The rich fragrance of steaming beet borscht wafted into my apartment from Alexandra’s kitchen, awakening memories of my mother’s incomparable version of the famous Russian soup.
As I passed the community room of the Harriet Bryan House on my way to a lecture at Princeton University, I waved to Xiu Ju Cheng, a Chinese friend practicing Tai Chi with shiny red and black fans in the lobby. She was surrounded by admirers chattering happily in Mandarin, a language familiar to me from a decade spent in Vietnam.
I had returned to America and Princeton from Vietnam after working there from 2001 to 2011 as director of a psychotherapy teaching clinic and a freelance writer for the city’s fashion and cultural magazines. My memories of a peaceful, polite culture informed by two great pillars of philosophy, Confucianism and Buddhism, were still vibrant 13,000 miles across the globe in Princeton.
Twenty five hours in the air flying from Saigon to America melted away as I walked down Nassau Street. I passed Indian students from Delhi and Mumbai, where I had traveled to write stories of the Buddha’s life for Vietnamese magazines. Farther down at the CVS on Nassau Street, I greeted the manager, Bobby Shafat, and his friendly staff, all Pakistanis. On Route 206 near Mountain Avenue, I stopped at the Shell gas station and exchanged greetings in Vietnamese with the attendant, Thuc. Later I would write a story of his struggle as a boat person to adapt to American life when he arrived here with his wife at the end of the Vietnam War.
I was now far from my former life in Southeast Asia, tucked into Princeton, a tiny university town whose profusion of trees and flower gardens, charming shops, and cafes captivated me. The town’s pristine sidewalks were tended to by immigrants from Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, many countries I had visited to research indigenous healing practices to augment Western psychotherapy in the treatment of persistent psychological disorders.
The “high-fives” from Latino workers who cleared the streets on Palmer Square, where I lived for three years, also connected me to my past travels and years spent abroad. After returning to Princeton on the eve of a historical recession and sharing part of my savings with my children as the recession took its financial toll on families all over America, I found I could no longer afford the high rent in my studio apartment on the square.
My daughter had wisely helped me sign an application for affordable housing when I first arrived from Vietnam, and three years later I realized it was time to downsize financially. One day in November, I received a phone call from the director of the Harriet Bryan House, located on Elm Road at the edge of a bucolic wooded area populated by deer, foxes, and a few lively domestic cats.
Entering the Harriet Bryan House, I hesitated. Noticing the hand rails on the walls of the lobby, apparently placed there to aid residents who needed support to walk, I immediately changed my mind about applying for an apartment. I didn’t feel ready yet for senior housing. Still very active at 78, I found the sight of handrails in an institutional setting at first unsettling.
The director, Kerri Philhower, asked me not to leave until I took a look at the available apartment she wanted to fill, one she promised would surprise me. Reluctantly, I complied and followed her down a hall to a corner apartment which I entered through a small vestibule. Turning to my left I glanced briefly at three spacious rooms: a kitchen, living room and bedroom, and a very large bathroom. Then I saw the woods…
Staring, stunned, through three huge, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that wrapped around the apartment, I caught a panoramic view of thick woods, directly in front of the apartment, its tall trees intersecting with tangled, falling branches, barely yards from the side of the building.
I was being offered a gem I could not refuse. It had been designed by architects whose esthetic sensibility had brought the outdoors into the apartment’s living quarters, allowing the woods, luxuriantly clothed in the red and golden leaves of autumn under a brilliant blue sky, to become part of my everyday life.
“I’ll take it!” I called to the director.
The voyage began in Merchantville, NJ, where my father, a Russian immigrant with less than a fourth grade education, opened a store in 1925, and nurtured it into the largest fur business in South Jersey. I majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned a master’s degree in British and American literature, followed by a doctorate in curriculum development and a second master’s degree in counseling psychology from Temple University.
I worked as an assistant professor of English at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, and later taught at Temple University while raising my daughters in Haddonfield, New Jersey.
In 1980 I opened a private practice in Cherry Hill and worked part-time at a center for youth in crisis in Philadelphia. Life was changing dramatically during the late 1990s in America. As a therapist I was meeting parents working longer hours to earn higher incomes and struggling with angry, rebellious children, including “latchkey children” who were often unsupervised or living in single parent families where the mother, in many cases, had to both work and raise the child alone.
Discouraged with the decline in family and community life in America, and by then an empty-nester, I decided to write a grant to travel and explore indigenous healing practices that could be used in psychotherapy to augment the treatment of persistent psychological disorders. My project took me to Latin America and Southeast Asia. I eventually moved to Vietnam in 2001 to open a free teaching clinic for Vietnamese students of psychology.
Now in Princeton, after a decade away, I recalled what I had learned first hand in developing countries: that the family is essential to the well-being and mental health of their societies.
At home in America, more adjustments lay ahead. As a newcomer to Princeton in 2011, where I had formerly been a tourist from South Jersey, I saw a totally different town, one reflecting clearly the broad issues that were dividing America. A recession economy had severely impacted the middle class and the poor. On the town’s streets and in the public library, I saw people wearing ragged bits of clothing and torn sweaters that hung beneath shabby coats. Their faces appeared drawn and flushed from struggling with poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness.
