When everything is lost: Season of Sharing gives boost to retired Sarasota woman

Sue Moritt, 82, of Sarasota, a retired art teacher, once lived in a French farmhouse she designed in upstate New York with a waterfall visible from her kitchen window.
Sue Moritt, 82, of Sarasota, a retired art teacher, once lived in a French farmhouse she designed in upstate New York with a waterfall visible from her kitchen window.

It is the waterfall that she recalls most.

Sue Moritt could see it from her kitchen window, rivulets tumbling 36 feet over stone.

Moritt had designed the house herself and together with her husband picked out the site in upstate New York.

A painter and art teacher all her adult life, she had planned a French farmhouse style – with wooden beams and big windows overlooking meadows dotted with rescue horses.

She filled the rooms with dry fragrant flowers from the fields and antiques from local stores.

It was there on this land of peaceful pastures that she thought she’d live out her life.

She has a lot of time to think about that now – sitting alone in her small Sarasota apartment with Mayzie, her long-haired dachshund at her feet, where concrete and ragged palms make up her views outside.

It’s been years, but the shock remains – of how her husband lost it all, how she didn’t see it coming, how she wound up here – wondering where, at age 82, she might go next.

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Peace in the wild

Morritt grew up in Miami of the 1940s and 1950s, adventurous and independent.

Moritt’s father, who worked in pharmaceuticals, nurtured Moritt’s love of the outdoors while her mother was busy caring for Morritt’s younger sister, frequently sick with a heart disorder.

Living on her own, she majored in art at the University of Miami in the late 1950s, giving piano lessons on the side and studying for a year in Japan. After graduation, she started to teach – her world soon rocked by the death of her sister at age 16.

Her life was taking a different turn for another reason, too – her marriage to her college sweetheart.

Three children quickly followed, a job Morritt relished – showering them with the affection she’d longed for from her own mother – as she continued to work, teaching art and music.

Meanwhile, her husband, a stockbroker, stayed in charge of the household finances, moving the family north when he got a position in 1970 with the New York Stock Exchange.

Through the years, he lost large sums of money in investments, refusing to let Morritt know the details. But Moritt never worried.

“He always made it back, so I trusted him,” she said.

In 2000, long after the kids were grown, they found a piece of land farther upstate – closer to the natural environment she loved, where she designed the French farmhouse. It overlooked a waterfall, abutting 1,000 acres of a rescue horse farm.

She visited them regularly, the rescue owner letting her ride.

This would be her forever home, she thought.

But in 2004 at the age of 64 – she was undergoing a heart transplant, inflicted with the same hereditary disorder as her sister. The surgery fractured her back, leaving her unable to walk for awhile. She could never ride horses again.

Two years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent more treatments.

By now her marriage was deeply troubled.

Moritt nursed herself back to health without her husband’s help, taking refuge outside by the waterfalls and with the horses, finding, as in her favorite poem by Wendell Berry, “the peace of wild things.”

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She turned to art, painting and drawing them once more, writing poems and essays about them.

“They were rescue horses, and how they rescued me,” she recalls of those difficult times.

Just as she was gathering her strength, tragedy struck once more, this one financial.

In the crash of the Great Recession, her husband had lost everything, she would soon learn – not only their joint assets, but all of Moritt’s personal earnings and family inheritance, too. What’s more, she discovered, he hadn’t earmarked anything for savings. And it was too late in life to try to earn it back.

As the marriage grew more volatile and violent, relatives worried for her safety. Moritt began to sell off antiques and other items in the house.

Her health rebounding, she had to break free of her husband once and for all.

Koi in Selby Gardens by Sue Moritt.
Koi in Selby Gardens by Sue Moritt.

Starting over – twice

In 2010, Moritt moved to Sarasota, a place where one of her daughters planned to build a house.

Starting over again at the age of 70 felt good. She rented an apartment for about a year until her other daughter moved down.

Moritt cared for her granddaughter while her daughter worked and went to college. Together they rented a five-bedroom house for about $2,000 a month.

Over the next decade, she moved around the country, caring for more grandchildren and great-grandchildren before returning to Longboat Key to work as the caretaker of a woman in her 90s.

Then last year she was summoned back north. Her estranged husband’s health had nose-dived. Their old dream house – upon which he’d taken out a loan – was in foreclosure. The bank wanted it cleaned out.

Moritt went back, assisting him into a nursing home. A daughter and a local mover helped load up dumpsters of junk from the house.

Before she left in July, she photographed the surrounding beauty once more – the waterfalls, pastures and horses in the field.

She visited them up to the last day – bringing treats of apples and sugar cubes.

This summer, Moritt was back in Florida, starting over again – and this time felt harder.

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But by now she was 82, her stamina waning. The woman she had cared for on Longboat Key was in a nursing home and the area was suffering from a housing crisis.

The only apartment she could find searching online from New York was a two-bedroom unit for $2,000 a month.

When she arrived, her Social Security payments and Medicaid were temporarily disrupted.

Having earned no pension during a lifetime of work, she relied on Social Security income and help from a daughter – barely enough to get by.

Falling behind, she turned to JFCS of the Suncoast.

There, Susan Schoengold, the coordinator of Jewish Financial Assistance and Jewish Care Management, tapped into Season of Sharing to pay September’s rent for Moritt.

Schoengold said that many senior women who call for assistance are particularly vulnerable after divorce, separation or the death of a spouse.

Workplace inequities, lower lifetime earnings and years spent as caregivers mean fewer resources than men in retirement. And Social Security is often not enough to live on.

Many talk of having to go back to work, Schoengold said, but it's difficult for people who have health issues, like Moritt.

“With this housing crisis, it’s nearly impossible really,” Schoengold said.

Morritt has her art, converting her second bedroom into a studio. She hopes to place her works in local shows, maybe open an online store.

She spends most days alone, walking with Mayzie in the early evenings – the friendly dachshund prompting busy neighbors to stop to chat.

She meets once a month with fellow members of National League of American Pen Women. Together they quietly paint. But she keeps her problems to herself.

And lately there are more. The apartment complex is charging $2,600 for damages to a post they blame on her movers. If she doesn’t pay, she’ll be evicted, they warned.

Future plans to move in with her son and his family in Atlanta are on hold, due to the housing crisis there. 

To find solace amid it all, she turns again to the wild – through her photography and paintings.

In her studio she plays Chopin and Schumann on the electric piano, the demanding pieces helping ease her stress.

Her husband may have lost all of her money and material wealth, she said.

But she still has the talents and passions fostered in youth. And no one, she said, can take those away.

How to help

Season of Sharing was created 21 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.

Donations to Season of Sharing may be made online at cfsarasota.org/donors/support-season-of-sharing, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.

This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at samrhein@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Housing crisis impacts retired Sarasota woman, season of sharing helps