Backstories: I Make Them Up for Real People


I just read A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. It’s a wonderful novel about the grouchiest, rudest, most stubborn person you can imagine. His name is Ove (he’s Swedish), and as you follow him on his daily reconnaissance walks through the neighborhood, you learn things about him that help you understand his behavior. Turns out, Ove has had many disappointments in his life, starting with the death of his mother when he was seven years old. As his life unfolds in rhythm with the story, you begin to  understand his behavior and your heart goes out to him. You have compassion for Ove. You care about him.

One day, when I was reading Steven Covey’s leadership book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I had an epiphany. Covey tells the story of being on a New York City subway one Sunday morning, when a man and his children enter the car. The children are out of control, yelling, “throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers.” The man just sits there until Covey finally asks him politely if he could please control his children, as they are “really disturbing a lot of people.”

The man lifts his gaze and explains that they have just come from the hospital, where the children’s mother has died about an hour before. “I don’t know what to think,” the father says, “and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?” asks Covey. “My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.”

Compassion* is needed more than ever right now. The coronavirus has robbed people across the globe of their jobs, milestones, closeness with extended family, school, special trips, social time, sports and other activities, even basic things like food, water, and healthcare.

The kindest people, people who have all the basics, are being pushed by fear, frustration, and disappointment to the end of their proverbial ropes. And it’s hard to be patient with them when we’re the target of their anger

Ever since reading “7 Habits,” I have been making up backstories for people who lash out at me, whether it’s someone driving by me honking and giving me the finger or one of my kids snapping at me. Rather than taking their behavior personally, I make up a backstory for them. Maybe the guy who got exasperated following me as I went my usual five miles only over the speed limit was on his way to meet his pregnant wife at the hospital. Perhaps my daughter is having a hard time with her children, and is feeling overwhelmed. Maybe my husband is feeling out of control because there’s nothing he can do to fix this situation.

I think about the wisdom in the book, The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, and remember not to take anything personally, because “nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dreams.”

And that is how I’m getting through this challenging time: making up stories for other’s behavior, remembering it’s not about me, and giving people the benefit of the doubt, so that I can feel compassion for them.

Perhaps if those of us who are up to it can consciously practice compassion, the world will be a kinder place when this thing is over. And if it takes a long time, at least life will be more pleasant while we’re waiting.

* Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ― Frederick Buechner

A Gift Returned


Introduction: This blog is based on a story I wrote for Facebook last year about this time. I have elaborated on a couple of points.

NYC, 6/20/2019: Today I get to do something special. Here’s the backstory:

My great-grandfather Salvatore Urbano, a school teacher and mayor of Palermo, Sicily, killed a member of the mafia in a duel. Fearing for his son Francesco’s life, Salvatore put Francesco (who would become my grandfather) on a ship to America. Upon arriving in New York City from Ellis Island, Francesco, an Anglican, walked to Grace Church on Broadway and East 10th Street and was taken under the wing of Episcopal Deaconess Jesse Gardner.

Grace Church, Manhattan

Deaconess Gardner put him to work washing windows and ended up sending him to Phillips Andover Academy. From there, he attended Rutgers University, where he received his BA and MA. He then attended Yale and Yale General Theological Seminary, after which he was ordained an Episcopal priest.

The Rev. Francesco Giglio Urbano, 1913

During his years at Rutgers and Yale, Francesco (We grandchildren called him “Padre.”) returned on weekends to Grace Parish, a smaller church down the street from Grace, now Immaculate Conception (purchased by the Catholic Diocese), where he had an Italian ministry. According to an article in “The Churchman,” dated July 11, 1913, Deaconess Gardner had begun to take care of the children in the Nursery, mostly Italians, and their parents who, “for the most part, had ceased to care for the Church of Rome.” Padre became their minister.

Fast forward to this winter: My stepsister Teri Fitch found Padre’s traveling communion set among her mother’s things. It was a gift to Padre from the Italian Congregation at Grace Chapel upon his ordination in 1913, after having worked with them for eight years. Teri, with the blessing of my sisters Marilou Urbano Rolfe and Francesca Urbano Kerr, sent it to me to take to Grace Church, since I had this trip planned.

