Kind act gives Mr. Bron­son a new fam­ily

Now his care­givers, a cou­ple have in­cluded him in ev­ery facet of their lives for 15 years

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY AN­NIE GOWEN

They lived across the street from each other for years, though they didn’t know each other well. James Bron­son was a fix­ture in Adams Mor­gan, a re­tired African Amer­i­can bar­ber who’d lived on Eu­clid Street for more than three decades, greet­ing passersby from his front stoop.

John O’Leary was 25 years younger, a white sound en­gi­neer who’d bought his six-bed­room town­house just as the neigh­bor­hood was be­gin­ning to gen­trify.

Not the like­li­est of room­mates. But when Mr. Bron­son — and he is al­ways Mr. Bron­son— lost his home in 1996 and had nowhere to go, O’Leary of­fered to take him in rent-free. It was a split-sec­ond de­ci­sion that would pro­foundly change both their lives.

“I just said, ‘Will you move in with me?’ I have a big house, and I lived by my­self. That seemed like a nat­u­ral, ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion to the sit­u­a­tion right then and there,” O’Leary said.

In the years since, O’Leary and his long­time part­ner, Na­dine Ep­stein, have grown to be much more than Mr. Bron­son’s room­mates. They are now his chief care­givers, and their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties have mul­ti­plied as Mr. Bron­son’s health has de­te­ri­o­rated.

Now the cou­ple are fac­ing the in­evitable de­cline of the warm­hearted gen­tle­man they con­sider part of their fam­ily — and they are grap­pling with the same tough de­ci­sions that face many adult chil­dren with ag­ing par­ents: Should he con­tinue liv­ing with them? Or would he be bet­ter off in a nurs­ing home?

Mr. Bron­son is 90. It is some­times dif­fi­cult for him to talk, but he al­ways bright­ens when he sees the cou­ple, whom he calls “ the ones that help me stay alive and sur­vive.”

“Right now, I’m in a spot where I need a lit­tle help,” he said softly. “Mr. John stepped in.”

On a cold Satur­day, O’Leary, 66, and Ep­stein, 54, stopped by to have lunch with Mr. Bron­son at the Washington

“We want for him what we would want for our own par­ents.”

— Na­dine Ep­stein,

who has spent weeks try­ing to find the right place for Mr. Bron­son to live af­ter he com­pletes his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive ther­apy at the Washington Home.

Home in North­west, where he has been un­der­go­ing ther­apy since his dementia and bal­ance wors­ened in De­cem­ber.

Al­though their own lives are hec­tic, they try to visit sev­eral times a week— O’Leary bring­ing treats like peanut but­ter and cher­ries; Ep­stein tak­ing him to mu­sic per­for­mances down­stairs, where they “dance” while Mr. Bron­son sits in his wheel­chair. They also ferry Mr. Bron­son to his med­i­cal ap­point­ments.

Ep­stein fed Mr. Bron­son from a take­out con­tainer of lamb tapas she’d had ground for him at the cafe across the street, but he didn’t seem that hun­gry.

“Maybe you need to start walk­ing with a walker,” she said. “You’d use more en­ergy that way and have more of an ap­petite.” “ That would be ben­e­fi­cial,” he agreed. The cou­ple chose the Washington Home for Mr. Bron­son’s re­hab in part be­cause it’s a block from Ep­stein’s of­fice, where she runs the Jewish mag­a­zine Moment.

Linda Feld­mann, a fam­ily friend and re­porter for the Chris­tian Sci­ence Monitor, re­called be­ing amazed early on at the cou­ple’s will­ing­ness to in­clude Mr. Bron­son in ev­ery facet of their lives.

“If I ever in­vited them for din­ner, the next ques­tion was, ‘Can Mr. Bron­son come?’ ” Feld­mann said. “And then af­ter a while they didn’t need to ask, be­cause, of course, Mr. Bron­son can come. He’s part of the fam­ily.”

Over the years, Mr. Bron­son be­came a sur­ro­gate grand­fa­ther to Ep­stein’s son, Noah (now a col­lege fresh­man), at­tend­ing his plays and Grand­par­ents Day at his school. Once, Mr. Bron­son re­called, he cheered so loudly at one of Noah’s Lit­tle League games that one of the par­ents asked him — with raised eye­brows — how he knew the lit­tle boy he was root­ing for.

