When Jim Sandonato decided to list his home on the market in 1987, he reached out to a realtor acquaintance for help. At the time, Jim, 48, was a successful electrical engineer on a spiritual journey, deeply involved in meditation groups, which is where he met his soon-to-be realtor.
But, as fate would have it, the day before she was to come by and view the house, his acquaintance called him with a change of plans: “She said: ‘I just quit my job to go on the road with my husband. But my boss will come by, and she’ll take good care of you,’” Jim recalled. “The next day, Penny showed up. And that’s how we met.”
Penny, 46 at the time, was both an artist and the head of a real estate firm in South Jersey, where the two both lived. Having previously owned her own crafts gallery, she spent much of her free time on textile arts, creating beautiful collages of hand-dyed fabrics.
Like Night and Day
Jim and Penny were very different people — “like night and day,” Penny said. But, for six months, the pair drove all over Pennsylvania and New Jersey looking for a new home for Jim, and, spending lots of time together in the process, their conversations grew deeper with every excursion.
Penny, a single parent of two, had just experienced the tragic loss of her oldest child, who was killed in an automobile accident a month prior. “That just flipped my life completely,” she said. “I was kind of floating around, knowing I needed something but not finding what it was exactly. So, meeting Jim really made all the difference for me — not just by being able to talk to somebody about a very personal thing, but also because he suggested I come to his meditation group. And that was a huge transition in my life.”
A New Chapter
One year of friendship, meditation and one sold house later, the two began dating, and a year after that, in 1989, they married on the beach in Sea Isle City, New Jersey.
“We learned a lot in our lives being single and wanted, I think, to do it right this time,” said Penny, comparing their early relationship to the title characters in “When Harry Met Sally” — laughing at the silly ways they often butted heads. “It was really a commitment for both of us, but we had a real desire to make it work.”
“We thought we knew how to do it right before,” Jim explained, “but we really ended up learning a lot from each other, about how to grow together.”
Despite their differences, the couple formed a strong bond over meditation, yoga, spirituality and other Eastern philosophies on healing. “You know, life happens — marriages, raising a family, unsuccessful relationships,” said Jim, who has five children from previous marriages. “And in all those years, you dip down and want to find a way to pull yourself back up. The whole spirituality thing happened when I was doing a lot of searching, trying to find the answer, and eventually found meditation and yoga.”
For Jim, this discovery was a huge step forward. “I traveled to India four times — I actually lived there for a year,” he said. He did workshops with spiritual teacher and yoga guru Ram Dass, and he even earned his second-degree black belt in aikido, a martial art that focuses solely on defense. “And though I sort of guided Penny into Eastern thought, she really did her own thing. I was into the gurus, and she went into a Buddhist sangha. Our connection was on a spiritual level, and that, for me, was the biggest thing.”
During this period of introspection and self-exploration, Penny realized that real estate wasn’t her calling after all, and soon went back to school to earn a master’s degree in counseling.
“I wanted to do counseling to help heal people, because after losing my son, I needed to be healed too,” she explained. “And a good way to heal yourself is to do something for somebody else, so it just clicked for me. It was something that allowed me to be more creative and feel more comfortable in.”
Love at First Sight
A few years later, the couple read an article in a magazine about the Asheville area and drove down from New Jersey to check it out for themselves. “We came over the mountains through Tennessee, and I started to cry,” Penny explained. “I just said, ‘This is it.’ It was love at first sight. Asheville was just the perfect place, both for art and spirituality.” The Sandonatos have now lived in Asheville for 26 years, the last two of which they’ve spent at Ardenwoods.
About 10 years before retiring, Jim took up a second career — one vastly different from his longstanding work in electrical engineering.
“I had started doing consciousness-raising workshops and things like that, learning more about myself, and Shiatsu therapy was part of it,” Jim said. “It involves the meridians in the body, which are essentially energy channels, very much like electrical wiring. It was almost like electrical engineering that could be translated to the body, using the body’s circuits instead of building circuits.”
Jim enjoyed a second career in Shiatsu therapy until the COVID-19 pandemic, which made this type of work nearly impossible. Then, in August 2021, after a few health scares for both husband and wife, they decided to take the leap and move to Ardenwoods.
“We started to come here to attend some of the activities (with friends who are residents) and saw how friendly everybody was. It’s just our kind of place,” Penny said. “There’s a lot of creativity here. There’s a singing group and a dance group — there’s a very good yoga teacher — and, you know, everything you could possibly want. And even if you don’t want to do anything, that’s perfectly fine too.”
At Ardenwoods, Jim serves on both the Building and Grounds and Wellness committees, which each use knowledge from his two separate careers. In his spare time, he enjoys the community’s tai chi, yoga and strength training classes.
Though Penny is currently recovering from an injury, she said she’s excited to get back into Ardenwoods’ creative classes, which she previously enjoyed. Until then, Jim is happy to direct visitors to his talented wife’s artwork, which hangs in the lobby halls.
“One of the things that Penny used to say often when we were first married was that we had so much history that was separate from one another. We didn’t have any history together,” Jim said. “Well, here we are 33 years later: We have history together.”