realized I was in trouble.  I’d rushed into marriage.  My husband  had no friends.  He didn’t like having people at our house.”  The couple were together for 10 years, married for 9.   She came to see her second husband as a narcissist. The term comes from the Greek myth about Narcissus, a hunter who falls in love with his own image and for whom the daffodil-like flower is named.  The name stems from the Greek word for narcotic.

As a distraction, Michelle joined Mothers Helping Mothers, an all-volunteer not-for-profit providing emotional support, clothes and baby items free of charge to Sarasota area mothers.  It was 2008-9, during the last recession.  “Women were embarrassed to come in to a charity for clothing.  I acted like their personal shopper, advising them about fashion and what looked best on them so they felt more comfortable picking through others’ clothes.”

A young woman named Tammy came to the charity.  She’d been let go from Publix.  She had a teenage daughter with a chronic illness and was on food stamps.  Michelle said, “I think I can help you.”  She met her at the market and paid $225 for a month’s worth of food for Tammy’s family.

When she got home, she told her husband about it.  “He was livid,” she says.

“I said, ‘That’s one hour of your billable fees.’  I knew right then we’d never see the world the same way.  He was trying to make me into a Stepford Wife.”

9 years after they were married, in June, 2010, spouse #2 walked out on Michelle, their 4 children and  4,000-square-foot suburban house.  He agreed to pay her $300 a week and cover the household bills until their divorce came through.  That August, he cut off Michelle’s electric and water services and stipend.

Michelle went to see him.  She asked, “How could you do this?”

The Deuce said, “You need to get a job.”

In September, Michelle marched into the office of Sally Schule, the well-known manager of Saks.  “I said, ‘I really need a job.  You’re going to hire me.  I can sell anything.  Ice to Eskimos. How much can you pay me?”

She got the job, but not for enough to feed her family.

“I had to go on food stamps for a month until my pay kicked in and the divorce was final and I could collect alimony and child support.  I became one of the people I’d been helping.  I drove a Mercedes to Walmart with food stamps.”

She sold her wedding ring and her Rolex watch for $6000.  “That was all I could get.  When that ring  went into a box, I knew my former life was over.”

For a while, Michelle got by with help from her friends.  “Ding dong, the doorbell would ring.  A friend would bring over a meal.  Ding dong, here’s $100.  Ding dong, a gift card from Publix. “  A neighbor sent  her landscaper to mow Michelle’s lawn.

From the volunteer work Michelle had done, she knew lawyers did some pro bono work.  She convinced Carmen Gillett, a respected Sarasota marital attorney, to take her case.  Her divorce from the husband was granted on Nov. 15, 2010.  She now deems it the date of her “Emancipation Proclamation.”  She got alimony for 3 years alimony and child support until her daughter turns 18.

(more about this proud and plucky gal’s saga in Part 3, next week)

Michelle Brault is grateful for the parents who gave her away and the parents who raised her (part1)

Michelle Brault with sons Matthew and Nicolas in the year Michelle’s Mom died and she found her birth family.

Life has knocked Michelle Brault down many times for many reasons.  But nothing keeps her down for long.

Times, attitudes and legal rights have shifted since Michelle was born in 1966.  Although abortion became legal in New York that year, Michelle’s unwed parents, Diane and John, moved from Pittsfield, MA, to Albany, NY, to wait out Diane’s pregnancy.  Both Catholic, they gave birth at Our Lady of Providence to ensure their child’s adoption by a Catholic family.

Their prayers were answered.

Virginia and Joseph Brault had been married 4 years.  Unable to conceive, they approached Our Lady of Providence adoption agency.  Soon after, they brought home a baby girl they named Michelle.  In one of many Godsigns, Michelle’s birth parents had named their baby Michelle, the name the Braults unknowingly chose.  2 years later, the Braults brought home Michelle’s adopted brother, Michael.

Joseph was a pharmaceutical sales manager for Bristol Meyers Squibb.  Virginia, a former pediatric nurse, became a stay-at-home mom.  Michelle says, “I literally grew up with a white picket fence and dinner on the table every night.  My friends all hung out at our house because they could feel the love inside.”

Although adoption was often hushed up in the 60s, Virginia raised Michelle to know she’d been adopted.  She read her books about adopted children.  “She always told me I was special,” Michelle says.  “Thanks to her, I believe in happy endings.”

