Nose Above Water and Not About to Drown

This horoscope appeared in the paper the very week my life was upended in April 2009:

Wednesday, April 15th 2009: Life is full of situations that support or challenge you, Scorpio. However, one thing seems to be true for everyone: Your attitude can dictate the way you feel. Even when things feel stagnant in your life, stay positive. A surprise piece of news is headed your way, and whatever it is, it'll give you a lift.

They say that when you think you are heading to the other side, there is a bright white light blaring down the staircase you are to ascend. Some report seeing their life pass in review at lightening speed. I think less of my namesake Jeanne D’Arc sizzling over the hot coals reserved for witches than I do of sinking below the surface under the waves of life. Sinking, sinking into the sea; but then my legs kick and I shoot out of the water like a breaching humpback or a killer whale showing off and my head is once again back above water.

“Into every life, some rain must fall.” Some people have thunderstorms or tornados or mudslides or emotional earthquakes. We part with spouses or “others.” We lose siblings or friends. Our careers don’t go as we might have dreamed. We get subverted or ‘deep sixed’ by some boss who felt threatened by our competence or his/her lack thereof. Illness befalls people close to us or it strikes us personally. In other words: “Life happens.” Sometimes we bring the manure down upon ourselves and other times someone else throws the banana peel into our path that causes us to lose our balance.

It’s always hardest to cope with things when they aren’t expected. It’s easier to play it cool, be calm in the face of adversity, pretend it doesn’t matter if, IF you have an inkling that something bad might be around the next bend and can prepare for it. It’s being blindsided that is the most difficult to handle. It is how we approach what befalls us that helps define who we are, both to ourselves and to those who know us.

My Mom, Eleanore Bloomfield Berger Smith Shallant, was a serially monogamous woman. She married my Dad, her high school sweetheart not long after she graduated in 1933 from Heights High in Cleveland, Ohio. They had four kids. The first one died in childbirth, then two boys and I was last. They were married for 18 years when bickering overtook the relationship and they called it quits. It was 1951, a time when divorce was not well accepted by anyone, no matter what your social circle. All of her friends dropped her like a hot potato and so did her parents. She met Harry Smith, a man from Brooklyn at a Pennsylvania resort. As the band played Some Enchanted Evening, Harry walked across the room and asked her to dance. The relationship evolved into the love of her life. She decided to move herself and me to New York and marry him. She had a lovely second marriage until Harry had a heart attack on a Monday and died that Friday, one year before the first bypass was performed. He had severe angina. With today’s bypass technology, Harry would have lived another 20 years but it wasn’t in his cards. The New York chapter of her life lasted just about 20 years when she decided she needed a clean sweep and to move somewhere else where she could better pick up her life and go on.

Her instincts were impeccable. Her next move was to Greensboro NC where her sister had lived since the 1940’s and where my grandmother had moved from Cleveland, Ohio in 1968 after my grandfather passed on. She wasn’t there six months when a widower proposed marriage to her and she accepted. That marriage lasted 13 years until he succumbed to leukemia. Throughout her life, Mom showed this steely determination to “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again,” just like the lyrics from the Broadway musical about one of the survivors of the Titanic disaster, the Unsinkable Molly Brown.

In the end, my mother outlived both that first baby who died at birth and the second one, my older brother, who died of AIDS in 1992. She started her life over twice, in cities alien to where she was born and raised where she really knew almost no one when she arrived. She buried two husbands. Meeting her you would never have known of the adversity she had suffered in her life. She loved music, she loved to dance, (sounds like a Mary Higgins Clark book) and she had a wonderfully impish sense of humor and bawdiness about her. She was athletic and a fabulous swimmer. She was really smart in an age when she was never encouraged to take those brains to college. In the good old days (1950’s) when NYC had many newspapers, she read them all, everyday. Maybe that is why I may be the last person left in America who still subscribes to 5 newspapers per day. She did the crosswords faithfully until her synapses stopped connecting. She took journaling and other writing classes right into her 80’s. She was pretty and she was alive. But mostly she just never gave up.

I admired my Mother for this inner strength that seemed to define her. Somehow, it seems that watching her live her life, I, too, learned not to give up and to forge ahead; even when things seem impossible. In November 1985 I learned that my ex-husband was having an affair, lost my job, and the doctors thought my Mother was dying (she recovered). All that happened in a 3 week period. They say that the three things most likely to cause a heart attack are the loss of a spouse, the loss of your job, or the death of someone close to you. I was faced with all three in a virtual tsunami. And yet, that was when friends circled around me and helped me to start Gramercy Capital and go on.

