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Girls' Night Out

Christmas Dinner With the Friends of the Elderly



She is waiting in the lobby in a sturdy coat and pounds of costume jewelry. I can barely open the car door against the blasts of wind off the lake. I rush to help her, but she is already at the curb.

"Isn't it wonderful?" she says in the car. "There's no ice or snow. It's so much easier for walking."

When I volunteered to pick up three seniors and bring them to a Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly, Christmas dinner in Wicker Park, I was mindful of what a few decades of living alone can do. I assumed at least one of my companions would be cranky. It wouldn't be Mary, obviously. We chat easily while getting lost in our own neighborhood around Clark and Belmont, trying to find the second address on my list. Mary says she used to go to Mount Carmel, but now she goes to a Lutheran church, where the minister is so nice. "Just a young fellow, with a lovely wife, and every time I see him he's just so pleasant to me. Always calls me by name," she says. "And for a time I thought, well, I must just be something special, for him to remember me out of all these people. But then I noticed he said something to everyone. And called everyone by name! And here I was, all inflated, thinking I was so special."

She laughs. Then points to a synagogue. "I go to services there on Saturdays," she says. "They have wonderful services. And that's not reform, either."

She carries her purse in her lap. (Much later, after our dinner, she asks to be dropped off at a Presbyterian church.)

We finally find Ann and she too is standing at the door, dressed warmly and well. She is 74 but she bounds into the backseat. They both talk about the Little Brothers --"They do so much for us seniors" --and rave about the food we will eat. We yak about which neighborhood grocery stores have the best sales and how nice it is to control your own heat and how much we all like living alone.

"I live alone. I don't mind it at all," says Mary. "Do you?"

Ann says no in a way that seems to mean "Hell no." She is long divorced and lives with two dogs in six rooms.

"Oh, you have so much space," Mary says. She lives in a studio. "Have you considered taking a roommate?"

"No," Ann says again. Again meaning hell no. She adds: "I have a lot of stuff so there's not much room."

"Oh, I see," Mary says. We have even more trouble finding Lorraine. I finally realize she is in the nursing home I keep passing. Inside, she seems disoriented. Doesn't talk much. I warn her about the cold. Her bare hands as we hobble a long way to the curb worry me.

"Do you have any gloves? Want mine?" I ask.

"Have some," Lorraine says. A few steps later she says, "They're in my purse." We manage another yard, then she says, "Good place for 'em."

We also get lost getting to the dinner at Josephinum High School. The ladies keep saying, "Well, I think it's in a very bad neighborhood, isn't it?" But as we drive they don't seem to mind. We keep taking dead ends and odd side streets. The women are like kids: "Oh, look at that lovely little house." "I like those curtains." "I never saw that building, before. I've never even been in this part of the city before!" They are brimming with Christmas wonder.

Finally we see a stream of seniors going into a building, and everyone is bellowing Merry Christmas! Handsome lads are helping people get out of cars and through the winds. I drive right up on the sidewalk to get the women closer to the door. They all say, "Lock your doors, dear!" "Don't park too far." "Oh, I hope she doesn't have to go too far to park."

We promise to meet up again just inside the doors so we can sit together. I park the car easily and run back. Inside, there's a crush of excitement. I look around worriedly for my ladies and see them waving their arms to direct me toward a table.

"Sign in for the raffle!" they insist. They've aleady got their name tags and eggnog.

"We have to find four seats together," I say. "Let me look around, then I'll come back and get you." I swim through the tables, everyone wishing me merriment. On each table is a huge box, gift-wrapped and star-sprinkled, with balloons attached to it. Most of the tables are filled. I glance back and see Ann following me, Lorraine feebly trying to keep up with her. Mary has vanished. Strangers offer us scattered seats but I plow through the festive crowd; then I spot Mary sitting serenely up front, at a table she's saved for us.

"Mary," I say, relieved.

"I like to sit by the kitchen," she says simply. Indeed, we are by both the kitchen and the pianist. So it is perfect. Ann pulls up behind me, but Lorraine is lost. I look everywhere for her. Even down the halls and in the bathrooms. Someone tells me to try the microphone. The man beaming beside it says, "Good luck. Have you heard the loud system? It sounds like Mickey Mouse getting dental work done with a chain saw. Well, let's give it a try."

He picks up the mike and it squawks. He says Lorraine's name several times, then asks her to raise her hand. Two arms shoot up in the air and wave madly. I thank him and race back to the silver-haired woman waving her arms. She's not Lorraine.

"Sorry dear," she says. "I just got excited."

