Bob Dylan Comes Through Again

[Yeah, yeah, I didn’t post last week. I apologize to all who were expecting the once a week posting. So today, I’ll post two, okay?]

My boss at Family Focus, Maris Blechner, an agency founder and the sole executive director for almost twenty-six years, has decided that it’s time to retire.  It won’t happen till the end of August, but her staff decided that we wanted to give her a retirement party and to schedule it before summer vacations kicked in.  The party happened on Friday night.

The theme for the party we had decided on months ago, almost as soon as we decided on having the party.  We took it from that wonderful Bob Dylan song, made much more popular when it was covered by the late, and still greatly missed, George Harrison: “If Not For You…..” (The Richie Havens’ version – which I discovered only upon searching for as many versions as I could find is – to my mind – the best of the forty plus that I found, and given Havens’ death last month, has a special poignancy:

I doubt that anybody gave Maris more grief that I did over these years.  There were times I wanted to kill her, and I am sure there were even far more times that she wanted to kill me.  But, as I have said repeatedly, in many contexts, one measures who a person is by the best you have ever witnessed of them.  Not the worst; not the average; not the typical; not the stuff that you hate; not the stuff that frustrates you.  Their best is what defines them.  All else is only human failure to live up to whom we are.

Maris created an agency  – and did what she needed to do to keep  it alive for all these years – whose lifeblood is empowerment: empowerment of her staff; empowerment of the families who come to us to adopt; and empowerment of the kids for whom we transition into families.

At the event, I had to speak – as the incoming director.  I stood up on the stage of this beautiful classy room at Columbia University’s Italian Academy, and I looked out at all the folks who had come to show their respect for and gratitude to Maris, despite the travel advisories, and realities, of torrential rains from the first tropical storm of the season.  And I thought, “Yep, if not for you…..”

You know, if you had a great relationship with your third grade teacher, you might well want to honor that teacher and thank him or her.  But, the truth is that if that teacher never existed, you would still have finished the third grade, and you would have had a different third grade teacher.  It might not have been as good an experience; it might have been even a horrible experience.  But it would have happened.

When my father couldn’t take care of us after my mother’s death, I think every last one of our aunts and uncles stepped up to offer to take one of us.  Every last one.  Good people and I loved each of them.  But it was Aunt Rita and Uncle Frank who changed our world.  Specifically, Aunt Rita’s thinking and realness that changed our world.  The power of “If not for you….” has been very personal for me for a long long long time. And Msgr. Huntington?  “If not for you…” It comes down to the experience of being saved as a person, not just rescued as a student, a nephew, a client, a neighbor, and so forth.  It doesn’t have to be directly – like Aunt Rita and Chris Huntington saved me. It can be by creating an enviornment, a structure, a way of “doing” like Maris has done. It can be by being the support for the ones who can then do it directly.  It can be by creating an agency that gives kids the parents who then change their world.  And as one of the parents there Friday night, Joyce Wilcox, pointed out to me, by giving parents the kids who then change the parents’ world.

Friday night, standing at that podium, looking around the room at so many of the children, many now grown, who had been adopted through us, I was overwhelmed.  One after the other after the other had been children who had been effectively, and disgracefully, written off by the system till we came along, with our empowering placement protocols. We not only got them adopted, we got them adopted forever.  Not a counterfeit adoption in the room.

At one point, from the podium, I began to tease my adult son, Luis, standing up front among all these people. Luis was one of those kids twenty-two years ago. He was referred to us at twelve and we were told he would be dead due to his brain tumor by twenty years old.  All kids with his kind of tumor were dead by twenty.  Did that deter Maris?  Did it deter any of us at FFAS?  Yeah right…..we couldn’t find a family for him, and that’s how I ended up with him.  But now, twenty-two years later, and fourteen years past the predicted end of his life, he was standing there in that room. And I said directly to him, “Luis, it was I who made the decision to adopt you, right?”  And proud as anything, as though the impact on his brain of that still-there-tumor didn’t exist, he yelled up to me in front of all these people, “You got it wrong. I made the decision.” And when I then said, “Okay, Luis, but it was a twenty year contract right?”  he responded, “Maybe for you it was twenty years, but for me it is forever.”  Lots of kids in that room Friday night – grown or not – could identify immediately with Luis’ words that came from his deeply rooted and strongly felt sense of empowerment. Their parents too.  Maris created the protective umbrella under which she and her staff were able to bring that into existence.  All the rest, good or bad, that she did, or didn’t do – all of it – pales by comparison.  No Maris? No Luis in that room Friday night.

And these kids, if not adopted by the families who adopted them, would not have been adopted elsewhere.  They wouldn’t have been adopted at all.  That is a fact that we all know.  And it gives the words “if not for you” an impact like no others I’ve ever experienced.

To know that you have changed the world for a particular kid, and his parents, forever and for real by the choices that you have made, should make it clear why we chose as our final summing up theme for Maris’ tenure, “If Not For You…..”  The words to the song are not precisely applicable, but they are so close… what Maris has given to so many. Including me.


If not for you

Babe, I couldn’t even find the door

I couldn’t even see the floor

I’d be sad and blue, if not for you

If not for you

Babe, the night would see me wide awake

The day would surely have to break

It would not be new, if not for you

If not for you, my sky would fall

Rain would gather, too

Without your love I’d be nowhere at all

I’d be lost, if not for you

If not for you

The winter would hold no spring

Couldn’t hear a robin sing

I just wouldn’t have a clue, if not for you

If not for you, my sky would fall

Rain would gather, too

Without your love I’d be nowhere at all

I’d be lost, if not for you

If not for you

The winter would hold no spring

Couldn’t hear a robin sing

I just wouldn’t have a clue, if not for you

If not for you


If not for her………..

Thank you, Maris.


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2 Responses to Bob Dylan Comes Through Again

  1. Maris says:

    How can I not reply to a blog about me? The reality, though, is that this blog is really about Luis, and a beautiful redhead, and three handsome brothers, and all of the other youngsters who graced the hall Friday night, and who grace our lives. It is also about Jack and all of the unique and wonderful staff and Board members at Family Focus. Nothing happens in a vacuum. I was blessed to find myself in a position to let other people work, and, if things worked out well, I got the credit. Now I pass the agency on, on August 31st, to just the right person. To quote an ancient Jewish phrase of blessing used on momentous occasions: May you go from strength to strength.

  2. Jack,

    Very well put. I’m sorry I couldn’t attend the tribute to Maris.

    As the mental health consultant for Family Focus for 20+ years, it continues to be my privilege to be involved in just a small way with the wonderful work you guys do.

    I want to add my deep appreciation to Maris for the vision she had, the work she did in bringing that vision to fruition, the empowerment she gave her staff that not only brought so many forever families together. But the icing on the cake – the empowerment she gave her staff to bring the brilliant concepts on how to form adoptive families to others – the training program for potential parents, the training around the state for others that were open to thinking outside the box, and everything else that I don’t even know about.

    I chose this, a somewhat public forum, to thank Maris, so that I can add my public thanks. Jack, please pass it on to her.

    And, Maris, may you continue to make a difference in whatever you choose to do as a retiree!


    Sandy Berenbaum

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