More than 23 years later, the recent stock market crash bottomed on March 9th, 2009. Living through that 18 months was horrific. Our clients were frightened and so was everyone else. A month later, our office subtenants who had shared space with us for 8 years suddenly announced they were going out of business at the end of April. We were forced to abandon our lovely offices on three weeks notice because without them we couldn’t afford the rent and the landlord preferred having an empty floor to providing much relief on the rent.

I had 20 day to purge 23years of “stuff.” It was the drowning man scenario. The life of my company and my own life for this period was passing in review with every file drawer I opened. My job was to sort out what was generic and what could just go into the trash and what was confidential and had to be shredded by one of these companies that drives a truck to your door and hands you a certificate of authenticity that they really have ground everything to a pulp. Client records, social security numbers, brokerage statements for people living and deceased. Among that latter group were my relatives, including my Mom who signed out in 2003.

The hardest drawer was one that held years and years of my own personal records. There was the file signing up my son for Knicks basketball camp. Except that when he got there, they said we hadn’t registered him and turned him away. He was angry for years about that and I still don’t know what happened. There were the records of fabulous parties we gave in the good old days: skating parties at the Sky Rink when JoJo Starbuck and my daughter and her friends who trained there daily put on an ice show for our guests. There was the bonanza weekend when I turned 50 and people came from all over the country to help me celebrate. I found the receipt for the 50 tickets we bought for the Nathan Lane revival of Guys and Dolls and took everyone to the show as part of the party weekend. There was a party at the New York Yacht Club for 150 on Friday, a black tie party for 65 in my house on Saturday, and a Zabar’s brunch on Sunday before people left for the airport. My son’s Bar Mitzvah festivities were in the next file. All such happy events.

Then the next file plunged me into despair. It was the file with all the receipts and bills I paid for my brother’s funeral in Charlottesville when he died, one year before the cocktails to treat AIDS were first introduced that would have extended his life.

So I felt like the drowning person whose life is passing in review. Except that I was not drowning. The flashback wasn’t a matter of seconds. It went on for three weeks. It was like an old fashioned hand cranked movie in the penny arcades I would go into on the Boardwalk at Coney Island with Harry Smith while my Mother did her crossword puzzles sitting outside on a boardwalk bench. But when it was finally over, I felt cleansed and ready to move on. My Mother purged everything when her husbands died. She threw away all the greeting cards and memorabilia and headed out to a new town to start over. She took nothing with her. My daughter purges her closets once a year. If she hasn’t worn something for a year, it goes right to the thrift shop. This seems to have been a generation skipping trait.

I am a pack rat. I throw away nothing. That’s why my daughter will occasionally show up at a political rally wearing a suit I bought at Bonwit Teller in 1968. (They’ve been out of business for at least 30 years!) I was thinner then but I can assure you I was never a vanity size 6 as she claims to be. Go figure (no pun intended). I have a closet shelf with all the ceramics my kids made in elementary school. My office had the business equivalent of unending stuff. Awards, photos with Lady Thatcher and Lou Rukeyser, framed letters from prominent business leaders, feature stories about me in myriad magazines and newspapers. Going through that stuff was fun. All of that detritus and my senior citizens’ discount transit card get me into the subway these days.

But everything else was fair game for the shredders or the dumpsters. That was just preparation for the next “movin’ on” episode from my too large apartment which followed later in the year.

In summary, what I actually did in 2009 was to shed my skin like a snake. I was forced, despite my considerable annoyance, to purge “willy nilly” all the “stuff” from my past. There’s simply no room to keep it. Rest assured, all of this has been very hard work.
I am trying hard to make a clean break with what has come before but also to build on what life has taught me.

Just as the similar period in 1985 forced me into a fabulous new beginning and the creation of Gramercy Capital, I am in a flurry of new entrepreneurial enthusiasm, both for and for Sail Long Island, the sailing school in Greenport, NY, I started last year while all of this other stuff was going on. ( I am kicking my legs and am about to shoot out of the water. In the end, I am my Mother’s daughter. That optimistic essence of who she was didn’t skip me for a minute.