After a long winter, which spilled into April, Arthur and Sandra Robbins head to Golden’s Bridge, a tiny hamlet in northern Westchester.
Sandy and Art’s Golden’s Bridge home is their respite. Their house has emerged from winter with no hot water, but the roads have thawed and Sandy and Art are feeling better. They can not keep themselves away longer.
Sandy and Art bought this house nearly 50 years ago, when their youngest daughter Laura was a baby. The house is part of a colony founded by Russian Jewish immigrant communists. Art and Sandy liked that the community was only one hour away by car and reachable by commuter train from the city. They moved there at the same time as a close friend, west side activist and community district manager Doris Rosenblum and her family, who introduced them to the colony.
Today, the trees are bare, making it is easy to see people’s houses that are seasonally hidden. The forsythias are blooming. The homes – of moderate scale - ring a small lake. Sandy and Art’s friends and friends’ children in the neighborhood are long gone.
On a walk, Sandy points out the basketball court, the playground, the volleyball court and the beach sloping down to the lake where her children used to attend camp.
Sandy says hello to the people she sees, out walking or getting into their cars, in the way that you do in a small town neighborhood. She knows who is afraid of her dog Rosie and who isn’t.
In Golden’s Bridge, Rosie, usually a leashed city dog, runs free on the rocky dirt road that rings the colony and the brush that surrounds it. Sandy feels like spoiling her with outdoor time even more this weekend, since they recently discovered that Rosie has a large growth that may be cancerous. Rosie will undergo surgery on Tuesday to investigate further.
The Robbins have had four family dogs. When their last dog Max, a yellow lab, died, Art and Sandy spent two years pet-less. Art was concerned that he could do nothing to care for another dog, given his physical limitations. After an argument one night about something else, Sandy stormed out, and when she came back, Art said that they should get a dog.
“I said, ‘You don’t have to do this just because of the argument,’ but he said, ‘No, no, I have been thinking about this for a long time,’” Sandy recounted. “It was a gift of love. It was very touching.”
Rosie had been rescued after her owner died in a tornado. When Sandy and Art saw her, they say she looked forlorn, shy and scared. They quickly became attached.
Rosie and Sandy are now walking companions, particularly since Art can no longer go for lengthy walks. When Sandy lets Rosie off leash in Golden’s Bridge, Rosie seems to know that Sandy can’t chase her and knows to come back.
Sandy is feeling mostly better after six weeks of recovering from her fall and then handling Art’s temporary loss of lucidity. Sandy says she can’t move with the ease that she’s used to, she’s out of breath more easily and her heart has been fibrillating more than usual. She is back to working her near full-time hours.
This visit – their first trip up to the country this year - was a struggle for Sandy to carry all of their things into the house to pack and unpack.
Last year, Art and Sandy built a wooden ramp that wraps around the house so that Art is able to get into and out of the house, which sits on a hill, with his walker. He is still stubborn and sometimes uses the stairs.
The house is surrounded by colorful, human-size metal sculptures that Art welded and small mosaic tiles that are built into the garbage bin and above the garage. The primary colors pop in the green that surrounds it.
Art and Sandy have completed many rounds of renovations on what was once a very small house, and they’ve built out in different directions, adding more windows and light at every chance. The home is filled with photos of their family. There is artwork from their son Michael and from Art, their styles reflecting each other.
Today, Sandy is organizing the medicine and vitamins for the week into a very large pillbox in the kitchen. Art is a few chapters into a book. They are heading out to Chinese food for lunch. It is easier for them to dine out upstate than in Manhattan with Art’s walker and oxygen tank, because they can drive right up to a restaurant and have space to spread out.
They will drive back this evening to begin another work week.
* * *
Golden’s Bridge is especially important to Sandy and Art given that the Robbins’ West End Avenue apartment has few boundaries between work and personal life.
For decades, their apartment has been home to Art’s therapy practice down one hallway and to the office for the Shadow Box Theatre down another.
Shoes, coats and umbrellas from Art’s therapy groups are often in piles near the door. When the Robbins’ kids were young they would run through the hallway disrupting everyone’s work. Art recalls how his patients would enter his office saying, “She’s having a hard day isn’t she?” after hearing Sandy yell at the kids.
The Shadow Box Theatre staff would often stay late in the office off of the Robbins’ kitchen, limiting the family’s alone time and pushing dinner into late hours.
As Art and Sandy have aged, having working staff in the apartment has been beneficial, as they have had organic support without having to hire specific help or rely on their family more.
When Raymond Todd, operations manager for the theater, applied for his job, he said he was immediately asked two questions: do you mind working out of an apartment and do you like dogs?
