“Where are you from?” was the inevitable question in a small Michigan town with a
summer population four times the number of winter residents. When I would answer “Miami,” my stature was assured by my one-word answer. I was usually rewarded with a “Wow, you are so lucky,” or “Cool,” or “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
I was born at Mercy Hospital in 1958, and my mother always reminds me her room had a gorgeous bay view and the entire stay cost $150. My parents had moved here from Michigan in 1956. They lived in the “married dorms” at the University of Miami while my father finished his degree.
They loved the outdoors and would buy surplus Army- Navy dive tanks, strap them on and explore nearby reefs, enthralled by the gorgeous underwater world. They also went spear-fishing for their dinner.
My uncle Don Berg was a developer and businessman who lived on Key Biscayne, a
then-sleepy community serviced by a bridge that, when up, would back up traffic forever. If we stayed on the Key too late, and there was a full moon, coming home after dark meant hundreds of land crabs getting crushed beneath our tires — thousands would scurry over Crandon Boulevard and there was just no avoiding them.
Uncle Don owned The English Pub, Jamaica Inn and, later, Stefano's. He played golf regularly with Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo. My cousins danced in an episode of the Jackie Gleason Show. They had air-conditioning, which, in my mind, made them rich beyond belief.
My parents had bought a modest Mackle home in Westwood Lakes in 1958. I went to school across the street at Cypress Elementary. We used to buy lemonade concentrate and mix in half the water amount so it was super-sweet, freeze it in Dixie cups and sell it after school when it was blistering hot for 5 cents. It was my first taste of the freedom earning money gives you. I caught the bus to Concord Plaza for 10 cents and bought my first-ever new — not a hand-me-down — shirt.
By now, my mother was raising four children alone. Though struggling, she made our lives rich. She loved where we lived because we were on a canal, and she loved the “sea cows” that used it in winter. The first time I saw one I was so frightened I couldn’t breathe.
My mother, however, swam right up and stroked it, until it swam away lazily in no hurry to either embrace or deny her affection. We were all allowed to “play” with the manatees, and I know our neighbors thought our mother reckless to allow it. She was (and is) such an innocent, never seeing harm anywhere.
Her love of nature, especially the sea, paid off when she was hired by Miami Seaquarium as Carolina Snowball's trainer. Carolina Snowball was the only albino dolphin ever in captivity and the star attraction. I remember my fourth-grade class going to the Seaquarium, and there was my short-haired mother doing the show! One of the kids said, “That’s a guy, that’s not a girl.” And I said, “That’s a girl, and she’s my mother!”
She got the job because she wrote to the “Burning Desire” column in the Coral Gables Guide and said she always wanted to swim with a dolphin. They made her wish come true. That Seaquarium management liked her (she held her breath underwater for 2 minutes!) and hired her as a trainer was completely unexpected.
It was by far her favorite job, and mine, too. I got to play with the “Flippers” (there were three then) in the lagoon where the “Flipper” TV show was filmed, feed the penguins and play unbridled on the Seaquarium grounds with my siblings.
We roamed free back then. Miami was our playground. We got on our bikes in the
morning, and were expected home by dark. We didn’t say where we were going; we didn’t know ourselves. We made it up as the day went along, and it always included
animals or swimming. I remember walking my bike across one of the fat pipes that
crossed the canal that the turnpike now parallels.
The shortcut saved having to go all the way to down to Sunset Drive or up to Miller Road. We would enter horse country this way; it was my favorite place because I was horse crazy. I used to muck out stalls for free just to be near the horses. I loved everything about the barns, the scent of horses and fresh hay. Each barn had its own “flavor” and I visited and loved them all — big, small, fancy or plain.
Life has a way of being circular. I now own a barn in horse country called Tally Ho.
Sometimes when I am in the older back barn, I wonder if that small me was ever standing here, mucking out the same exact stall just for the pleasure of petting the horses.
We moved to South Miami when I was entering seventh grade. Our new house had a little bridge that went out to a little island in the middle of a spring-fed pond. I was again lucky to have water as my backyard. Our home was also adjacent to railroad tracks (now Ludlam Trail), and we kids would walk the tracks because they were shaded by Australian pines. It was so soothing and cooling to walk below their whispering majesty.
We jumped off the ties and ran like scared rabbits when the trains the came by. I attended South Miami Senior High School and worked part-time at a who’s who of old “Miam-ah”restaurants: Andy’s Sir Dolphin, Bodega, and the iconic (and still delicious!)
Captain’s Tavern. I went to Florida State, but graduated from University of Michigan, where both my grandfathers had earned medical degrees. My mother always reminds me that Midwesterners are great people, and is proud of her roots.
But I was from Miami and had Florida sand in my shoes. After graduation, I returned to my hometown and jumped into real estate, first with the Green companies and next with Stadler. I married Bernard Schrager, a local Miami Beach boy, and together we raised three beautiful daughters here. After many productive years in the real estate industry, I was fortunate to cofound Avatar Real Estate Services in 2002 with Vivian Dimond.
In 2017 we sold our boutique company to a wonderful firm out of New York, Brown Harris Stevens, of which I am vice president, and I continue to do what I have done my entire adult life: list and sell real estate.
And my best friend from those halcyon days of rafting on our pond and walking the
railroad tracks, Betsy Kuehner, is still my best friend and now my marketing consultant.
For me Miami was, and remains, a small, close-knit town.