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It was a long way and a long life from San Antonio, Texas, to a newly opened assisted living complex in Portland, Oregon. Olive Eng moved into Rose Schnitzer Manor in July 1998, about six months after it opened, and has lived here longer than anyone else. She can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Her life, now comfortable and free, began in chaos and fear. The daughter of Chinese immigrants who lived in San Antonio, she was only 2 when her father was killed by criminals associated with the local Chinese Benevolent Association, or tong.

Her mother, who had been transported from a rural Chinese village to the unfamiliar culture and climate of Texas, lived in continual fear of the tong. The Benevolent Association provided aid and services to its Chinese members, but its organized crime faction traumatized her mother with threats involving property she owned. Young Olive once saw her mother intimidated by a man waving a gun.

Olive’s four siblings, not much older than she, tried to take care of one another. Her two older brothers finally succeeded in having her mother, who was increasingly fearful and paranoid, committed to a mental institution, where she lived out her life.

When Olive was 14, she went to live with her sister and her husband in Sacramento, California, where the couple owned a Chinese takeout restaurant. “It was the first time I had enough to eat,” Olive recalls. “It was so good, chow mein and barbecue pork…” Her mother’s insistence that she eat all of her rice, dry and unseasoned, before she could partake of any other dishes meant the child had often left the table hungry.

She graduated high school in Sacramento, then attended junior college, taking prerequisites to attend a university. When her brother-in-law went to UC Berkeley to study, she moved with him and her sister to Richmond, and she went to Berkeley herself for a semester.

After her mother died, she returned to San Antonio and took more college classes. Then she went to live with her sister Annabel in Los Angeles, where she and a girlfriend got jobs at UCLA. With her savings and some family money, she could afford the tuition of $30 a semester.

She worked toward a bachelor’s in elementary education while living in a co-op. She met her first husband at college. Her marriage ended but it resulted in “the best thing that ever happened to me,” her daughter, Caryl Kwan, now Hoffman. Caryl has two children of her own, Spencer, 28, and Kayla, 25.

I can’t imagine being elsewhere… I feel right at home.’

While in LA, Olive briefly taught third grade in an inner-city school before deciding to become a school librarian instead. Her degree in elementary education helped her obtain a school library credential. Olive doesn’t recall any favorite authors from her years as a junior high and high school librarian; she tried to choose books “that fit the curriculum.”

After she retired at age 55, and worked at selling real estate. She didn’t make much money, but learned a lot about her own potential. “You had to promote yourself,” she remembers. “It gave me a lot of self-confidence.”
Then one day in 1998, Olive Eng was standing at her bathroom sink, brushing her teeth, when her left arm went numb. Although she tried to ignore the sensation, the numbness spread, and eventually she lost her balance and fell to the floor.

She lay there for a long time. Although she could push herself along with her right arm, she didn’t try to call for help. She was sure the numbness would pass. Her mind was hazy, but she noticed the light in the bathroom fade into darkness. Then another day passed, and another.

By the third day, her body was stiff and sore from lying on the floor, so she somehow managed to get to the bathtub and draw a warm bath.

She hefted herself into the tub, causing a great deal of water to splash onto the floor. As she relaxed into the blessedly warm water, a knock came at the door. The downstairs neighbor had noticed water seeping through the floor into his apartment. Olive didn’t answer. She figured he wouldn’t hear her from inside the bathroom and besides, he was probably angry that she had flooded his bathroom.

The neighbor went away, but he came back with the apartment manager and two EMTs, one of whom noticed that the left side of her face was sagging and suggested gently that she may have had a stroke. They lifted her from the bath and took her to the hospital, where the diagnosis was confirmed.

A short time later, unable to return to her old life, she moved into an apartment at Rose Schnitzer Manor, a newly built assisted living facility, that her daughter and son-in-law had found for her.

That was 21 years ago, when Olive Eng was 65.

Even after all this time, she says “I can’t imagine being elsewhere. … I feel right at home.”

Now 86, she enjoys classes in yoga and writing and tai chi. Years of physical therapy have helped her regain the use of her left hand. She appreciated help with bathing and dressing and eventually had a hip replacement.

One skill Olive Eng has honed in her years at Rose Schnitzer Manor is Ebru, a type of painting that begins by “marbleizing” paper by dipping it in water marked with swirls of acrylic paint. Once that background is dry, she paints over the patterns she created with new images, adding color, depth and perspective.

Ever since she came to Rose Schnitzer Manor, she’s had her hair done by Peggy Henry in the on-site salon. Although not a resident, Peggy’s been a fixture at Rose Schnitzer Manor even longer than Olive, arriving three months earlier, in April 1998.

The food, her artwork, creativity, friends, choir, tai chi and a fearsome reputation as the person to beat at Scrabble. Olive Eng is building on 21 years of Rose Schnitzer living—and loving it.

Fran Gardner is a retired journalist and a resident of Rose Schnitzer Manor.

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