First Person: Old Friends

I’m much younger than my fellow volunteers at a Georgetown consignment shop. They prove there’s a lot to be said for growing old.

By: Cathy Alter

Allow me to introduce some of my friends.

Kitty shares my love of flashy jewelry. Jerry is obsessed with Algerian music. (Her previous fixation, sparked by Eliot Spitzer, was to get to the bottom of why men cheat.) Charles serenades us with opera sung in a strong tenor, recites his poetry about unrequited love, and regales us with stories about the mask store he owned at the Watergate—as if all of Washington once lived in a perpetual state of preparation for a Truman Capote Black and White Ball.

These friends are smart, entertaining, upbeat. They’re also well into their eighties.

We met at the Christ Child Opportunity Shop, a consignment store in Georgetown where we volunteer every Thursday. At 42, I feel like an interloper in a store like Urban Outfitters, but here I’m the baby.

“You’re too thin,” Jerry said one morning, offering me a slice of her muffin.

“What are his intentions?” Kitty asked when I was dating the man who’s now my husband.

Their concern reminds me of my grandparents, who are no longer living but still fixed in my heart.

Sometimes when I look into Jerry’s blue eyes, I glimpse my grandmother, who, like Jerry, saw the good in people, and I long for one more visit. Charles, like my grandfather, prefers short-sleeved shirts and art bursting with color. He stands whenever a lady enters the room.

Jerry decorates a small table in the shop thematically—ruby-red stemware and anything remotely heart-shaped for Valentine’s Day, Irish coffee mugs and clover candle holders for St. Patrick’s. The weeks between Easter and Mother’s Day were a creative hardship for her, resulting in vaguely spring-themed arrangements of floral-print china.

Charles, the new owner of a digital camera, has cataloged everything in his apartment—cloisonné ginger jars, marble cherubs, a stroke-by-stroke copy of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”—and often has taken me on a virtual tour of his place, including zoom-ins and zoom-outs.

I’m flattered when Jerry asks for my assistance—usually for reaching something on a high shelf—with her table display. But something else makes me look forward to seeing these friends every Thursday.

They’re showing me what my life—a good life—might look like when I’m old. They’re showing me a good self at 80. If I soak up their wisdom, it’s like a dress rehearsal for my own golden years.

I look to Kitty, with her chic auburn hair, and prefer her kind of wisdom—won by mending the broken bones and bruised feelings that go with raising seven kids—to all the how-tos of women’s magazines.

When I learn she’s about to celebrate her 63rd wedding anniversary, I ask for her secret to a happy marriage.

She deadpans, “Who said it was happy?”

All of which leads to a sobering thought: What if I’m really an old woman? What if, like Jerry, I’ve set my themed table and have finally found the perfect guests to join me?

Then I’m reminded of my status as a spring chicken among my guests—and of the truths about life.

“See you next week,” I said to Kitty at the end of a recent shift.

“Maybe you will,” she said with a wink, “and maybe you won’t.”

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This article appears in the July 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.