Sydney M. Williams
Essays from Essex
“Essex Meadows – Our New Home”
March 10, 2016
“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”
George Burns (1896-1996)
When my wife and I moved to Old Lyme twenty-five years ago we were still young enough to consider ourselves immortal; the end game was something over the horizon. While we now know that the track does not extend forever, we don’t let that fact influence how we live. We believe in Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim: “Life [is] meant to be lived and curiosity must be kept alive.”
Moving, it has been said, is one the more traumatic events in one’s life. It has not been foreign to us. Its not that we are peripatetic, but neither have we always lived in one place. We had moved to Greenwich in 1971, seven years after we were married, with a complement of three children. (The youngest, Edward, had been born a few weeks before we departed the rural Connecticut town of Durham for the sophistication of Greenwich.) Twenty-two years later we moved from that high-maintenance, fast-paced suburb, where we had raised our children, to the somnambulant, shoreline town of Old Lyme. We had been happy in Greenwich but the town was evolving and so were we. We sold our house on Lake Avenue, rented a small pied-a-terre in New York, and made Old Lyme our home.
The years went by. In time, we (principally that meant me) spent less time in New York and more in Old Lyme. I was writing more and “stockbrokering” less. There was less need to be in the city. The house in Old Lyme, with its river, marshes, gardens, and the community and friends played big roles in our lives. Seductively, they drew us in. Old Lyme is, and has been for 120 years, an art colony noted for American Impressionists. The colony was begun by Henry Ward Ranger in 1899. He brought with him artists like Willard Metcalf, Carleton Wiggins, Clark Voorhees, George Bruestle, Everett Warner, Frank Bicknell and Childe Hassam. They took rooms in the home of the extraordinary Florence Griswold, the widow of a sea captain whom time and events had made penurious. Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, spent the summer of 1910 at the colony, because his wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, wanted to paint with Old Lyme artists. (Wilson would be elected New Jersey’s Governor that fall.) The town’s bucolic scenery attracted more than just painters. The River’s estuary attracted Roger Tory Peterson, naturalist, ornithologist and artist, who made his home for over forty years on the banks of Old Lyme’s Lieutenant River. Jim Calhoun began his career as the basketball coach at Lyme-Old Lyme high school. Albert Einstein spent the summer of 1935 in the village.
A year and a half ago, we decided another move was in the cards. “Tidelands,” as our place was called, was becoming too much for us. It was beautiful, but we wanted to be masters of our future, not servants to our house and land. We recognized that the strings that comprise the cycle of life have beginnings and endings. We are born and grow up. We become adults. We marry and have children. The children grow up and become young adults; they marry, have children of their own, and we become grandparents. Time, like ‘Ole man river,’ keeps rolling along. We were getting older, but didn’t want to “get old,” as George Burns said.
We had known about Essex Meadows almost from the time we moved to Old Lyme. It had opened three years before we bought our house. When it was suggested, as it was early on, that we purchase an apartment to ensure the well-being of our “golden” years, we joined the chorus of those who irreverently referred to the place as “Exit Meadows” – God’s waiting room, a place to go for one’s last supper, or, at least, one’s last few years. It was not for the young and virile, as we saw ourselves. A better idea, we thought, was to move to a cottage in the village.
However, as a consequence of a fall Caroline took last July 4th our thinking changed. Caroline spent four weeks in the health center of Essex Meadows. It was not, we learned, a place where people went when all hope had disappeared. The center was intent on curing patients and sending them home. The facility was clean and pleasant. The staff, professional and welcoming. So, instead of moving to a place from which we might be forced to leave because of infirmities or ill-health – a move that then might well be engineered by our children rather than ourselves – why not move to an apartment in the Essex Meadows complex and make it a home we could enjoy and be happy?
Essex Meadows is a “life-care retirement community.” It is a family owned business, managed by LifeCare Services, LLC. EM, as it is known, is a community of 182 apartments, 13 cottages and a 40-bed health center. In all, there are about 240 residents, with a staff of a hundred. Over the past decade the average age of residents has declined from the mid-80s to the high 70s. There is a fitness room, swimming pool and trails through the surrounding woods. The 108 acres on which Essex Meadows was built abuts what is known locally as The Preserve, which consists of 1000 acres of protected, coastal land that falls within the towns of Essex, Old Saybrook and Westbrook. It is the largest undeveloped, coastal parcel between Boston and New York. (In part, The Preserve owes its existence to the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, but that is a story for another time.) Given the relatively small size of Essex Meadows and the friendliness of its residents, it feels more like a club than a “life-care” community. While there are bridge games, shuffle-board competitions, swimming aerobics and discussion groups and the calendar is filled with talks, documentaries, movies and trips to museums and other places of interest, Essex Meadows emphasizes that moving here is a change in address, not a change in lifestyles. What you do is up to you.