In that era, birth parents’ identities were kept secret.  But Michelle says, “I grew up with a deep longing to know my birth parents.  Who did I resemble?  What traits did I inherit?  What medical issues?”

At 30, Michelle had a job selling hair products to high end salons.  She was working with a salon owner who was cutting the hair of a male client.  Michelle asked the client if he happened to be a pilot.  He replied no; he was a private investigator.

“Oh good,” Michelle said.  “Will you find my parents?”

The P.I. agreed.

The P.I. discovered that Massachusetts had changed its laws.  For $300, Michelle could learn the identity of her birth parents.

That was a challenge. Michelle had recently divorced the man she had been married to from 1992-97. “I was a single mom with 2 little boys,” she says.  “I didn’t have $300.”  But the P.I. found the information anyway.

Michelle wrote a 4-page letter to Diane, her birth mother, asking to meet her parents.  She was warned they’d probably refuse since they’d married 6 months after Michelle was born, Diane had 2 daughters from a previous marriage and she and John had had 2 children together.   Undeterred, Michelle says, “I thanked them for giving me life.  I said I looked on their giving me up as an act of love, not rejection.  I asked to meet them.  Diane wrote back: yes, of course.”

Diane called that night.  Michelle picked up the phone and said, “Is this who I think it is?”

Diane said, “Yes.  It’s Diane.  Your birth mother.”

Michelle says, “I started to cry.  I was overwhelmed to talk to the person who gave me life and gave me away.”

Michelle Berault and the look-alike sister, Kerry.

Michelle learned her birth mother had been 28 when Michelle was born.  She was half-Italian and half- French.  Her birth father had been 26, college educated and a newscaster. Having a high-profile job, her father felt unable to admit to a child out of wedlock.  Michelle would come to learn she had 2 half sisters who ended up being raised by their father’s sister.  But she was “super excited” to hear she had 2 full sisters.

“It’s rare for an adoptee to get 2 full sisters,” Michelle says.  “But then, I believe in happy endings.”

Michelle arranged to meet her birth family, including Diane, half-sisters Robin and Kim and full sisters Kathleen and Kerry (the latter turned out to look just like Michelle).  Michelle flew from Fort Lauderdale to Providence, RI.  Walking down the jet way was, she says, “the only time in my life I hyperventilated.”  But she settled down with a big group hug.

The weekend she spent with her birth family was a highlight, she says, even though none of the girls knew about her.  “But they weren’t shocked.”  She learned Diane had given her first 2 children to their father, who in turn gave them to their grandmother, to raise.

(More about Michelle’s colorful life in next column)

From Vietnam to Traverse City, an all-American story of embracing diversity, including delicious Pho

Celebration of Soon’s and Tony’s families.

Soon has risen to one of my top ten favorite interviews.  It’s not just due to her remarkable story.  It’s also about her divine dumplings.

Soon was born in Saigon in 1975.  Her father fought for the South Vietnamese on the American side during the Vietnam War.  After the war ended, in the mid-70s, Vietnamese citizens who’d fought for the South were “requested to enter re-education camps,” Soon says.  In 1979, the family fled “to pursue a better life.”  Soon was almost 5.  Her dad had $300 in his pocket when the family landed in the U.S..  Soon’s mom left 11 siblings behind.  Her dad, 14.

Soon’s family, including 6 kids and her pregnant mother, spent 40 days on a boat before landing in the Philippines where they stayed for 6 months at a refugee camp.  The family landed in Fresno, CA, sponsored by an uncle who’d also fought for the South.  About 800,000 Vietnamese left their country by boat from 1975-95.  Many perished due to danger from pirates, overcrowded boats and storms.  Soon’s family of 8 were among the lucky ones.  All survived.

Soon says, “Being a refugee taught me a lot about resilience and not looking back.  About the importance of people.  Not things.”

(Personal note.  I grew up with only a vague notion of Vietnam.  In March, ’65, while a junior at the U of M, I heard about an upcoming event called a “teach-in,” the first of many to follow on other campuses.  Professors spent the night lecturing on a war in an obscure place in southeast Asia.  Due not to political savvy but to my innate desire to be part of the action, I decided to attend.  I tried convincing some SDT sorority sisters to join me.  No luck, so I went solo.  I returned better informed about Vietnam but still personally unaffected. 3 years later, my new husband was reclassified 1A.  Now I was affected.  Phlebitis spared Burton from the draft.  My ex-boyfriend in ROTC served in Vietnam and returned emotionally scarred for life.  More than 58,000 American youth came back in caskets.)