Similar kinds of losses are present among many senior residents of affordable housing in Princeton. How each resident deals with personal losses is idiosyncratic and revealing. In his biographies of famous people the existential philosopher John-Paul Sartre searched for critical moments in his subjects’ lives when they were forced to make difficult choices in situations that could have an impact on their lives and careers. At the moment of decision, Sartre theorized, a person turns her existence into what he called “essence.”
At the Harriet Bryan House I learned that all new residents experience a critical moment when existence turns into essence, the distillation of one’s character and personality that can determine the future for the resident in a dramatically new setting.
When I first arrived I was warned by some residents that “you come here to die.” Fortunately, gloomy predictions and opinions, of which I was having none, contrasted sharply with other upbeat ones, effectively debunking the former.
I quickly found other residents who had spent years abroad in Europe, Asia, and Latin American. Many were Chinese, others were native to Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, and Russia. A milieu like this offered rich opportunities to understand other worlds and foreign cultures, a reality that also gently nudged us all to practice, more thoughtfully, the gentle art of tolerance every single day.
Meet the Residents
Residents at the Harriet Bryan House often relax in the spacious community room, with large windows overlooking the woods outside. In late autumn the falling leaves signal a change of seasons. Here and there a few russet and gold leaves cling to nearly bare branches.
On cold days, from their warm apartments, residents often spy hungry deer on the frosted lawns below their windows, nibbling stray leaves. They may even glimpse the bright flash of a red fox dashing through a dense tangle of branches in the woods adjacent to the Harriet Bryan House, where the fox — known to all — makes his home.
Residents who have lived there longest and known other managers and residents chat about their favorites with deep affection, sometimes with humor and occasionally a hint of derision. But most of the residents have found ways of coping with adjustment issues. They have ways of reinventing their lives in a new, challenging, and unfamiliar environment.
Joan Heymer was nostalgic about the home she had to leave when she could no longer afford to maintain it. She had been living in a large, beautiful home in Hillsborough. Unexpected surgery and rising taxes forced her to sell her home, leaving her distraught about her future. Joan’s daughter noticed an advertisement for the newly constructed Harriet Bryan House. Her mother liked what she saw and her new life began.
The woods and landscaped grounds Joan now views through her large apartment window help alleviate painful memories of her former beloved home. The woods and greenery continue to give her pleasure, along with the friendship of many residents who look for Joan every day in her regular seat on the veranda at the front of the building when they return from a day shopping or a long walk into the center of town.
Bob Bosley, an African American man who all agree is one cool guy, is another welcome neighbor at the Harriet Bryan House. Bob had been living alone when surgery was suddenly required and he found himself recovering at his daughter’s home for longer than expected. Knowing her father’s need for independence, Bob’s daughter also noticed the advertisement inviting applicants to live at the new Harriet Bryan House and took her father there to explore the apartments. He found them spacious and just right for him.
Four of Bob’s five children live nearby and visit him often. One son who is in the military and stationed in the Philippines calls Bob frequently, and everyone knows when father and son talk because Bob’s eyes sparkle as he shares some of their conversation.
Luba Model — consistently positive, a stunning woman, in another life a model, artist, and fashion designer — is a delight to observe. Each day she appears in outfits that were a collaboration of color, textures, shapes, and flair. She mixes with all of the residents, often visiting them in the evening to check on them, gossip a bit, and share some interesting news of the world at large.
What in her character, her personality — her essence — differentiated her from other residents and motivated her to greet everyone with a ready smile and enthusiastic plans to bring residents closer together at small dinner parties? How did she turn her existence into one that sought to make life better for herself and others in an institutional setting? Why was she still eager to enjoy life at an advanced age, while some other residents preferred to closet themselves in their apartments? How did she come to terms with a situation that might have been temporary or one in which she would live out the remainder of her days?
Luba, born in Russia, speaks of her adjustments to living in community housing as an extended period of learning how to live well. She had lived at other housing locations and each presented different challenges of cooperative living. At the Harriet Bryan House, there was a new one: Luba, who is very sensitive to environmental scents, textures, and sounds, at first found it hard to accept cigarette smoke drifting through her window from outside (the marginal space where smoking is permitted is located below her second story apartment).
Despite the annoyance, she put great effort into learning how to tolerate frustration and “let anger go.” After a time, she found she had developed a precious serenity by studying eastern philosophies and practicing meditation. Now she eagerly shares her insights with other interested residents.
Huilin Quyang is another welcome visitor from abroad. William, an English derivative of Huilin, is 91 years old and a former professor of music in China. He was born in the Philippines, where his father was a diplomat, and later moved with the family to China to become educated and study English at a Christian school in Macau.
More than 20 years ago, William’s sons, one an electrical engineer, the other an investment analyst in an energy company, brought him to Princeton to live at the Harriet Bryan House. William is proud of his children and especially his grandchildren, one a student at Columbia University and another who is a nurse practitioner at the Sloan Kettering Institute.