My grandfather’s traveling communion set

So today I take Padre’s 1913 communion set to the Rev. J. Donald Waring, Rector of Grace Church in New York. Don is expecting us and has been incredibly gracious. Gene and I can’t wait to meet him!


Don welcomed us into his study in the Rectory and had all kinds of archived goodies waiting for us, from my grandfather’s wedding record to 3×5 cards with different members of the Urbano family on them.

My grandparents’ wedding record from 10/10/1911

He had some wonderful information on Deaconess Gardner, too, documenting her work with the Italian immigrants Padre ministered to. (Deaconess Gardner had a summer home in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, across the Sound from Nantucket. My father spent many summers there as a boy, with his mother, Pauline, and brother David. I have a pair of whale oil lamps from her house in Edgartown, which was once a major whaling port.)

Don then walked us through the church, constructed in 1843-46 of unfinished marble, and the gym of the day school for boys and girls from pre-K to twelfth grade. The church has about 1,000 parishioners and is doing much good in the world.

The whole experience filled me with joy!

The Rev. J. Donald Waring, Rector of Grace Church, New York City

Streetlight Effect


This pandemic is teaching me something important about myself. Too often lately, I’m falling prey to the Streetlight Effect. (If you’re familiar with it, you can skip this next part and go to “Human beings…”)

What is the Streetlight effect? Here’s the usual story that explains it:

A policeman is walking by a bar one night, and he sees a drunk man crawling around on the ground beneath a lamp post.

“What are you looking for?” the cop asks the drunk man.

“I’m looking for my house keys,” the man says. “I lost them around here.”

“I’ll help you,” the cop says. Together, they begin to look around under the streetlight.

But after a few minutes, neither one of them can find the keys.

“Are you sure this is where you lost your keys?” the cop asks.

No, I’m not sure of that at all,” the man says. “I might’ve lost them in the alley.”

“Then why aren’t you looking in the alley?” the cop asks.

“Well, this is where the light is,” the drunk man says.

Human beings tend to look for the truth in the places where it’s easiest to search, rather than the places where it’s likely to be.

I’m guilty of this. And in these crazy days of the coronavirus, we tend to look to our favorite media and the people we trust (our streetlights) for the truth. But given the confusion and lack of real knowledge that exists about the virus, we need to be careful not to be too sure of ourselves. Because nobody really has the answers. Right now, it’s all guesswork.

Case in point: On Wednesday, I read a long scientific paper stating that it could take 10 years before we know if the coronavirus is something we can actually protect ourselves from, either from a vaccine or by catching it and building the antibodies that will stay with us for the rest of our lives — if indeed they will. Even the experts really aren’t sure.

In the meantime, do we continue to stay home until the cases throughout the country peak? Until a vaccine is developed? (President Trump is promising one by the end of the year, but the experts say it won’t happen until next spring at the earliest.) And while we wait, there are children to educate (not to mention hold and hug), jobs to do, people to take care of, lives to live. How long do we wait? And just how flat does the curve have to be?

On Thursday, Gene and I had socially distant drinks with a couple we know from business. He’s a cardiologist and, like many doctors, speaks with a very authoritative tone. I asked him where he stood on the coronavirus and whether people should begin venturing out. He talked about the folly in trying to totally avoid the germs all around us, that only a very small percentage of the people who come down with COVID-19 die from it, and they, for the most part, are already not well.

His attitude seemed so cold and objective. I think he was speaking the truth, but his apparent lack of concern for the vulnerable was troubling. I guess there are those who feel that most of us should simply go about our business, and let nature take its course.

He made me think, and that’s a good thing. But I don’t want to disregard my humanity in exchange for practicality. Surely there’s a way to proceed that acknowledges the need for people to work and support themselves and their families, but also protects the vulnerable.

So what is the way? A lot of people on both sides of the aisle are trying to figure that out. And in the meantime, I’m going to do my best not to judge how others choose to deal with that question, providing they’re taking a thoughtful approach. Because we won’t know for a long time what the best course of action may have been.

I’m going to do what’s comfortable for me, and within reason, allow others the same right. And I hope they will do the same for me. After all, we’re in this together.

