i see miracles

Crazy as wise, part one

By LISA GONSALVES
Posted 6/23/21

This week brings to my heart the memory of my dear friend and mentor Michele Weinstein Schuchman, aka Grandma Michele.

(To do her legacy justice, this article will be presented in several …

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i see miracles

Crazy as wise, part one

Posted

This week brings to my heart the memory of my dear friend and mentor Michele Weinstein Schuchman, aka Grandma Michele.

(To do her legacy justice, this article will be presented in several parts.)

She was unforgettable as a local celebrity and, literally, the most colorful of characters. I found in her a soulful and progressive teacher who was the first to laugh at herself. Michele’s cancer journey culminated in her ultimate exit last year during quarantine, a discreet passage for this flamboyant superwoman. Respectfully, we mustn’t call hers a “battle” since she refused to “fight” cancer. She was either going to heal herself or live with it as peacefully as possible. Since her passing and before it, people have asked me, “Was she that wise, or just nuts?” The correct answer is also my most honest reply: “Yes.”

People who knew her get this. People who knew her well know why. Locals will recall her successes with her businesses decades earlier. In more recent years, many give testimony to her charity work. Arguably, it is the time between those periods that will hold the most lasting impression of the fantastical character of Grandma Michele. A boundary pusher, by any means, she could make folks feel uncomfortable, but that was never her intention. It could be difficult to know what to make of her; taking her at face value was the solution. What you saw was what she was. All of it. She was at once as demanding as she was generous, as vain as she was humble, as sensual as she was metaphysical and seeking as much as she was knowing. She wavered between elegant, glamorous and outright kitsch. Like a virtual embodiment of “Song of Self, 51” by Walt Whitman—she contradicted herself, she contained multitudes. What stands out most to me was her resilience and brilliance. She was a master at her own reinvention, who lived life by her own rules, successfully. She reinforced for me that life is never merely this or that. Life, or people, can be many things at once, including things opposite. These things may also change dramatically at one moment or another, but despite those differences, those things can also be equally true, real and valuable. I found this dichotomy in Michele especially unique and her negotiation of these things particularly powerful.

Her fascinating back story is readily available via internet search. There you may learn more about Michele Weinstein’s rise from teen go-go dancer to homeless mother, to savvy entrepreneur who owned a chain of salons—all thanks to her ingenuity and hard work. In her early 40s, she reinvented herself fully when she relinquished her salons, remarried, moved upstate and embraced her true passion of cooking. She attended culinary school alongside her young adult son. Enter Mrs. Michele Schuchman, restauranteur.

She would have been my age now when we met, mid-50s. It was two decades ago and soon after I moved here when she hired me as a server at her seasonal restaurant in Callicoon. Her policy was that everyone must work Saturdays, but it was OK if you only worked Saturdays, so I did. She found me a perfect fit; a foodie with fine dining experience who recognized her expertise. In her, I saw a self-made woman at the top of her game. For me, having worked in more restaurants than I can count, Michele’s Restaurant will forever stand out like a tightly run ship
operating like a well-oiled machine. The captain at the helm was this sassy pixie, an award-winning saucier who curated her international menu from exclusive cooking courses and the world travel she experienced off-season. She grew her own herbs and handmade all the sauces, soups, dressings and nearly a dozen delectable desserts. Excusing the odd mirror décor left over from the nightclub they once had, and fake food replicas used to model her desserts, everything was top-notch. Prior to opening each season, she mandated a full two days of training, which included a full table script for service and a wine-tasting workshop. Any questions diners had for dishes were answerable only by her at tableside, as she maintained the integrity of every dish. The meals, the service and execution were consistently on point. As hostess, she was adorably lovely with her petite stature, long fluffy blonde hair and frilly white dress. While her husband ran the kitchen line like a dedicated drill sergeant, the executive chef floated through her dining room like a happy little angel in a heaven of her own design.

As fate would have it, that summer, her husband had a health scare. The restaurant would be closing permanently. She told me she loved her husband and stood with his “executive” decision to fully retire. She would, however, extend her last season from three to five months. She asked if I would remain with her full time until the end. I was her last waitress. Although her mood never dimmed, I could not help feeling sorrow over that happy little angel who had been so abruptly grounded. That winter when the snowbird flew south, I had no one way of knowing when I’d see her again, if ever.

grandma michele

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