Marlys Burnett was the first to move into HRB’s Janet West Homes in 2004, the year it was built. She lives there today, at the age of 94, to the relief and delight of her daughter and many friends who want her safe, happy, and close-by.
When you visit Marlys Burnett, read the room—literally. The glossy white upright and hundreds of piano books; A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness on an end table by the couch; eight figurines along a mantel, seven ceramic Inuit children and a Ruth Bader Ginsburg made of plastic; photos of family, friends, and landscapes propped wherever space allows. Round the corner and step into the pantry, a point of pride for Marlys when showing her home to visitors, and marvel at the quantity of canned goods and potatoes that recall her Depression-era childhood. You won’t see the camping gear, however. She stored that in the trunk of her old car so she could camp when she wanted, often alone after hiking and deep into her 80s. A world of music, a world of ideas, the natural world, she’s traveled them all in her 94 years.
In 1970, Marlys left Southern California, where she taught music, for Juneau, Alaska, in a gold dredging barge with her four children and her first husband, who had tired of his journalism career and craved adventure. The barge promptly sunk in a storm, but they stayed 17 years, fixed up a cabin on the coast and bought a boat, which they named The Rubaiyat. When Marlys and her husband divorced, she moved to Sitka, where she started a magazine that catered to the tourists arriving on cruise ships. At 65, divorced for a second time, she moved back to California to earn a master’s degree in piano pedagogy at San Diego State. “I needed it to remain competitive as I got older,” Marlys explained. “There’s always more to know.”
“She was very vivacious and running her own piano business and had her car and was camping and had her friends and her whole life down there. She was living like a 30-year-old,” her daughter Rebecca Manzo, a retired nurse, recalled. “Mom,” she told her. “As you age, I’m not going to be able to manage you long distance.”
Marlys moved to Bainbridge Island to be near family, starting off in an apartment downtown as she waited for an opening with HRB. She’s since traded her snowshoes and hiking boots for a walker but thanks to Janet West’s central location halfway between T&C and Safeway, she continues to walk to the library, the dentist, the doctor, Helpline House, and the bookstore.
“We have a tremendous feeling of security knowing that she’s here because she’s so happy. She has wonderful neighbors. HRB has been a wonderful landlord. The building offers a feeling of security and community,” said Rebecca. The two young women upstairs check on Marlys regularly and bring her things to eat. And Rebecca fondly recalls a neighbor, who was almost blind and would hold onto Marlys’s arm as they walked up and down the street.
Nowadays Marlys spends much of her time reading, a neck brace a testament to two years of the pandemic and more time spent alone bent over books than was typical for this “Little Miss Popular,” according to her daughter. “When I’m not reading, I’m writing poetry,” Marlys said, “I can’t help it. It just comes.” She plays the piano too. On this afternoon, Marlys rose slowly from the couch, walked over to the keyboard, her rangy legs weighted by clogs, and shared a few lines from a Chopin nocturn, which left her daughter in tears. “That is so beautiful,” Rebecca sighed. So beautiful.”
Neighbors have come and gone during her 18 years at Janet West. Her blind companion has since passed. And Marlys’s three younger siblings, all smokers, have died of cancer. Marlys Burnett is truly an original, but for more than her residency at Janet West or her longevity. She is an entrepreneur, an adventurer, an intellectual, a creative, and a free spirit, passions and identities that have kept her on the move, never staying in one home more than a couple years.
“This is the home in which Mom has lived the longest… It has truly become her home and it’s her home for us too to visit,” said Rebecca, who comes every other day. Friends drop by more now than during the height of the pandemic. One just showed up, in fact.