When Marsha Dollinger's husband, Dick, died nine years ago, well-meaning friends and neighbors assumed she would sell the large home they had built together in 1968 in the Woodcrest section of Cherry Hill. "Too big," they suggested. "Too lonely without Dick."
But Dollinger looked at her life in a different way.
"I certainly thought Dick and I would live happily ever after and grow old together," says Dollinger, who, like many in her generation, married while still a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Dick died from a rare and virulent cancer, just 100 days after diagnosis.
The Dollingers had three adult daughters and seven grandchildren who had come to love their home. And Marsha and Dick were deeply involved in Cherry Hill's Jewish community and close to many neighbors.
Yes, there would be empty bedrooms and spaces that needed to be redefined. But for Dollinger, moving to a smaller space — unfamiliar to her and her grieving children and grandchildren — wasn't the right future.
"I knew there might be lonely times, and believe me, there were. But I also wanted to stay right here, and I've never regretted it," says the former teacher, who, though retired after 25 years at Kellman Brown Academy, a Jewish day school in town, remains in contact with some students.
Dollinger decided to keep the basic look and feel of the expansive two-story home but also to refresh it.
Perhaps the most profound reckoning was the master bedroom, initially traditional and somewhat formal. Dollinger turned the space into a kind of indulgent library. Books are everywhere, and the once pastel walls are now a far deeper dark blue, which she finds enveloping.
"I feel safe and peaceful here, and I often go to bed early and read four books at a time," says Dollinger, who taught English. She's also still active in a local book group.
And there's the quirky side of the home's decor.
Just beyond the home's traditional exterior — pristine white set off by classic black shutters — "Aunt Sadie," a stuffed doll dressed in oxfords and a house dress, sits prominently in the living room keeping an eye on things. Not exactly the kind of adornment found in most traditional living rooms, but perfect for this sassy owner.
On a nearby wall is an abstract painting of a woman that Dollinger brought back from a trip to Cuba. "I sometimes like to base decorations on what memories they bring, and travel is very much a part of that," she says.
In the dining room, a large stained-glass window in a rich scroll pattern perfectly complements the brilliant scarlets, burgundies, blacks and golds in the upholstery on the show-stopping chairs. The impact is not because it's all "matchy-matchy," Dollinger says, but because it's not.
Family images are everywhere, beginning with the foyer, where on one wall are fight-posed photos of Marsha Dollinger's late father, Albert Zeigler, a boxing champion in his day. Her late mother gets equal time in a collection of ancestor portraits.
It's the spacious family room in the back of the house where everyone hangs out, including the dogs belonging to sisters Jennifer Dollinger Woods and Jamie Dollinger Hirsch.
Theirs was always the go-to house, the sisters remember, noting that their mother even color-coded cabinets designating favorite snacks of her daughters and their friends.
Jennifer, a lawyer who now works as a speech therapist, lives just across the street with her husband, Ed Woods, and three children.
"We love spending time here," says Ed, "because it's comfortable, it's fun and definitely not a 'don't sit on the furniture' kind of place."
His son adds that his grandmother's freezer always is loaded with ice cream.
Daughter Jamie and her family also live nearby. They are part of Judaism's Chabad movement, which welcomes Jews of all degrees of observance. She tutors teens for their bar and bat mitzvahs and owns a store that specializes in modest clothing for observant Jewish girls and women.
The third daughter, Julie Dollinger, is a pediatrician in Boston.
Matriarch Marsha sparks much of laughter that often fills the house. Her commitment to keeping the house in the family is part of preserving the history of her late husband's involvement in South Jersey Jewish life. Photos show the Dollingers with Jewish luminaries such as Elie Wiesel, Norman Mailer, and Ed Asner.
But the photograph of Dick Dollinger that Marsha loves most is one with his characteristic grin and the caption "The Best Pop-Pop Ever."
Despite the family's devotion to his memory, the life-affirming side of Marsha led her to co-found a group for widows, recent and not.
"We've learned together, listened to each other, and helped one another explore this new stage of life," Dollinger reflected. "This home is still a sanctuary for me, but it's not a place of sadness. It's really a place where love still lives."