Creating a Life

Creating a Life

She has made impressions. She has made memories. And she has made some eye-catching artwork. But above all else, she has created a beautiful—and long—life.

Marilee Shapiro Asher is 104 years old. She has seen—and done—a lot in her little over a century. She is now a resident of Chevy Chase House, an independent and assisted living community on Connecticut Avenue in the heart of Washington, D.C. 

A native of Chicago, Marilee was born into a financially comfortable family. Her grandfather, Moses Harris, founded a salvage company in Chicago along with his four sons. Her father, Frank Harris, was the treasurer for the Chicago House Wrecking Company, which later became the Harris Brothers Company.

As her parents’ fifth child, born twenty years after her oldest brother, Marilee was a self-proclaimed “spoiled brat.” She enjoyed the attention she received from her doting parents and her devoted older siblings.

The youngest resident of a beautiful mansion in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, Marilee recalls standing on her father’s feet to dance with him in the Victorian parlor. She also remembers dining with her large family in the beautiful dining room complete with a chandelier made of Tiffany glass.

Following the stock market crash of 1929, Marilee recalls that the family’s lifestyle changed. However, she writes in her memoir, Dancing in the Wonder, that while the family’s fortune dwindled, they never suffered like so many others did during the Depression. In fact, Marilee continued to attend the University of Chicago and graduated with a degree in Philosophy in 1933.

After working for just a year for the Cook County Social Service, Marilee met her first husband, Bernie Shapiro, at a party. Their whirlwind courtship ended in a wedding at Marilee’s childhood home. The couple went on to have two children, Harvey and Joan. Marilee now has one grandchild. Shortly after marrying and before having children, Marilee came upon what would become her life’s passion: sculpture. “In a WPA [Works Progress Administration] class in a basement of a local school, I discovered sculpture, and I truly fell in love with sculpture. That was it for me.”

Marilee’s love for sculpture was surpassed only by her love for her children, who she describes as “the center, the interest, the worry, the pleasure, the ‘raison d’etre’ of my life.” In 1943, Marilee, Bernie and their then three-month old son moved to Washington, DC, where Bernie worked as a lawyer for the Board of Economic Warfare. When the children were very young, Marilee returned to her artwork and has continued the practice ever since.

Bernie passed away when he was 69, and Marilee is grateful that she spent the last seven months of his life caring for and connecting with him. Several years later, she received a phone call that would change her life once again.

Robert Asher, a childhood friend who grew up just one block away from Marilee in Chicago, called her one day and asked, simply, “Do you remember me?” She did.

Robert had recently purchased a lamp that Marilee made and recognized her name. He decided to reach out to her. Years later, after his first wife passed away, Marilee and Robert began a courtship. They dated for six years before marrying in 1993.

Robert and Marilee lived for many years in a home in the Cathedral neighborhood in Washington, DC. When they were in their mid-90s, the couple decide to transition to a retirement community. “We didn’t really have health issues, but we wanted to move someplace where life was more secure,” Marilee recalled. The couple lived in a retirement community in the city for several years until Robert passed away.

When the community Marilee, now a widow, was living in closed for renovations, she was shocked and needed to quickly find another quality residence. She turned to Chevy Chase House. She has now been a resident there for 2 years.

“The staff is very kind, very nice. I love my apartment,” Marilee says of Chevy Chase House.

Chevy Chase House has been serving Washington seniors for 40 years and offers a distinctive living experience. Residents can enjoy high-quality assisted living, independent living or respite care in an outstanding facility. Residents also benefit from a variety of amenities including transportation, housekeeping, maintenance, dining services and nursing care. Coordinated daily activities keep residents active and engaged, including exercise, music, dance, crafts, discussion groups, lectures, informative classes, as well as outings to cultural sites and events in the nation’s capital.

“The exercise program is great,” Marilee says. “It is very important to me, and I think it is related to the fact that I’m
104.”

Marilee also likes the transportation program, which allows her to get around the city without driving. “I drove until I was about 94, but then I thought I better give it up,” she says. Now she has transportation to take her everywhere she needs to go.

Living in a secure building is also important to Marilee. “I grew up during the Capone era in Chicago. I was really not accustomed to feeling relaxed at night no matter where I was,” she recalled. “For a long time, I would wake up and think, ‘What was that?’ I realize now that I live here that I don’t need to worry. That was really big.”

Through all the changes in her life, one thing remained constant for Marilee: her art. While she has experimented with many mediums, she truly found herself while sculpting.

Marilee recalls in her memoir: “Sculpture is tactile, sensuous, and kinesthetic . . . When one is sculpting, the center of gravity is in the pelvis. One’s feelings seem to come from the gut …”

From her early sculpture exhibits to her more recent exhibits at the now-closed Gallery Plan B, Marilee has shown her sculptures and her prints throughout her life. Her artwork and her beautiful descriptions of it have always made quite an impression.

At the age of 88, Marilee began to explore a new, modern medium: digital photography and design. She recalled, “As I moved into my late eighties, physically lifting large, heavy sculptures became out of the question for me.”

Marilee enrolled in a class at the Corcoran School of Art and is now a digital artist as well. “I can now work with digital images on the computer, adding an exciting new dimension to my work. I sometimes feel like a genie, because touching one button turns green to blue.”

When she turned 100, Marilee decided to record some of her memories for her children. With the help of a nephew and later a cousin, those memories eventually became her autobiography, and Marilee added author to her list of talents. The book is a series of charming vignettes ranging from Marilee’s early childhood in Chicago to her more recent experiences in life, love and art. It is a beautiful piece of art in itself.

Marilee has created many things in her more than a century of life. But she is not done. In her studio in her apartment at Chevy Chase House, she continues to inspire and to be inspired—to create a life.

By Christy Brudin



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