My Other Mother


Grace Suft had a certain je ne sais quoi. (Bear with me while I practice my French.) I think of her as my other mother. I know her children and grandchildren were much closer to her, and I would never presume to be part of the family. But, still, with Mother’s Day right around the corner, this is a good time to tell you about Grace. Because she always had time for me.

We moved to North 11th Street in Phoenix when I was five. My father was the brilliant, charismatic rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and my mother was a beautiful pianist, Juilliard-educated, who did her best to raise five children. She brought us music, dancing, and fun, but we were often on our own to figure things out.

Here’s my mother with (l to r) Alice, Francesca, me, Marilou, and Paul.

It just happened that the new neighborhood was filled with parishioners, and, lucky for me, just down the street were the Sufts — Walt, Grace, Judy and Jimmy. Judy babysat for us. And I used to stop for Jimmy on the way to the school bus. Sometimes Grace would ask me in for breakfast, which on at least one occasion was pancakes. I had three siblings by then, and our house was a bit chaotic, so pancakes on a school day made a big impression on me.

There was a lot going on in the neighborhood, if you know what I mean. The woman across the street was crazy about my father, and even though I didn’t understand, I could sense my mother’s distress. Grace was like a light house, and I felt secure just knowing she was there. Because even then, I knew Grace cared about me, and I loved her.

We moved across town after a few years, and I didn’t see Grace much while I was growing up. My parents were divorced while I was in college, and Mamá moved to North Carolina the day after I was married, to be near her parents. We saw each other once or twice a year over the next 40 years.

When my husband and I and our new baby, Annie, moved back to Phoenix from Minnesota, I used to take Annie to the garden at All Saints’. She would sleep on a quilt while Grace took charge of our little group of volunteers. We would trim, weed, plant and feed the flowers. When Phoebe, my second child, was born, I continued to volunteer, and loved that time with three awesome women — my stepmother, Carol, Phoebe’s Godmother, Diana Hayward-Butt, and Grace.

We worked hard, stopped for Teatime, then worked some more. Grace taught me most of what I know about flowers and, without saying so, that hard work is fun if you’re doing something you love.

Grace became my other mother and my confidante. She remained a woman of her generation, but never judged me. I remember telling her I was going to ask for a divorce. She said, “Well, honey, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I think it’s important for a woman to have someone to go to, if she’s going to leave.” You see, Grace had been through that herself, and knew what I was in for.

Five years later, I remarried and moved to Tucson. Grace and Diana came to visit Gene and me one weekend in 2005. Grace was 90. had macular degeneration, and couldn’t hear very well. We had a tri-level house, and I worried about her on the stairs, but she went up and down like Loretta Young. She rode the tram into Sabino Canyon and walked around a number of local sites without a single complaint.

Grace and Diana, Tohono Chul Park, 9/05

I saw Grace occasionally when I was in town. One May morning in 2006, I was driving Grace to church, and as we were waiting to turn left into the parking lot, a woman (who told us later she was praying at the time) rear-ended us going 40 miles an hour. My glasses flew off my nose, and after a pause to recover, I looked over at Grace, afraid of what I might find. She was looking right at me and said, “Are you OK, dear?” Grace was resilient.

You know how, when you haven’t been with someone in a while and you have a little trouble seeing them clearly in your mind’s eye? Well, it was never like that with Grace. Her slim figure, bright blue eyes, beautiful smile and gorgeous, perfectly coiffed white hair have always been easy for me to picture. She was witty, irresistibly honest, and had an amazing gift: she made you feel special.

Grace was flexible, a marvelous trait in anyone, but especially in an older person. I could call at the last minute to see if I could come by, and if she was up, she always said, “Sure, Honey. I would love to see you.”

Grace was a listener, a happy listener, because she was truly interested in others. And while maintaining that Stephens College elegance, Grace got such a kick out of things. When she heard something funny, she would slap her hands together and laugh out loud. And she had terrific stories. I once asked her to tell me about something exciting she had done, and she described learning to fly a plane. Yes, Grace was a pilot.

When I came up to Phoenix on business, I often spent the night with Grace. One night after dinner, I had my iPad out, and she said, “Show me how that thing works.” So, I showed her how I could access my calendar, my contacts, my email and the internet, and how I could play Words with Friends with my sister in Seattle. Grace took it all in and said, “Boy that’s neat; I think I was born too soon.”