William found friends at the Harriet Bryan House in a former chemistry professor from China, and a talented Chinese woman who is an artist and professional musician.
William lived through Mao’s great revolution and later under difficult but more liberal administrations, but despite acknowledging the improvements there and the welcome presence of a growing middle class, William vowed he would never return to China. He is very clear about what is most important to him in America: “It is freedom,” William stated several times. “I can express my thoughts here without fear.”
Jimmy Esposito, age 98, is a longtime and well-known resident of Princeton. He is bright, dapper, and flirtatious, and entertains residents with his love of singing and a hilarious sense of humor. Many Princeton residents still remember Jimmy as a good businessman and manager of the Atlantic Richfield station on Witherspoon Street, next to the former Princeton Medical Center.
Jimmy came to Princeton from Brooklyn when he was three. He went through Princeton schools, married, and raised a family here. His son, Paul, visits the Harriet Bryan House daily to cook for Jimmy and cluck over his health and boundless energy.
Clara Karrais came to the Harriet Bryan House just after her husband of 59 years died. Together they had raised five children on a small income; nevertheless, wealth was not what made their family strong. All of Clara’s children succeeded in school and in their chosen occupations. One daughter became a graphic artist with a large corporation; the other heads a media organization in New Jersey.
For some time Clara was morose following the loss of her beloved, but when her daughter took her to the new apartment she had found for her at the Harriet Bryan House, Clara immediately felt happier, even relieved. It was the beautiful woods surrounding the building that touched her. She was born in Bavaria in the countryside, her home there also surrounded by woods where she felt so peaceful. The view from her new apartment invited memories of good times when her family was still together.
But the war intervened in the 1930s and Clara’s family, fearing Hitler, escaped to Hungary. Life grew darker for Clara. Her father was taken from the family and placed in an internment camp for German citizens. Clara returned with her mother and sister to Germany and registered at a vocational school, where she met her future husband. While she was still at the school, Hungarian police were searching for her and trying to place her in the same camp with her father.
Because her mother and sisters were not being sought, Clara and her new husband decided to leave Germany and her family behind and was never to see her mother or father again.
The decision, however, was a good one. Both Clara and her husband worked hard in America, bought a house, and raised four daughters and one son. They lived happily for many years, perhaps ideally for a couple, until her husband’s death hit her hard.
Once more, Clara had no idea how she would be able to support herself. Once again, she was economically strapped, but now in her late 70s she had no idea how she would survive.
When her daughters, who lived not far from Princeton, noticed the advertisement for the opening of the Harriet Bryan House, they drove Clara to the site where the building was still under construction. Her grief turned to joy when she saw the deep woods surrounding the building. Born on farmland, she felt instantly at home, and later, when she was wandering on a path in the woods, she glimpsed a deer and her fawn nibbling leaves hanging low from the branches of a tree. Clara had found the right home.
In Milan Kundera’s novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” the author’s take on life under the former Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, post World War II, references German philosophers who view events in life as repetitive and unending. Kundera tried to express in his novel the depth of sadness and depression experienced by those living under the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia. In the story the protagonist, a physician and womanizer, creates even greater unhappiness for himself, his lovers and his wife, a situation that haunts him and cries out for resolution.
In the film version of the story, the husband, agonized by his impulsive, selfish behavior, finally realizes that his love for his wife and their marriage is more meaningful to him than the emptiness of his sexual encounters. He ends his past behavior and reunites with his wife, a decision that entails permanency.
Perhaps, as Kundera implies, his protagonist was forced to make a decision in a difficult situation and turned a corner in his life. By making an independent choice to reunite with his estranged but loyal wife he chose to make a better life for them both. In doing so, he revealed his essence, his moral self.
As the story ends, the husband and wife are returning home after celebrating both their reunion and the retraction of the claws of communism from Czechoslovakia. After the party ends the camera zooms in dramatically on the happy couple standing at the back of an old truck, smiling and laughing with joy. In that moment of lightness, almost unbearable in its relief from past agonies, when happiness seems within grasp, the very fragility of “being” is contradicted by the unpredictability of death: a large truck, barreling down the road, smashes directly into them, killing everyone.
The parallel between Kundera’s novel, which is about the burden of suffering and death in the midst of life, and the plight of the elderly for whom aging can become an extended period of suffering, is subtle but strikingly real. For many older seniors in America today, relegated to institutional facilities such as nursing and assisted care homes, entering these facilities for the first time and experiencing the trauma of adjusting to a new environment devoid of familiar landmarks marks the beginning of the end.
Statistics provide evidence that those who can come to terms with the end of life in a positive way have a much better chance of living out their additional years with a lightness of being, alive and still healthy enough to enjoy visits and outings with friends and family.
Clara’s well-earned contentment and warm sense of humor at age 89 are an outgrowth of having survived life and death many times. Her readiness to face the next stage of life is natural and uncomplicated. Her interest in discussing what lies ahead is reflective of the same courage and honesty that has marked a life moving steadily and authentically towards becoming a fully realized happy person.
Old age is not insurmountable; it can be a lightness of being in which death is always imminent but not a deterrent to completing a long, rich journey in the miracle of life.