They are all excited and so are the volunteers. I finally find Lorraine. She's at a full table and seems very content there. I return to our table up front and find that it's begun to fill up. A woman in an elastic face, extravagant hair band, and red sweater sits at the head. She's a foghorn baritone and we nickname her Ethel. Across from me is Helen. She came by herself on several buses. Later the emcee asks us to lift our plates and look underneath for a red dot. Helen has one and says, "Great! This better mean I win a car. I need a car."

Helen stuffs the red dot in her bra. We all stare. Helen shrugs. "It's where I keep things," she says. "I keep my keys in the left one, and my money on the right. I better win a car. I don't feel like taking the bus home."

The emcee says the folks with red dots get to take the wrapped package on their table home. It's filled with canned goods. When the emcee starts shouting "It's raffle time!" a gorgeous woman in a sequined shower cap at the next table yells back: "Shake 'em good! Shake 'em good!" It sounds like a mantra. One gets the sense there's a lot of bingo sharks in the crowd.

The ladies tell me they went to a rival holiday dinner once and the raffle was terrible. "You know what they raffled away? Wine and negligees! What are we going to do with wine and negligees!" Here they give away pillows and quilts, baskets of jam and fruit--lovely and practical gifts. Partway through the meal, the emcee tells us to locate the gilded and holly-stamped glass at our places, full of sparkling apple cider in lieu of champagne. "Those glasses are yours to take home," he says.

A splendid exhalation of ahhhs fills the huge room. The ladies at our table begin honestly admiring their new glasses.

I regret that I didn't take a friend's suggestion and get them all a box of Frango mints. It seemed like such an afterthought of a gift, but I realize they are glad to be thought of at all.

A 100-year-old beauty plays "Silent Night" on the piano. Helen keeps sending me back to the kitchen. "Get me some bread," she says after the tables have been cleared. I come back with a few pieces. A song or two later, she says, "Go get me some ham. I want to make a sandwich for later." I fetch the ham. Then she needs foil. Later a plastic bag.

An old fellow named George joins us and Helen says, "She'll get you some ham. Go get him some ham." George keeps pleading with me for silver paper. He didn't get any. He came late, he says. He wants his silver paper. I finally realize he covets Helen's piece of foil. Meanwhile the red-sweatered lady at the end of the table is yelling, "Hey gorgeous, get up there and do the cancan." She jabs my arm because I don't realize she's talking to me. Up front is Marion, a splendidly merry old lady in red sweats with a tutu attached, who plays the harmonica and pops balloons for emphasis, adding real crescendos to the Christmas carols. "Hey gorgeous!" bellows Ethel. "Get up there and dance."

"This group is rowdy," I declare. George wants more of everything and I finally get caught. "Who's it for?" an organizer demands.

"George," I say feebly. "George! He's eaten three meals already." George pouts when I return with only a handful of cookies and an admonishment. He and Helen have begun bickering. Ethel keeps glaring at Helen and saying, "For God's sake, she hasn't stopped talking. She hasn't shut up for one second." She repeats this endlessly while Helen is yelling at George: "And close your mouth when you chew. I hate the way you eat. You're making me nuts. Why don't you relax? You know what your problem is? You don't know how to relax and have a good time." And George grumbles, "Leave me some peace."

Ann and Mary are stealing glances at me. I lean over and say, "They sound like they've been married for 60 years." Mary covers her laugh with a hand. After George gets up to raid the kitchen himself, we tease Helen with, "Where'd your boyfriend go?" She growls, "Christ! He's so nervous. He's making me nuts." Then she watches worriedly for him to return, and wants me to get him some more food.

We sing carols and Marion does something like an interpretive dance. "She's in good shape," Ann says when Marion floats to the floor, then up on her toes with her hands over her head she twirls and kicks her legs up. The emcee calls her Marion the Harmonica-Playing Rockette and lots of people dance and even the dishwashers are happy and laughing.

The women keep asking me as we wrap ourselves up again: "Wasn't the food marvelous?" though it was execrable. We gather Lorraine and I beg them to stick together while I fetch the car. When I run back in, the three of them are standing shoulder to shoulder looking at me like kids.

"C'mon girls," I say, and we hurry back out into the wind giggling.

After we drop Lorraine, Mary and Ann talk about the neighborhood again. They've lived here forever, they both say. Then when we pass the Salvation Army, Ann gets excited: "I never knew that was here." Later Mary mentions a shop and Ann says, "I never heard of that store. Where is that?"

"It's on Broadway," we both say.

"Oh," Ann says. "I don't know Broadway. I only know Clark."

Mary says, "Isn't that funny? I don't know Clark at all. I only know Broadway."

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