At fam­ily din­ners, he would tell sto­ries of grow­ing up in the seg­re­gated ru­ral South, open­ing a win­dow into a way of life his adopted fam­ily scarcely knew ex­isted.

See­ing past seg­re­ga­tion

Mr. Bron­son was born in 1920 in Lake City, S.C., and grew up tend­ing the fields un­til his fam­ily moved to Washington when he was a teenager.

“I used to won­der where all the cot­ton, corn and veg­eta­bles I picked went,” he once rem­i­nisced. “I picked so much of it. When I came to Washington, I found out where all that stuff went: Ev­ery­body was wear­ing cot­ton.”

He was drafted at 24 and spent 1945 driv­ing an Army truck around Europe in a seg­re­gated unit of black sol­diers. It was dan­ger­ous work but also a chance to prove him­self. “I wanted to make a show of be­ing wor­thy,” he says.

Af­ter the war, he set­tled with his wife and six kids on Ken­tucky Av­enue SE. The cou­ple even­tu­ally split up.

The city was seg­re­gated then, and racism per­me­ated ev­ery as­pect of black life. The Bron­sons couldn’t sit at lunch coun­ters on Sev­enth Street NW or shop in many stores, re­called Mr. Bron­son’s son, James Jr., a bus driver in Harrisburg, Pa.

Mr. Bron­son had been roughed up by po­lice of­fi­cers, so he al­ways ad­mon­ished his sons not to pro­voke and to be re­spect­ful. But he also taught them not to see them­selves as less than equal, re­gard­less of how they were treated by whites.

“Ev­ery­body is in the same boat re­gard­less of color,” James Jr. said he told them. ”Ev­ery­body be­longs to the Lord.”

By the tur­bu­lent 1960s, the world was chang­ing all around him. Mr. Bron­son be­gan work­ing as a bar­ber in North­west, cul­ti­vat­ing clien­tele with his charm­ing ways and dap­per air. Par­tial to berets and well-cut suit jack­ets, Mr. Bron­son was al­ways the best-dressed guy on the block, neigh­bors said.

It was at the shop that he met the woman his chil­dren say was the love of his life, a postal clerk named Eve­lyn Young. He called her “sugar.” They lived to­gether for more than 30 years in the house on Eu­clid Street, plant­ing gar­dens over­flow­ing with flow­ers and veg­eta­bles, and rais­ing three of her kids from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship. Those chil­dren still call him “Dad.”

But when Young died af­ter a brief ill­ness, Mr. Bron­son was un­able to stay in the house be­cause his name was not on the deed. Young’s relatives sold the house, leav­ing him with nowhere to go, fam­ily mem­bers said.

“He went from be­ing a proud home­owner and the grandpa of the block to be­ing home­less overnight,” said Steve Cole­man, a Eu­clid Street neigh­bor and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Washington Parks and Peo­ple. “ That’s when John took him un­der his wing.”

Rewrit­ing ‘ the rules’

At first, O’Leary and Mr. Bron­son rarely saw each other in the dusty house crammed with sound equip­ment.

Mr. Bron­son never felt com­fort­able sit­ting in the liv­ing room. In­stead he carved out a small nook in O’Leary’s base­ment, where he read the paper and lis­tened to a small tran­sis­tor ra­dio.

But O’Leary’s re­la­tion­ship with Ep­stein was grow­ing more se­ri­ous, and she had been “smitten” by Mr. Bron­son from the start. Mr. Bron­son be­gan trav­el­ing to her Chevy Chase home to tend her gar­den, of­ten as a sur­prise. Ep­stein would re­turn home to find her lilac bushes pruned and weeds pulled.

Ep­stein likes to re­call the first time she tried to feed Mr. Bron­son lunch, and he wouldn’t come in­side to eat. She had to give him the turkey sandwich and beer on the pa­tio.

“It took me a long time to make him re­al­ize it was to­tally okay to come into the house and eat with us at the ta­ble,” she said, “ be­cause he was a black man in a South­ern town, and there were ‘rules.’ ”

Slowly, the rules gave way to some­thing richer.

Mr. Bron­son cel­e­brated birth­days and hol­i­days with them, and Ep­stein’s par­ents took him on a vacation to their home in New Jersey.

