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My Bette Midler Story

06/24/2015 12:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

My Bette Midler Story

Some of you who follow me on social media may have seen a picture or two of me with Bette Midler and wondered, How did that happen? How did she get to meet Bette? Well, it's a long story--a story that begins and ends with love--and I'm about to share it with you....

I was about 11 or 12 years old when my older brother David, whom I adored, gave me a record and said, "Here, I think you'll like this." It was Bette's second album, simply titled Bette Midler, and I remember looking at the cover and thinking, Wow, someone else has crazy hair like mine! (although mine was not red).

I would go down into the basement, where the record player was, and listen to that record over and over as I played with Barbie, made crafts in the craft room, and generally dreamed about what it would like to be grown-up and free. With Bette as my female inspiration, I felt I had permission to be funny, emotional, a little bit crass, and...passionate.

Later, David gave me a black-and-white Xerox copy of a photo of Bette as Delores DeLago, her famous mermaid character. I thought it was amazing. I mean, what girl doesn't want to be a mermaid? I still have it somewhere. I was so tempted to color it in, but I cherished it too much.

That record, along with a few others my brother and I shared, launched me into a music-loving life that has led me in many different directions. (Although as a prescient side note, when I showed my kids my collection of 45s last year, I noticed that one of the very first ones I bought was a song written by Bruce Springsteen! Blinded by the Light, performed by Manfred Man.)

Fast-forward to my early 20s. It's three days before Christmas in 1985, and my brother, who came out as gay shortly after he gave me the Bette Midler album (no surprise there), goes to the hospital with a persistent cough, and he DIES. He dies of AIDS three days before Christmas. He's gone, leaving an empty space in our family that in many ways we have never recovered from. But that's a different story. Today's story is about Bette and music, and how it has been the main way I have stayed connected to my brother since he's been gone.

Life goes on. I forget about Bette (although, as cassette tapes and then CDs and then iTunes purchases come--and go--that first Bette Midler album is one of the few that I keep). I write an organic gardening book. I work my heart out in the family business, surviving all sorts of challenges and tragedies. I never go to see Bette in movies. But then I'm at a party in the early 2000s for the launch Organic Style magazine and a guy comes up to me and says, "Hey, I'd love to talk to you about The New York Restoration Project (NYRP) and perhaps sponsoring a garden in New York City." I'd never heard of NYRP, but we were looking for ways to give back to New York in a similar way we'd been making positive changes in our hometown in the Lehigh Valley for a long time. And when he mentions that it's Bette Midler's organization, I say, "Yes! I'd love to learn more."

And so we went and toured spaces in the city that were available for sponsorship and restoration. Originally, I had wanted one in the Lower East Side to honor my grandfather, who was born and raised there. But the space that felt right was in East Harlem, at 114th street. There was already a community garden, run by the "Mexican Mothers" of the neighborhood, partnering with the Little Sisters of the Assumption nunnery--and this was during my serious Virgin Mary phase. But it needed some work to make it better: good clean soil, bathrooms for the kids, shade, water...the basics.

We agreed it was the right garden to sponsor. And I think that's where I first met Bette, in that garden. She had a scarf wrapped around her head, and she was funny, lovely, demanding, determined, and extremely serious about gardening and restoring nature and beauty to New York.

So we decided to do it! We sponsored a garden, and it became the Rodale Pleasant Park Community Garden. It has the first composting toilet in New York City, which I thought my father would appreciate.

I put a bench in the garden dedicated to my brother.

I thought that would be the end of it. But then I got an invitation to a cocktail party in Bette's apartment, and of course I said yes! I'm not crazy. (Well, maybe I am crazy, but that's a different story.) So there I was, standing in Bette Midler's living room, eating tiny heirloom tomatoes dipped in salt and grown by Amy Goldman, when Bette grabbed my hand and said, "Hey, would you join my board?"

I was so taken aback that I said I would think about it. Two days later, I got a call from someone congratulating me on joining the NYRP board! That's how she rolls! (And it's wonderful.)