When Grace was 96 and still beautiful, I remember sitting outside with her at dusk, watching the peach-faced lovebirds at her backyard feeders. She could barely hear, and I was a blur. We just sat in each other’s company, bathed in the joy of being alive.

On Grace’s patio 3/12

You see, Grace had faith. She had faith in herself, faith in you, and faith in God. And it gave her a glorious sparkle. And when she took your face in her hands and looked you over, you knew you were loved. She was that wonderful.

Grace lived to be 101. And I have to say that the thought of death is a lot more appealing, knowing Grace will be there to greet me in the afterlife.

France Is Not to Be


Introduction: I almost bagged this blog. I was concerned that I might sound insensitive to what’s going on in the world. So I slept on it, and decided this morning that we all need diversion right now, a break from this damned pandemic. So here you go…

Gene and I should be packing for France. We had a great adventure planned, and reservations to fly out of Phoenix this Tuesday. We were to land in Paris and take the high-speed train to Normandy. 

We had a charming hotel reserved in Bayeux, and two tours scheduled. The first was a tour of Omaha Beach, where the Allied forces landed nearly 76 years ago during the largest seaborne invasion in history, and 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives that tragic day.

The second was a tour of Mont-Saint-Michel, the tidal island off the northwest coast of France. “Mindwalk,” the 1990 film starring Liv Ullman, Sam Waterston, and John Heard had a life-changing effect on me. It’s a fascinating conversation among a physicist, a U.S. senator, and a poet, about how the world works. (Is it more like a clock or a tree?) And the movie is set in The Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel.

From Normandy, we were going to drive to Beaune, Burgundy, where we were excited to explore the 15th Century walled town and taste the fabulous wines made from the Côte d’Or vineyards surrounding Beaune, “the very epicenter of wine porn.” – Robert Draper, The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2015.

We are wine-lovers, and have been to vineyards in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and – last May — Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where we sat in a restored 13th Century wine cellar and tasted eight wines. We could hardly wait to sample the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in Burgundy.

Next, we planned to drive to Paris for eight days. I had found a charming apartment through Airbnb in the first arrondissement*, near the Louvre. When we travel, we like to immerse ourselves in the place, pretend we live there, and site-see as the mood strikes. While we still can, we decide for ourselves what we’re going to do and figure out the local transportation.

The downside to this approach is you don’t see as much as you would on a tour, you get lost a lot, and sometimes you order a liter of wine, instead of a glass. The upside is, you don’t feel rushed, you have more interaction with the people who live and work there, you learn how to navigate the city, and sometimes you order a liter of wine, instead of a glass. (Yes, this happened to us in Avignon last May, and we had to hold each other up all the way back to our hotel.)

Last May was our first trip to Paris together. We stayed in the Marais district, which is filled with young families and interesting museums. We hung out each morning in a different café, eating the best croissants in the world, drinking lattes and freshly squeezed orange juice, and watching parents walk their children to school and day care before work. It’s an amazing way to start the day!

We were hoping to do that again this year, as well as some things we haven’t done together: tour the Louvre, not just take pictures of it; have lunch at the Jules Verne on the 2nd Floor of the Eiffel Tower; walk to Montmartre and climb the steps of the Sacré-Cœur (and the additional 300 to the dome); walk through the Musée d’Orsay, see the Chagall on the ceiling of the Palais Garnier opera house; and take a blanket to the Champ de Mars and watch the light show on the Eiffel Tower at dusk (with a bottle of wine, of course).

But back to reality. Here we are in Phoenix, Arizona, 32 days into Governor Ducey’s “stay at home” order. It’s 97°, and I’m trying to look on the bright side. After all, we have plenty of food and toilet paper; we have a home we love in a neighborhood where we can walk in safety; we can be with friends and neighbors (at a safe distance or on Zoom); we have access to wonderful entertainment through Netflix and Amazon Prime; all our children and grandchildren are within 30 minutes of us; we have two sweet kitty cats; and we have each other.

So, no France this year. But we are among the lucky ones. And don’t we know it.

*The 20 arrondissements are arranged in the form of a clockwise spiral, starting from the middle of Paris, on the Right Bank of the Seine.