A Eureka thanksgiving

Sun., Dec. 7, 2014

Savannah Morning News column

You know you are in Walmart country – northwest Arkansas – when the clerk at the airport in Fayetteville pooh-poohs Black Friday in the rest of the world and says, “That’s nothing compared to our Black Friday – when Walmart has its annual shareholder’s meeting.”

You know you’re visiting old friends – old as in circa 1976, when I moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas and met up with a crew of misfits and outsiders I like to call my second family – when conversations circle around to what the grandchildren are calling you. My favorite? Glammy. I’m sure Marci wouldn’t mind if you wanted to appropriate this moniker.

It’s good to know sarcasm can transcend the decades, like the morning before Thanksgiving when a bunch of us, age seven to 73, were hanging around Rae’s kitchen table on Vaughn Street, drinking coffee, talking politics, talking life, debating gluten, thinking of new businesses like a tattoo-removal parlor for elders, and maybe somewhere in the process letting a few “F” words fly when the seven-year-old pops up and says, “Hey, I’m standing right here, you know.”

Sorry, Lily.

Little pitchers have big ears.

And small towns have big eyes. During the post-Thanksgiving grazing period when fingers replaced forks and Becca brought out her killer chocolate flourless cake, when everyone had traded seats about three times to make sure to talk to everyone and we’re all standing around, saying how much better we see signs on the highway after our cataract procedures, when we’re taking turns doing the dishes, debating whether or not silver forks and spoons can go in the dishwasher, well, that’s when an outlier confesses she went to a generic stop-and-go “on the highway” to buy Captain Crunch cornflakes for her potato casserole dressing because she didn’t bring everything she needed for her dish and who would know the difference, anyway, right?

“I saw that!” said Alex from Austin who thought he recognized Elaine from Little Rock’s look-alike sister. “You are busted!”

It’s hard to be pure in a small town, but it’s possible. The afternoon after I toss back a shot of freshly squeezed wheatgrass from Lucilla’s Hurom (a slow juicer) – the greenest drink you’ll ever have – I move my gear to Billy and John’s house in the country and say, “Got any chocolate?” Sure do. Green and Black’s organic dark chocolate, 85 percent, bought by the carton. Good chocolate: it’s everywhere.

They live off Rock House Road down from Dominic’s “shedteau” and near the neighbor’s fenced-in grape arbor where two white Great Pyrenees earn their keep by sleeping outside and fending off deer and raccoon. It seems to be working. Who knew? Deer: they’re everywhere.

It’s nice to have old friends but at the same time it’s hard to conceal things from them and even harder to reconstruct the past in their presence. They don’t let anything slip by. The good thing is we have a lot to remember and a lot of people helping us to remember.

“Yup,” I was saying to someone. “I moved away from here 20 years ago and we’re all still friends.”

“Um, it’s more like 30,” said Dina, who like the rest of us marks time by personal milestones. “You moved here the same month Susan did. You left after Lynda, before Manny and Vernon died, before Elizabeth became Booker and before we got Favio.”

I guess that about says it.

The most shocked Thanksgiving guest of all was Jerry, Susan’s brother.

“My whole team is here,” he beamed, kvelling at the sight of us. Jerry was the coach of our ragtag, somewhat over-the-hill, drama-prone, women’s softball team. We were a very popular team to play back then because Eureka Springs had bars (!) like the Wagon Wheel that sold alcohol (!), unlike the rest of Arkansas, which at the time was 99.5 percent dry.

“You had a good arm, Jane,” Jerry said.

I loved that.

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.”