Essex, with its boat-yards, the well-known Griswold Inn and a few stores, was recently ranked number one among the 100 best small towns in America. The town is across the Connecticut River and about five miles up from Old Lyme. It is a beautiful and historic village, with an obvious emphasis on boating, particularly sailing. Whereas Old Lyme is a “beach” town, Essex is defined by the “river.” The village juts, like a thumb, east into the Connecticut between North and South Coves. In the early years of the United States, Essex was a principal boat-building place, including ships for the young nation’s fledging navy. During the War of 1812, on the night of April 8, 1814, the British rowed up the river from Old Saybrook and burned 27 ships in Essex harbor. It is said that this event did more than anything else to rally Americans to defeat the British, which they did. The war ended with the British acceptance of terms laid out in Ghent in late December 1814. (The Battle of New Orleans – a decisive victory by the American forces – took place in January 1815, after the war was over but before the signed Treaty arrived in Washington.)
“Why,” my wife’s brother asked when he heard we were moving to Essex Meadows, “would you want to move to a nursing home?” Apart from the sarcasm implied in the question – that green bananas ripen too late for the inmates – his words denote a misunderstanding. Communities like this are relatively new. Throughout most of our history, children cared for their aging parents, despite the fact that people age more like a bad cheese than a good wine. The wealthy, of course, could afford in-home-care nursing, but the vast majority had to rely on family. Nursing homes were first on the scene, but often those were dismal, odoriferous reminders of the unpleasantness of getting older. Continuing-care facilities were designed to be pleasant places in which to live. They eased the burden, otherwise foisted on one’s children and mitigated costs and inconveniences. Early on, people moved to facilities like Essex Meadows when the ability to care for themselves had become difficult. One’s children often made the decision of where and how to live – individual independence giving way to institutional dependence. But, as time has gone by, people see Essex Meadows more, as their advertising claims, as a change of address, not a lifestyle change.
Being younger than most living here, and in fact younger than most of the “class of 2016,” my wife and I wanted to ensure our independence. We see ourselves as living in an apartment, albeit with pleasant neighbors. I can write, as I always have. But we can easily turn off the lights, shut the door and visit our grandchildren or travel where we wish. In time, we may well choose to participate in more of Essex Meadows’ activities, but not now.
Once the decision was made, we remodeled the apartment – including changing the floors and ceilings. We did this at our expense. We added moldings and built-ins. We created a library/office. We upgraded the bathrooms and kitchen and installed a laundry room. We improved the quality of the interior doors and lighting fixtures. In doing so, we added to our emotional well being, while knowing the money spent would not be recovered. Like most institutions of this type, one “buys in” by purchasing a unit – some percentage of which is returned to the person (or to his or her estate) when they leave. The balance, along with the monthly charge, offsets costs incurred.
But what we have is a beautiful home. The oriental carpets are ones we brought from Old Lyme and the furniture we took with us – a mixture of antiques and family pieces – fits in. On the walls we have hung over 130 paintings, etchings, prints and photographs, most of which we have had for years. Other photos and art work adorn tables and chests.
As I peck at my computer, Caroline, our children and grandchildren surround me. In one photo, my artist parents call to one another through the ears of a self-sculpted snow face. In another sit my four sisters, while a third has me standing with my four brothers. My maternal grandfather Hotchkiss, pipe in hand, perches on my desk. My grandfather Williams, working at his desk while I do at mine, looks down from the wall. In one photograph I sit squirming on the lap of my great-grandmother Washington. Another has me in a rowboat with my sister Mary, brother Frank, two cousins and both my grandfathers. There is a photo of four generations: my father, his mother, me and year-old son Sydney. There is a fading Polaroid print, taken by Dr. Land, of me and my friend Duncan Kendall. We look like the wise-asses we were at age sixteen. Framed ancestral letters adorn one wall, along with photographs. Caroline has similar photos of her childhood and family. Examples of my parents’ sculpture can be seen throughout the apartment. On the walls are hung art work: Old Lyme impressionists; other paintings, prints and etchings; a portrait of Caroline and another of my mother. There are two paintings Caroline did when in college, a painting done by grandson Alex, and drawings by my parents. These photos, paintings and ephemera of family and friends evoke memories that are personal. They bring color to the past; they help guide us toward the future; they represent that which cannot be taken from us.
We knew we had been successful when our granddaughter Emma first saw the apartment: “It looks just like Old Lyme,” she exclaimed as she walked through the door. The colors of the walls, the paintings and furniture looked familiar. She meant, I believe, that it looked like home. Maya Angelou once said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” That is what we have found at a place called Essex Meadows. It may not be for everyone, but it is our home.