Richland centenarian attributes longevity to dancing, vermouth

DANA WILLIAMS SPECIAL TO THE HERALDNovember 2, 2013 

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the 2013 edition of Life Care’s LEADER magazine and is reprinted with the permission of Life Care Centers of America.

The human body -- mind, nervous system and emotions -- offers an amazing show of strength and endurance, but there is a limit to what many people can handle. For most, hiding in bomb shelters, waking to the end of a gun barrel, raising children amidst imminent danger, enduring wrongful interrogation and suffering the tragic death of loved ones would be too much to bear.

Yet for Jeanne Gorce, 103, a resident of Life Care Center of Richland, this is a snapshot of her life story, a glimpse into her reality.

Born and raised in Lyon, France, Gorce dreamed of dancing. She took gymnastics throughout grade school and wanted nothing more than to become a ballerina. Gorce couldn't have known the struggles, threats and tragedies her journey would present nor all the ways in which she would need to move gracefully to navigate her way safely through.

From a young age, songs played in her mind -- a collection of nearly 100 tunes, which she absorbed on her walks to school as a child. Holding the hand of her nanny, she would stand on the street corner and listen to artists beginning their careers with street performances, earning what pay they could from the morning passersby.

As the daughter of store owners, Gorce spent her days after high school graduation shining the silver, arranging the glassware and selling numerous household items. Perhaps those childhood tunes helped her pass the time, or maybe she thought about her dreams of becoming a ballerina.

Although her parents didn't support her passion for ballet, they tried to make up for it by chaperoning her to dances throughout her teenage years. At one such dance, a young Vietnamese man, Nguyen Van Dan, who was living in France to study pharmacy, asked her to dance.

Gorce often recounted the story to her daughter, including the impressive details of his dancing skills. The two soon wed and had their first child, Alfred.

Once Nguyen completed school, he transplanted their young family to his home in Vietnam -- to the city of Saigon. They opened a pharmacy and soon had their second child, Ann.

Living in Saigon, raising two children and helping her husband run a pharmacy came with challenges, but no one could foresee the darkness and turmoil that would soon threaten their status-quo suburban life.

Gorce and her family were living in one of the world's most unsettled nations at the time -- just after World War II and amidst opposing political interests, killings and bombings -- on the brink of the First Indochina War, later known as the Quicksand War, the precursor to the Vietnam War.

For a time, Gorce was forced to move to the city as the Japanese occupying Vietnam required all Europeans to be quarantined. During this time, Gorce lived at the house of Madam Daede, who was a woman with a forthright manner. For a brief time, Gorce's daughter stayed in Madam Daede's home with her mother, and she remembers the sight of blood all over the floor after a young Viet Minh boy cut the throat of Madam Daede, who had confronted him, inquiring the reason for his presence in her attic.

For Gorce's family, the actions of the Viet Minh -- Vietnamese nationals who wanted self-governance and independence from France -- meant complete uncertainty. There was no way to know day by day whether your gardener was in fact part of the Viet Minh.

"When I was riding a bicycle once, I almost ran over the decomposing hand of a corpse," Ann shares of a childhood memory. "Underneath, it was very tragic, but on the surface, everything seemed to be OK. I never felt that there was something terrible going on, but when you run over the hand of a corpse, you realize reality. There were two plains of people living."

Indeed, suburban life went on as normally as possible, but just below the surface, violence and fear were running rampant -- and the situation seemed to be sinking in on itself.

During Gorce's time in the city, she and the others living with Madam Daede retreated to the bomb shelter daily while American B-29 planes flew overhead, bombing the city, seeking to demolish Japanese war installations. During one of the Japanese house raids, Gorce was arrested by the Japanese and wrongfully accused of being a spy. While she was incarcerated, Nguyen found a way to get his wife out of jail.

Nguyen and Gorce did their best to protect their children from the scary realities they were facing. The children were told their mother was away visiting friends, and through the years, her time in prison was never a topic of conversation. However, she shared with her daughter that after spending a length of time in the same cell as several other women, they all began to periodically burst into fits of laughter from the stress, fear and uncertainty of it all.

Once French troops liberated Vietnam from the Japanese, Gorce was able to return home. Ann remembers of her mother's return home that she seemed very much the same as before she had left. Despite the trauma of such an experience, Gorce maintained her poise, her grace and her ability to hold her family together.

By 1955, the conflict and overt violence had subsided temporarily, allowing Nguyen a window of opportunity to provide safety for his wife and daughter. He sent them to live in Paris. Alfred had previously joined the U.S. military and was already in France. The plan was for Nguyen to tie up some loose ends with the business and join his family in Paris. However, he became ill and was never reunited with his family. He died of colon cancer in the early '60s.

While in Paris, Gorce and Ann learned that Alfred would be continuing his education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Gorce had money in savings to send Ann to the university for one year along with Alfred. Realizing both of her children would be in the United States, Gorce decided she'd like to try living in San Francisco. She had heard glamorous stories of California but had no knowledge of the English language or any idea how she would support herself once she arrived.

Nevertheless, a conversation with a kind Frenchman on the airplane ride she took solo marked the beginning of her adventure in the United Sates. He gave her the address of a hotel in San Francisco, but she was unable to communicate once she arrived. She only ate hamburgers for the first several weeks until she began learning the names of other entre options. Eventually, Gorce got a job as a stock girl and started to acquire some command of English.

The hopes she had of escaping the turmoil of war and devastation in Vietnam were met with unexpected threats not long after her arrival in California. One day, while taking a walk in the park, a man pointed a knife between her eyes and began to tear apart her dress. The noise of an approaching vehicle scared the attacker away, and the driver came to Gorce's aid. That same year, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck. During the earthquake, Gorce and some friends decided to make the most of a perilous moment by enjoying a drink at Top of the Mark, a rooftop bar.

Through the years, Gorce and Ann followed Alfred wherever his work took him. After San Francisco, Gorce relocated to San Diego, then on to New York, Miami and, finally, Richland, where Alfred began to fulfill his dream -- establishing his own vineyard. He died of a heart attack in 1987, just 10 years after moving to Richland.

Gorce found work in department stores wherever she lived until she retired in the late '70s. Upon retirement, she enjoyed her three dogs, collecting flower pots, planting her favorite flowers and traveling with friends to see the sites. Ann speaks highly of her mother's ability to seek solutions despite unspeakable obstacles and continues to be an active part of her mother's life and care.

An occasional song will come to Gorce's mind from those days nearly a century ago when she walked the streets of Lyon, holding her nanny's hand. Having endured a life of challenge with poise and grace, Gorce attributes her longevity to dancing and sweet vermouth.

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