When I first joined the board, it was a small group with a lot of work to do. But the most important work had already been done by Bette--cleaning up TONS AND TONS of trash from New York's city parks and buying up more than a hundred abandoned lots from the city to turn into gardens, one by one (for example, on the same 114th street as our garden, there is a Tiffany's garden!).

Executive directors came and went, and I learned a lot about everything--including how Bette could be both incredibly confident and worried at the same time and how everything and everyone works behind the scenes to put together projects that seem amazing and easy.

Bette's attention to detail still astounds me. NYRP hosts two major fundraisers a year, Spring Picnic and Hulaween (which combines her Hawaiian heritage and Halloween, held at the Waldorf Astoria). And by the way, these events are open to the public if you want to buy a ticket and support NYRP! Just be warned--there will be tons of cursing, sex jokes, and crazy behavior. That's why I love it! I found my people!

This is the part of the story where I'm going to cue the video montage of memories, thanks to Bette...

Hulaween memories: Watching Sting at the table next to me singing along to Elton John at the piano on stage; then meeting Sting later and making a total idiot-fool of myself (another story for another day). Getting to meet Eartha Kitt and telling her that she was my mother's favorite and she would always play I Want to Be Evil for us, and then getting the most lovely, joyful hug from Eartha. Dressing up like a butterfly and walking down the streets of Manhattan to go to Hulaween the night that Alice Waters was honored.

Spring Picnic memories: Watching Bette lying on the dance floor and spinning around while she raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for planting trees and thinking, "Yes, this is why I am on this board." The sing-along at the end of the night that always makes me cry. Seeing parts of the city I would never get to otherwise. For instance, I once got lost trying to find an NYPR event with a taxi driver who gave me my now-famous (in my family) rice and beans recipe.

Bette even came out to visit the Rodale Institute. She always loved the fact that my grandfather, who was the founder of the organic movement in America, was Jewish like she is.

And my favorite memory of all is going to see her get the Jane Jacobs Medal, given by the Rockefeller Foundation, and hearing the most heartfelt speech about her unbelievable love of nature and her desperate desire to bring that to everyone. (I've been trying to find a video of it because the speech was completely not what was written in advance.)

I cried my little eyes out at every word she said because it echoed what was in my own heart. I felt so blessed to have had a small impact on nature along with Bette. It seemed amazing to me that while I discovered her through music, where we really connected was through nature. And love of nature.

But through all of this, not only had I never seen her in concert, but also my two youngest kids had never met her (even though she sent flowers to the hospital when my littlest was born). So when she went on tour just recently, I was determined to see her with my kids. The night before the show, I gave them the Bette music intro by watching videos on YouTube, including the ones of Delores. And I warned them there would be dirty jokes (there were!).

The concert was...unbelievable. Wonderful. From the first song, my kids were enthralled. And when she sang Do You Want to Dance, it brought back all my basement memories. And when there was a Delores DeLago video montage that ended with her death in 2014, my middle child looked stunned and said, "She's dead?!" And at the end, when she sang Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, my littlest sang along standing on her chair and turned to me, saying, "We learned this song in school!"

And then, being able to go back after the show into her dressing room (just us!) and seeing her truly interested and kind with my kids (even Lucia who was up WAY past her bedtime and was too scared to shake her hand)... Well, it felt pretty damn amazing. It felt like love. When we hugged good-bye--she, off to an official meet-and-greet and we, on the long drive home on the PA turnpike--I wanted to say, "I love you!" and didn't. So I'm going to say it now.

I love you, Bette.

The real you. The Bette that I know just a little bit, but enough to know you are a wonderfully complicated and multidimensional woman who's known more for your music and movies but truly deserves to be known for your love of nature and your determination to keep it safe and beautiful for everyone, yet who entertains so beautifully and wonderfully through your music.

And thank you. Thank you for everything you do and for being kind and wonderful to me. You and I both know my brother would be happy. But more importantly, I am happy. Happy to help you. Happy to know you. And happy to know the universe works in mysterious and fabulous ways.

P.S. NYRP's 2015 Spring Picnic is just a few days away, on June 26, at Madison Square Garden. It's going to be EPIC!

For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com