Last week, I played music and spoke to a room of white-haired women. It was a dim-lit bar, with decent onion rings, heavy burgers, and waitresses who call you “sweetie.” Not exactly the place you’d expect to see the White-Haired Beauties of America.
But they were here. Ladies from all walks of life held glasses of beer and wine. A few had canes and walkers. A few got too loud. I was entertainment.
Eighty-two-year-old, Jo, approached me first. She wore a white blouse with houndstooth scarf. She asked if she could buy me a beer. I yes-ma’ammed her.
“Don’t yes-ma’am me, boy,” she said. “I’m trying to hit on you. Ruins the excitement.”
We sat at the bar together. She fired up her vaporizer cigarette.
“Doctor says I shouldn’t smoke,” said Jo. “But still I smoke two a day. One in the morning, one at night, and I vape until my throat’s raw.”
Jo is an M-80 firecracker. She is from rural Alabama and she sounds like it. She is a writer, a poet, an artist, and a shameless flirt.
She told stories, of course.
Her words were a trip backward on the timeline. Suppers on church grounds, childhoods with calloused feet. Chicken pens, hog roasts, cotton-pickers, fish fries, front porches.
By the time she had worn out her butterscotch vaporizer, she was talking about her husband.
“I miss him so much,” she said. “He was a precious man, the best thing in my life. You look a little like he did.”
There was another woman. Ella.
She was eighty-nine. She asked if the band would play “Tennessee Waltz.” We played it at an easy tempo.
She slow-danced with her son. He was careful with her. When he dipped her, she was nineteen again. That’s when he blew out his back.
Ella’s husband died when she was forty. She never remarried.
“Always had me a few boyfriends,” she said. “Seems like I went dancing almost every weekend. My sister would watch my kids, us girls would go out jukin’.”
Ninety-nine-year-old Mary sat at a table with her eldest daughter. She could only move her feet to the music. Occasionally her head bobbed, but she was all heart.
“I growed up in THEE Great Depression,” Mary said. “You ever hear of THEE Depression?”
Once or twice.
“They was bad times,” she went on. “They was times when my daddy saved chicken bones for his fish traps, then he saved fish bones for the chickens to eat.”
Her mother died when she was fourteen. Mary became maternal head of her family. She could slaughter poultry, rock babies to sleep, and re-screen doors by age sixteen.
“I used’a mix ketchup and water for supper,” she said. “Called it tomato soup. If I had butter, I made corn bread. Sometimes I made biscuits if we had enough flour. I kept my family alive’s what I done.
“My brother stole chickens from a farm up the road. If we ever had extra money, I’d tell him, ‘Jeremiah, leave this here dollar on their porch, we ain’t thieves.’ We didn’t WANNA steal, you know. But we had to.”
She asked if my band would play “Little Brown Church in the Dale.”
At the end of the night my new friend, Jo, bid me goodbye. She asked if she could show me something.
She dug in her pocketbook.
She handed me crinkled black-and-white photo of a young woman holding a baby. A tall man, standing beside her. She kissed the photo.
“That’s me and Tom,” said Jo. “Before he died. I miss him every day, we went through a lot together. Oh, wasn’t I so pretty back then?”
You were, ma’am. And so was every woman who endured times of drought, world wars, hunger, poverty, the Munsters, and shag carpet. You were women who raised families on nothing but Corningware, white flour, and folded hands. Certainly, you were all fine-looking girls back in your time.
But today, you take my breath away.