But Richard Wiener said no, that wasn’t necessary. In this cursed, infectious age, why risk it? Richard — who in 1938 had endured Kristallnacht in Germany and then had wrung the maximum amount of life from the following 81 years (and counting) — could celebrate alone.
Of course, when you’re in the hearts of others, you’re never alone. When others are thinking about you, you’re not alone. And Evelyn was thinking.
Her father’s balcony was a “sad pathetic little thing,” she said: bare and devoid of life. She would make a garden grow — from 200 miles away.
“I’m just a hustler,” said Evelyn, 47, an educator, actress and voice-over artist. “I make stuff happen.”
Evelyn placed an ad on something called the Listings Project, a sort of Craigslist for artistic people, seeking a “green-thumbed kind soul” to help create an “outdoor balcony oasis for a kind wise 93-year-old man.”
“If I hadn’t found anyone, I might have given up,” she said. “It just seemed like I was given this person who was perfect.”
That person was Katya Barannik.
“When I read her post, I thought it was a really sweet idea: a daughter wanting to bring a bit of peace and beauty into her dad’s life in a bit of an ugly and somewhat frightening time,” Katya said.
Katya is a 27-year-old photo archivist who just relocated from New Haven, Conn., to Dupont Circle, where she’s staying with her mother and awaiting her life’s next chapter.
Evelyn solicited donations from friends of Richard’s and worked with Katya to decide what furniture and plants to buy with the money. A profusion of plants seemed especially fitting as Richard had endowed a peace garden at Berea College, a school in Appalachia that he supports.
Evelyn told her father someone would need access to his home for two hours, but that he needn’t worry. No one was going to infect the place. They were only going to be inside his condo for two minutes: one minute at the beginning of the two hours, another at the end of the two hours.
Richard couldn’t imagine what that might mean.
Last Wednesday, when Richard went to the pool at Grosvenor Park for his regular swim, Katya and her boyfriend sprang into action like a pair of reverse cat burglars. Katya ferried the plants and planters through the apartment and to the balcony while her boyfriend, Michael Glassman, assembled the patio furniture Evelyn had ordered.
When they had finished, Richard returned to a balcony adorned with pots of vinca, spike grass, zinnia and flowering sweet potato vine. There was a burbling water feature and solar powered twinkle lights, two chairs, a table . . .
Richard looked down at Katya from the balcony and held up his new green watering can in gratitude.
Over the phone a few days later, Richard told me: “I’m really a blessed person.”
He was talking about his new garden, but it applied to the entirety of his life, too.
“I’ve had a very, very rich and full life,” Richard said. “I’ve been on the road like Jack Kerouac, worked on the Northern Pacific railroad, lived in a boxcar, worked with Mexican fruit pickers. I’ve been to over 30 countries. I’ve been to Machu Picchu three times.”
Before that, Richard had been roughed up by the Hitler Youth on the playground of his school in Wittenberg, Germany; seen his father emerge from a concentration camp a shattered man; fled with his parents first to England and then, in 1940, to the United States.
Richard joined the Army, he went to college, he went to law school. He got married, he had children, he got divorced. The Berlin Wall came down and Richard went to a reunion of his old school.
“And at the end of the evening, I’m putting on my coat and a guy comes up to me: Horst. He was one of the Hitler Youth ringleaders,” Richard said. “And he said he wanted to ask for my forgiveness. Half a century later, we both burst into tears and we embraced and the whole past kind of melted away. It was a turning point in my life. I totally forgave him and I forgave my classmates. It changed my life.”
Richard lectures on the subject of forgiveness and tells his story in a self-published memoir, “Survivor’s Odyssey: From Oppression to Reconciliation.”
“I always think that the longer you live, the higher you rise,” he said. “You see the blue marble in its completeness. You see the whole journey of life, from beginning to end.”
And now Richard can see it from his fourth-floor oasis.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.