Rivian Marcus knows it’s never too late to publish your first book. After all, she published hers at 91.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, went to my desk and sat and wrote it in one sitting,” she said of “Life Is A Four-Letter Word: It Takes The Alphabet To Live It,” which she published on Amazon in March.
For every letter of the alphabet, Marcus writes words of wisdom to live by. A stands for “Accept reality,” B for “Be wary of easy fixes” and C for “Cancel negative thoughts.” Her daughter-in-law, Tara Marcus, illustrated and designed the book.
“Negative thoughts bring negative situations into your life. We are like magnets, attracting what we give off,” Marcus said.
Marcus is an avid reader — she goes through a book a day on her e-reader app — but this is her first venture into writing. Her self-help book is based on topics she spoke about frequently during her years as a para-chaplain.
The former interior decorator became a para-chaplain after surviving cancer in her early 80s. Her mother and sister both succumbed to the disease at younger ages, and her recovery seemed like nothing short of a miracle.
She took a three-year course and said she and her cohort were taught to be helpful to people in need. It harkened back to what she was taught by her mother at an early age.
Marcus grew up in South Philadelphia during the height of the Great Depression, and can vividly recall the sight of people coming into her parents’ bakery with food stamps from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. When they came to the counter for rolls and loaves, her mother would always sneak a few cookies into their bags.
“I remember her saying, ‘Even when you’re hungry, you wish you had something sweet to eat,’” Marcus said.
One day, during a visit to a hospital near Wynnewood, Marcus encountered a weeping man in his mid-30s.
“I said, ‘What can I do for you?’ And he said to me, ‘I just found out I’m HIV-positive. And I’m a married man. And not only am I responsible to my wife, but I look after my father, too. What am I going to do?”
She held his hand.
“I said, ‘You must pray and ask God to help you find strength to face your reality. And there is help for the disease. Seek that help. Be there for your family,’” she recalled.
She conducted Friday morning services, seders, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services while living in Boca Raton, Florida. She even conducted a seder in the middle of the ocean while aboard a cruise ship carrying 3,000 passengers.
She recalled that people stuck around afterward to tell her how much they had enjoyed it. The last man in the room spoke with a heavy accent and told her that he had survived a concentration camp. He added that he had vowed he would never walk into a synagogue again after what he had experienced, but was inspired by her service to return to prayer.
“I was left speechless and in tears,” she said.
Now, Marcus is the only Jew in her Catholic nursing home, St. Mary’s Center for Rehabilitation & Healthcare, where she moved after suffering a broken hip. She misses being around other Jewish people and conducting services, but she has attracted a group of friends during her residency at the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, facility.
She frequently visits other residents, although she is confined to her section of the building during the pandemic.
Elizabeth Pellerin struck up a friendship with Marcus while visiting her mother.
“I will forever be grateful to have met Rivian. When my mother lived at St. Mary’s, Rivian would wheel herself down to Mom’s room at the end of the hallway each night to check in on her and make sure she was comfortable. Despite the situation Rivian has found herself to be in, she always looks out for others,” Pellerin said.
Students at a local yeshiva, Foxman Torah Institute, heard about the Jewish woman staying at the Catholic nursing home and decided to visit.
“Let me tell you, until the pandemic, every Friday, sometimes Thursday and Friday, anywhere from two to eight young men would come to see me,” she said. “I would have cookies and cashews, and we always sang a song before they left.”
The boys are still in touch, although they can’t visit her in her building.
“One came to the window when I was on the first floor and sang and played a song. He writes Jewish music,” she said.
The boys ask for her blessing when they visit her, and they’re not the only ones.
“After a while, I had three priests who were residents here who asked me to come and bless them. And the young priest who is doing services now came to see me and ask for my blessing when he was taking a group to Israel,” she said.
Marcus suffered a small stroke in November, but has no intention of slowing down. She fills her days with reading, writing, playing Scrabble on her tablet and phoning friends and family.
She is working on another book of wisdom, “Getting Old is Not a Hot Fudge Sundae.” The volume, aimed at the elderly and their children, will address the challenges of aging through stories of her own lived experience, including when she broke her hip and ended up in a poor-quality rehabilitation center.
“I found out there was another one not very far away, that was a hundred percent better, but not knowing about it, I couldn’t request it,” she said.
“Age creeps up on you when you’re not ready for it. When you’re in good health, I suggest at the end of the book, get around and see what’s available, get a lot of information, visit institutions and read up on it and keep it for your children, so when you’re in need of that kind of help they have that information,” she added.