O’Leary be­gan count­ing out Mr. Bron­son’s pills and hired a care­giver to cook his meals. Mr. Bron­son kept try­ing to dis­miss her, wor­ried about the ex­pense. He did not want to be any trou­ble, he said.

Af­ter liv­ing with O’Leary for four years, Mr. Bron­son moved to a sub­si­dized apart­ment that the cou­ple found for him and helped to fur­nish. Later, with the sup­port of his chil­dren, they took over the ad­min­is­tra­tion of his med­i­cal and fi­nan­cial af­fairs.

“I love them dearly for what they’ve done and what they do for him,” said James Jr.

He and his sib­lings ei­ther lived too far away or had too few re­sources to help their fa­ther, though at one point James Jr. tried might­ily to get his fa­ther to come live with him. His dad lasted four days in Harrisburg be­fore he asked to re­turn to Washington.

But in Septem­ber, Mr. Bron­son could no longer man­age in his small apart­ment and moved into the house O’Leary and Ep­stein now share in Chevy Chase.

In Novem­ber, they threw him a 90th birth­day party at the Josephine But­ler Parks Cen­ter in Adams Mor­gan, com­plete with dozens of guests, mu­si­cians, trib­utes from his chil­dren and a cake with a pic­ture of a turkey on it— a nod to the fact that he was born on Thanks­giv­ing Day.

But even as they cel­e­brated that mile­stone, Mr. Bron­son’s episodes of dementia were be­com­ing more fre­quent and alarm­ing. One day last month, O’Leary found him sit­ting on the floor by the door, un­able to move and dis­tressed. They took him to the emer­gency room.

Now, the next chap­ter: When Mr. Bron­son com­pletes his stint in re­hab, will he come back home or will they have to put him in a nurs­ing home? Ep­stein has spent weeks try­ing to find the right place.

“We want for him,” she said, “what we would want for our own par­ents.”

Pots of vi­o­lets

Dur­ing the cou­ple’s visit to the Washington Home, Mr. Bron­son was wear­ing one of his fa­vorite Obama sweat shirts.

Cast­ing his vote for the coun­try’s first black pres­i­dent was one of the proud­est days of Mr. Bron­son’s life, fam­ily and friends said. He would have gone to the in­au­gu­ra­tion, but it was too cold. So he watched it on TV with Ep­stein, hold­ing her hand and say­ing how happy he was at the his­tory he was wit­ness­ing.

“I thought it was a beau­ti­ful thing for the coun­try to do,” he ex­plained. “I sure hope you all will carry that on.”

Af­ter lunch, Ep­stein went to buy him a plant that he could care for in his room, the way he once cared for the bloom­ing rows of pots at his house on Eu­clid Street.

He seemed pleased with the herbs and African vi­o­lets she brought back. He looked down and stroked the basil leaf as if it were a curve in a lover’s cheek.

As O’Leary and Ep­stein said good­bye, he smiled at them, safe in the knowl­edge that they would be back.

“Stay beau­ti­ful,” he told them.

PHO­TOS BY CAROL GUZY/THE WASHINGTON POST

Na­dine Ep­stein dances withMr. Bron­son dur­ing a mu­sic per­for­mance at theWash­ing­tonHome, where he is un­der­go­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive ther­apy. In 1996, Ep­stein’s long­time parter, John O’Leary, askedMr. Bron­son to move in rent-free af­ter he had lost his home in their neigh­bor­hood. At top, Ep­stein andMr. Bron­son clasp hands.

PHO­TOS BY CAROL GUZY/THE WASHINGTON POST

Na­dine Ep­stein vis­it­sMr. Bron­son, who is wear­ing one of his fa­vorite Obama sweat shirts. at theWash­ing­tonHome. Her of­fice is a block from the re­hab fa­cil­ity in North­west­Wash­ing­ton.

John O’Leary and Na­dine Ep­stein spend time withMr. Bron­son at theWash­ing­tonHome, where he has been un­der­go­ing ther­apy since his dementia and bal­ance wors­ened in De­cem­ber. O’Leary, 66, and Ep­stein, 54, try to visit him sev­eral times a week. Mr. Bron­son, who had been liv­ing in the cou­ple’s home in Chevy Chase, calls them “ the ones that help me stay alive and sur­vive.” Above, Ep­stein helps asMr. Bron­son is lifted into a van af­ter a den­tal ap­point­ment.

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