Soon’s parents scrambled to support their kids.  They bought a couple of acres at a time, growing fruits and vegetables native to their culture to feed their family and peddle, door to door, to grocery stores.  That business grew  into the Asiana Produce Co., a small firm now run by Soon’s sister.  In elementary school and junior high, Soon says, “I remember hating summers because I had to work on a farm picking and packing vegetables.”

In time, the family adjusted to their new country.  “For everything we had to figure out, including learning to speak English, my siblings and I turned out pretty normal.”  The rest of her family still live in California, mainly in the Bay area, with careers as entrepreneurs or in real estate.

Soon grew up, attended college at Fresno State, and moved to LA seeking a career in PR or broadcast TV.  She landed both.  She joined a firm doing PR for high end automotive and luxury products while moonlighting nights and weekends as a field producer/assignment editor.  At 30, her parents’ entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and Soon launched her own PR agency, Luxe Communications.  One of her mentors and a client of her previous agency , a successful businessman, McKeel Hagerty, from Traverse City, MI, insured classic cars and ran classic car events.  McKeel and Soon fell in love and married 9 years ago.  Together they have one daughter, Ava, 7.

Soon’s been back to Vietnam several times.  She finds the country and its people “awesome.”  Soon’s mom still resents what they endured and hasn’t returned.

Soon and Tony

As a teen, Soon longed to be Caucasian like her friends.  But, she says, “As I’ve gotten older, I realize diversity is cool.”  To express pride in her heritage, Soon decided to open a Vietnamese restaurant.  She realized Traverse City lacked both diversity and good places for carry out meals.  Through networking, Soon learned about and met Tony Vu.  His family were also boat people who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 70s.  Tony was running his own small Vietnamese shop, MaMang, in Flint, MI.

Soon and Tony became partners, starting a restaurant they call The Good Bowl.  To cater to locals, they established it toward the north (less touristy) end of TC’s Front St.  Tony takes care of the kitchen and “creative side.”  Soon handles overall business operations, marketing and the front of the house.  She calls herself “a strategist and people person.”  She sees her job as “supporting the team.  And wiping down tables as needed.”

Soon says, “Many people helped my family along the way.”  The Good Bowl reflects her desire to give back.  Soon and Tony carved out an unusual niche.  $1 of every meal goes to a local, national or international charity.  Guests suggest the recipients; staff vote for their choices.  In its first year of business, The Good Bowl donated over $30,000 to charities including Father Fred, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Doctors Without Borders.  Signage describes the current charity recipients, enhancing customer awareness.

Soon also organized Help in Heels, a group of 12 Traverse City women whose mission is to learn about, assist and donate to different local charities.  They take turns choosing the recipient.  One member decides which charity the group will focus on that month.  In the last 5 years, they’ve helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity, collected school supplies for teachers who’d other wise have spent their own money for classroom needs, made dinner for abused women at the Women’s Resource Center.  Recently they painted 500 stones with inspiring words for Michael’s Place, a counseling center for grieving youth.

Soon’s family, the Nguyens, are so grateful to be in America that every 5 years they mount a celebration honoring their adopted country.  Gatherings are filled with “lots of tears and toasts.”  For the 30th anniversary of the Nguyens’ arrival in America, Soon produced an Apple book featuring photos of the family’s journey.  On the cover: an image of her parents’ wedding day.  She printed 30 copies, one for each family member.

In 2018, Soon arranged a family reunion.  Tony joined in.  Between Soon’s 25 family members and Tony’s 11, the twosome hosted brunch for 37 at The Good Bowl.  The families got along so well that Soon invited the Vus to her house for a lobster fest.

I left the restaurant having devoured all the dumplings Soon put before me.  She sent me home with a delicious concoction called Pho but pronounced fah.  And with dumplings instantly scarfed up by my family.  My tastebuds have never enjoyed an interview more.

Thanks, Soon, for sharing a fascinating and delectable story.  And for reminding us of the blessing of being a nation of immigrants.  I shall return.  Soon!

(Thanks Nadine Farbman and Natalie Victor for introducing me to Soon.)

A delicious bowl of Pho. Perfect for a chilly winter’s day!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very Detroit story of rebirth, recovery and romance

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

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

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris proved a dream trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I learned the unexpected benefit of not belonging

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

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

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

How hard could it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two roads
diverged
in a
yellow
wood…

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

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