Building a home to fill a void

Sun., November 23, 2014

Savannah Morning News column

No parent wants to bury a child. That’s not the way things are supposed to unfold. No one plans for it; no one can. The order is all wrong. It’s messed up.  But it happens. And when it does – death is so final, after all – there’s no going back, no rewriting the situation. From that point on you do what you can to remember the spirit of that child, the good times, the memories. You do what you think best suits the person.

Robert Bonder lived fast. He lived large. He lived full.

“It was always ninety to nothing for Rob,” his sister Cherie Dennis, a third-grade teacher at Hess Elementary, said.

To remember Rob, a young man of 31 who loved the creative side of business and real estate and friends but who could also step outside his twentysomething bubble to help someone who needed groceries or a place to live, his family landed on Habitat for Humanity. They would raise money, in Rob’s name, to build a house for someone who couldn’t afford a house. That would fit the bill. That would honor Rob.

And so they did.

For the past 10 years, since his untimely death, they’ve asked friends and family members to contribute to this Habitat project, for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings or in the case of Rob’s grandparents the Chanukah money they would have given him each year. The largest donation never exceeded $2,500. This year the family reached its goal of $50,000, enough to start construction.  So the Friday following Thanksgiving family members from Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Florida will gather at an empty lot on Texas Street holding the proverbial shovels and participating in a memorial service conducted by Rabbi Robert Haas from Congregation Mickve Israel. In Rob’s memory they will begin the process of building a new home for a stranger.

“I think he would approve,” said Rob’s father Michael Bonder, who was wearing a blocky gold ring with the letters RB from his son’s Bar Mitzvah.

Rob came to Savannah from Chattanooga to go to SCAD, but two years into the architectural program he dropped out. He and a childhood friend also from Chattanooga bought a four-unit apartment building on Drayton and Macon streets. And that was just the start. Eventually he and other friends, riding the wave of renovation in the historic district, owned 140 downtown apartment units, which they managed through their company, Polaris Property Management. They ran Digital Wireless, a high-speed Internet access company, and started B & B Billiards on Congress Street.

None of that surprised his father, a physician, who relocated to Savannah with his late wife 10 years ago.

“In high school he worked like crazy,” Michael said. “At 16 he was the district manager of Cutco Knives and had a bunch of kids working for him. When he got to Savannah and started working, he made enough money to buy a yellow Land Rover that he drove to Chattanooga. That’s when he told me he’d never give it up. The next day he called me in my office and said, ‘You gotta see the black and white one I found.’

“He was industrious and creative. But he was always involved with family. He kept in touch with cousins. He’d come up to Boston to help his grandparents get to the doctor.”

“People express their grief in their own way,” said Cherie, who used to be on the board for Habitat for Humanity. “This is the first time Habitat has dedicated a house in someone’s name. We think Rob would have liked this. He was so involved with revitalization and with people. We had to take the grief we felt and put it into something that reflected who he was. It’s just our way of making lemonade from lemons.”

















Janisse Ray and Miss Crumrine

Nov. 16, 2014 Savannah Morning News column

It’s hard to know what Jean Crumrine would have said about the Conference on Growing Local and other things sustainable that the inimitable Janisse Ray and her husband Raven organized last weekend in Tattnall County. Who would want to do anything differently, I could imagine her saying. Crumrine, who died last month at age 97, was an early reader of Mother Earth News. She loved nature, loved gardening, loved trying new things. One of the last times I saw her at her bucolic property off Old Montgomery Road, where I would go to load up my truck with horse manure from the stables she kept on her property, she was off to buy groceries with one of her grandchildren. She needed some fresh yeast. She wanted to try to make a Challah, a traditional Jewish braided bread.

That was the trip the wavy key to my truck snapped off in the ignition as I went to start the fully loaded vehicle. While I waited for someone from Bradley Lock and Key to come and rescue me and my two dogs, who by this time had stepped on the lock of both doors (no power locks; I had the old analog locks that pop up and down), sequestering themselves inside the car, Miss Crumrine – that’s what I called her (and as often as I could, I just loved saying her name) – came out to see what the problem was. She lived near the stables, just behind Hess Elementary School. She was wearing faded blue Keds. A pair of glasses dangled from a shirt button. If she kept the glasses around her neck, she said, they got in the way as she weeded, even after someone built a waist-high vegetable bed for her so she wouldn’t have to bend over.

With Miss Crumrine for company, this wasn’t a bad place to be stranded. There was Charlotta, a corpulent and congenial billy goat that kept the horses company; Barney, a cat that Miss Crumrine swore could mesmerize a snake; a blind pony; 16 horses in the stables; five peahens; a couple head of chicken, and five mournful peacocks calling what sounded like “help, help, help.”

She got her first peacock when he wandered up from the woods, she told me. At one time she had 25. Once a county sheriff complained, saying, “Miss Crumrine, your peacocks are stopping traffic on Ferguson Avenue.”

The mournful peacock cry was not the only sound. There was a high and whistling wind. That’s when I first heard the word “soughing,” as in, “When you stand here,” Miss Crumrine said, “you can heard the soughing of the pine trees.”

“It’s poetic,” she said when I looked puzzled at the word. “It means the wind through the pine needles.”

Then there was the sound of guns from the nearby Forest City Gun Club and the clamor of trucks grinding in reverse from the wok on the nearby Truman Parkway. The Truman was starting to carve up her 20 acres of pasture, gardens and barns, an issue that the preacher brought up at last weekend’s memorial service, according to a friend who went to the service, where someone was playing a bagpipe.

Miss Crumrine could have sold the land for the Parkway, he said. She knew she was sitting on a goldmine. But she was content living simply and just enjoying her gardening and her property. She did not need to sell it just to have tons of money.

It’s that same ethos that permeated the Janisse Ray conference, where nearly 100 people crowded into the Tattnall County high school to hear more about ways they could be good stewards to the earth. Fish and chips, said Holley and Louise Divine from Turkey Hill Farm in Tallahassee, Fl., when talking about composting. Discarded fish parts and wood chips. That reminded me of the obituary that surely someone in Miss Crumrine’s family wrote for the Savannah Morning News.

“When asked where she wanted to be buried, she replied, ‘The fish and shrimp in the Vernon River fed me and my family for years. It’s only right I feed the fish once I’m gone.’”

There’s a good chance Miss Crumrine read the book the Florida farmer Holley recommended, too, “The Soil and Health,” by Sir Albert Howard, written in the 1940’s. It’s all about compost and cover crops, Holley said, something Miss Crumrine already knew something about.

Miss Crumrine told me she learned about nature by reading. But she liked novels, too. She’d wait for her father to pick her up in front of the library on Bull Street after she got out of the 38th Street School, now a SCAD classroom building.

She was a generous, straight-talking woman. She knew how to grow where she was planted. She and Janisse Ray understood Wendell Berry, who said, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”