For Mr. Bronson, a neighbor's kind act led to a new family
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 10:34 PM
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 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.