Inconceivable: Maplewood family heals with community
When life takes an inconceivable turn, recovery and healing seem out of reach. For Felice Ecker and her son, Hank Ramaikas, grieving the loss of her husband, Joe Ramaikas, is both private and public. Now, two years later, she and her family are settling into a new place in life. From a literal standpoint, that place is a newly renovated home that she shares with Hank and her mother, Karen Ecker.
This is Felice and Hank’s third home in Maplewood and their fifth home in New Jersey. She and Joe moved to Maplewood in 2006 from Jersey City, having fallen in love with a 1928 colonial on DeHart Road at the entrance to Orchard Park. There they hosted the Orchard Park Happy Hour & Social Club for friends and neighbors most Fridays of every summer for almost a decade.
It was a short walk to Joe’s new business: the Cedar Ridge Café & Bakery, which he originally opened as the Cupcake Corral. A self-taught baker with no restaurant experience, Joe, with the help of friends and family, turned a former pizzeria on Ridgewood Road into a community mainstay.
Feeling the burden of their growing property taxes, Felice and Joe chose to sell their home in the early summer of 2016, planning to close as soon as they returned from a family vacation on Maui – their fourth trip there. Then disaster struck: While snorkeling on their last day, Joe suffered a fatal heart attack.
Devastated, Felice and Hank returned home to their lives without Joe. She recalls, “I barely have any memories of the three months after Joe died. I just went on auto-pilot. With the help of family and friends” – and a stellar realtor, Rena Spangler – “we managed to move forward with the sale of our house and move to a new apartment."
An entrepreneur, Felice is co-owner of Girlie Action Media, Marketing & Management, a music and entertainment PR and marketing firm based in New York and LA, which she launched in 1994. Joe and Felice had worked together at Girlie Action for the first 10 years of their 18-year relationship. Joe was always a huge music fan; it was one of the many things they shared. He was thrilled to have worked and been friends with many of his favorite musicians from Tori Amos to Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Band to They Might Be Giants, who played a show in Joe and Felice’s back yard to celebrate the opening of the Cupcake Corral.
Felice was able to lean on her business partner, Vickie Starr, and her staff at Girlie Action. “I didn’t go to work for three months, though I spent those months dealing with the move, the house sale and an estate sale. It was non-stop,” she recalls. “Hank was able to spend much of the summer at camp. His counselor at Fairview Lake had lost his mother a few years before and was a great support to Hank. I was so thankful that he didn’t have to be home for the move; it was brutal.”
Joe’s death also shocked the Maplewood and South Orange community. So many people knew him from Cedar Ridge. “He was a character,” Felice says. “People who loved Joe loved Joe. But he was a button pusher. He had strong opinions and if you wanted to get into it with him he was happy to. It could be anything…comics, pop culture, politics.”
Says Paul Holtzman, Joe’s business partner for two years, “We think about Joe all the time. It just came up this morning. We were designing a drink and we said ‘Joe might have a problem with this. We need to do it this way.’ He’s a part of everything we do and everything we put out.”
Michelle Mancuso, Joe’s assistant baker and now the manager of Cedar Ridge, agrees. “He was one of my best friends and my mentor for years. We were super close. I would hang out with him, Felice and Hank and play games….He was a very big part of my life even outside the bakery.”
The memorial celebration of Joe’s life – decorated with Joe’s quirky and vast (1000+) T-shirt collection – was held at the Woodland in Maplewood and drew hundreds from the community. “It was incredibly empowering for Hank to see how important his father was to the community,” Felice says. “He and Joe were very close. They shared so many of the same passions – music, horror, sci-fi....They loved all things geeky. They would go to Maplewood Hobby and New World Manga where they played Magic the Gathering and Warhammer 40,000.”
Felice and Hank next moved to an apartment in a house on Ridgewood Road just a few blocks from their old home on DeHart, which kept Hank close to his friends, school and town. “It wasn’t as disruptive compared to other moves we could’ve made,” Felice says. “And Hank was the person who kept me focused on the positive.”
Living in a community where so many people knew Joe meant Felice and Hank couldn’t always grieve privately. “It’s bittersweet,” she says. “Hank and I run into people who haven’t seen us since Joe’s death and we have to experience the rawness of their loss months and years later. I was constantly having to pull myself together on the train or in town when I would run into someone.”
And every day, she adds, brings reminders from the community of “how important Joe was to them. You lose a parent and a partner and these people who mean so much to you can easily disappear from others’ thoughts.... Hank and I are constantly reminded how much people really loved and still love Joe.”
Felice had planned on staying in the apartment until Hank graduated from Columbia High School, but when her mother started talking about moving closer to them, they decided to buy a house together: a ranch house on a quiet cul-de-sac.
Felice had seen the potential of the house as soon as she saw the listing online. “I immediately fell in love with the giant quartz boulder fireplace, the secret gold mirrored wet bar and the beautiful screened-in porch in the back.” she recalls. “People couldn’t see past the bold choices of the previous owner of the house” – including mirrored walls, black marble floors, gold and silver lamé wallpaper, animal skin rugs and Lucite.
Fortunately, Felice did, and enlisted Rena Spangler again to manage the purchase. Then Felice and Karen hired Olger Fallas and his family of craftsmen to renovate their new home. Clawson Architects helped them actualize their vision for an open living space and Alexandria Como helped them design a magnificent kitchen.
Now that their renovation is coming to an end, the family is ready to relax in their new home, but to also make sure to live life fully. “Hank and I hope to make it to Japan this year. In the meantime, we are looking forward to his first trip to Mexico. Joe loved to travel and we plan on visiting all the places around the world that we had hoped to visit with him.”