Raymond – who manages the theater’s bookings and office administration - has been critical as Art and Sandy have needed more assistance. They have compensated him additionally as they have needed more support outside the theater, including for Art’s bookkeeping needs.
“If Raymond wasn’t there, I couldn’t work,” Sandy says.
“I tend to be available for just about anything and everything,” said Raymond. “I do things for Dr. Robbins. I move the car. There are often problems with the computer or the Internet. When she’s cleaning, Elizabeth needs help moving the couch or rugs. Before they leave on the weekends, I help get the gear into the car.”
“As far as their entire life cycle is concerned, I’m so a part of it, that it’s a part of my life,” he said. “It’s not just a job, and I’m not just a worker. There’s a sense of accomplishment in being able to do what I do for the theater and personally what I can do for them. They are good people.”
The final show of The Shadow Box Theatre’s repertoire this season is “Play it Safe.” The show was written more than decade ago with a grant from a parks department on Long Island, which wanted a safety show.
Rehearsals are short – only two weeks – because only one of the cast members is new to the show this year.
“Play it Safe” teaches a list of lessons: how to cross the street, why it’s important not to get separated from the group, that a bicycle is built for one person, to stay away from fire, etc. All are learned through the adventures of a black duck, yellow chick and white goose who live in the city and decide to take a taxi to have a picnic in the country.
June also marks the end of another budget year and prime time for submitting final grant reports.
The theater operates in the way many non-profits do. The theater doesn’t get paid until after its work is already done. This means that Sandy and the staff are regularly spending money that they don’t have.
“Always, toward the end of the season, we worry very much about whether we are going to be able to make people’s salaries and we’re chasing the money,” Sandy said. “The grants don’t come in. People came to see the show and paid for it through the Board of Education, and the Board of Education hasn’t sent the money yet. We are always in that kind of circumstance.”
In past years the theater has taken out a loan against the grant money they expect to come in. They have also accepted loans and donations from Art and Sandy.
“Almost every year, I have to go to Art and say, we’re in a hard place. He says: How much do you need? And when do we get it back?” Sandy said. “This is the truth of the theater and it’s very worrisome when I get too old to continue doing this. And I’m getting older every minute.”
This June, one Head Start program has paid up front for several months of workshops that will take place at their schools in the fall, giving the theater the financial wiggle room it needs to pay staff and avoid taking out a loan for the funds its owed.
“It’s like small miracles constantly,” Sandy said.
Carol Prud’homme Davis, the theater’s managing director, is cautiously hopeful that the theater can adapt to financial challenges as it has in the past, as it eventually grapples with how to untie itself from the support the Robbins’ provide.
“Whoever came up with having shows during the school day for this age group, it is an amazing business plan. We just don’t have that much competition. And it is magical every time you go. Then, when we had the crisis with Hurricane Sandy, where we were missing shows, and we started having the storytelling go to schools. That was a whole new approach. As far as the workshops, we have to see what kind of models we can put in place. We have to see how many directions we can go,” she said.
In addition to directing the theater and identifying as a lifelong dancer, Sandy is also a healer – leading a weekly group in her home and studying meditation and the use of energy. When she speaks about her greater life philosophy it is often in these terms.
“Everything we do and say, I believe, is like throwing a stone in the water,” Sandy says. “The ripples go way out to the ocean. Our individual power has an enormous effect as it gathers strength from others and travels around the world. As they say, a butterfly’s wings can be an impetus for a storm thousands of miles away. “
Sandy says it is her life goal to “open up the space” in whatever environment she is in.
“At the theater, I teach the cast how to open and send their energy to embrace the audience,” Sandy said.
Sandy has also helped train the therapists that Art has worked with around the world in being conscious of the energy created in the therapy space.
This interest began after a defining moment in Sandy’s life when she learned techniques to help heal her nephew who was in a coma many decades ago. It is a practice that she believes complements Western medicine.
These past several months – grappling with her own health, Art’s health, the challenges of keeping the theater alive and the realities of loss that come with age – have challenged Sandy’s energy work.
“It demands that I put together the reality of the difficulties of aging and my whole philosophy of how I live my life. How to maintain this kind of equanimity, and face the challenges that are very real, with this feeling of not judging is very difficult. Once you go into that place of judgment and non-acceptance you can not find new solutions. Somehow, at the age of 81, there are more challenges than as a younger person, more to overcome and to more easily be angry about.”
June has tested Sandy’s faith even further. Surgery showed that Rosie does have cancer. The veterinarian estimates that Rosie will live for another six months.
Sandy has ordered an alternative medicine, a micro algae originally used by a Russian doctor treating animals and people poisoned by Chernobyl, to give Rosie, with no other options presented to her to prolong Rosie’s life.
“I can’t even think about it,” Sandy says. “I love her.”
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