However You Celebrate It:

A Dirty Old Ladies’ Valentine’s Day

by Robin Bonner

Mystery Mail
It all began with a trip to the post office. The lion’s share of our mail is junk, and what isn’t junk is bills. Once in a while, though, I get something I actually care to open. So trust me, when I saw the envelope, one corner emblazoned with a pink sequined heart, and my name and address penned across the front in a flowing hand, I stopped dead in my tracks.

Pour moi?

The return address belied its sender—my friend Julie Longacre, a landscape artist and poet. I hadn’t heard from Julie in a while. I knew she had been busy traveling, painting on commission, and caring alternately for her 90-something mother and her infant grandson. In short, she was stretched a little thin. I sent her our family year-end letter around the holidays, but hadn’t heard back from her. What was she up to? I have to say, I was interested to find out. So, after quickly rifling through the other mail (to make sure the bills weren’t tossed out with the junk), I eagerly opened the intriguing envelope.

Inside was the most adorable handmade Valentine’s Day party invitation I had seen in years. (Do they still do that sort of thing?) The pale pink heart mounted on ivory card stock bore the details in black calligraphy. Julie had told me about one other such gathering she had hosted for her friends—to celebrate the publication of her Dirty Old Ladies’ Cookbook, several years earlier. Julie said, “I would love to have seen the faces of the women who got those invitations . . . . ” I smiled, remembering. A Valentine’s Day ladies-only luncheon—how enticing! And to be included in a gathering of the Dirty Old Ladies, as Julie had dubbed the partygoers, what absolute fun indeed! I emailed my boss to say I’d be out of the office a few hours the afternoon of 2/14 (one of the perks of working from home) . . .

I had met Julie Longacre at a writer’s conference about a year and a half earlier. She introduced herself as an artist but talked about poetry and how words can be used to paint a picture, much like a brush on canvas. I had once wanted to be an artist but instead decided on a career as an editor and writer, so that connection appealed to me. Midway through the workshop, Julie announced that she would pass around two of her published works: a memoir/poetry collection illustrated with her own paintings titled The Place I Keep. And The Dirty Old Ladies’ Cookbook. The what? When the two books made their way around the lecture hall and into my hands, I admired the collection of poems and the illustrations that peppered its pages (professional quality, I noted), then with what I’ll admit was an even greater curiosity, I flipped through the cookbook—stories, facts, anecdotes, opinions, oh yeah, and recipes. This woman has tales to tell, I thought. She must be something, to pick such a title for a cookbook.

Well, after the session, I snapped up a copy of said volume from the sales table, to give to a friend who had recently become a grandmother for the first time. As the artist/poet/author autographed the title page, I asked if she’d be interested in doing an interview for Empty Nest. I figured she was a storehouse of stories, and I was hoping she’d be willing to share them. The twinkle in her eye gave me my answer. Since that interview (Winter 2010-11), Julie and I collaborated on other articles, and we became fast friends. Receiving an invitation to her Valentine’s Day luncheon was just the icing on the cake.

Celebrating Valentine’s Day
Well, there are many ways to celebrate the Big Day for Lovers, and one is to observe all the various loving, supportive relationships we have in our life. A big advocate of that idea, I already had the ritual down. My younger daughter, Sarah, would be home from NYC for the weekend, and our plans included a special mother-daughter Valentine’s Day lunch on Saturday. I’d pick her up at the bus, and we’d while away the afternoon at Tokyo in Skippack, enjoying each other’s company with an ample supply of sushi and Cosmos. On Sunday, Sarah and I had a singing “gig” at our church (and John Denver’s “Perhaps Love” was already in our repertoire). Then, later that day, Gary, Sarah, and I would drive down to Levittown to have dinner with Gary’s mom, bearing flowers and chocolates for the (fabulous) cook. On Valentine’s Day itself, Sarah would be having dinner with a male friend. My husband, Gary, always involved with a robotics team this time of year, had promised to take the evening off (and also leave his rock-climbing buddy flat) to spend the evening with his wife at the Craft Ale House, in Limerick, PA. Between work and all of the festivities on my calendar, I was facing a few fun yet crazy days, but what popped into my mind most often was the Dirty Old Ladies’ luncheon.

Sarah, enjoying our mother-daughter Valentine's Day lunch.
Meanwhile, all of this got me to thinking about how people spend the day. Sarah says Valentine’s Day “singles” events are advertised all over in New York City. That makes sense. What if you don’t have a spouse, a significant other, or even a date for Valentine’s Day? What’s stopping you from celebrating love itself, which comes in many forms? Who are your best friends and biggest supporters? Who has no one and can use a lift? Valentine’s Day is for everyone. Further, not only do we need to celebrate those we love and those who love us, but we also should show a healthy (non-narcissistic) love for ourselves. After all, how can we love anyone else if we don’t first love ourselves? One day a year, it’s all about Love—whatever form that may take.

Kevin Armento, a writer for Shine Yahoo!, lists a number of creative ways singles can celebrate. Do something basic, constructive, or creative you’ve been meaning to do—something that will make *you* happy—paint a room or clean up your apartment. Or, you can put things in perspective by dishing up dinner in a soup kitchen. Homeless people gathering for a meal aren’t worried about getting a date for Valentine’s Day. And, as Armento notes, the people there are likely to have some interesting stories to tell. If you’re “kind-of” single—you’ve been seeing someone only for a short time—go out anyway, but keep it low-key. Or, like my daughter, who is single at the moment, you can oblige a friend who wants an excuse to do the event in a big way (he’d had his eye on Barclay Prime in Philadelphia for a while)—and accompany him (or her), especially if he/she is willing to foot the bill!

And, each Valentine’s Day, I think of my kids—Amie in California with husband Todd, and Sarah in New York City, and I send them goodies, even if it’s just a card and a few bucks toward a nice dinner. I also keep my eyes peeled for Girl Scout cookies, usually available around this time of year, which over the years has become a Bonner family Valentine’s Day tradition. They remind me of the special dinners we had when the girls were growing up—meals at home that included them. After all, who do I love more than my husband and my kids?

No one, but I must admit that my girlfriends are getting pretty high on the list . . .

The Big Day
Which brings me back to the Dirty Old Ladies. Who are these women, these friends of a friend who helped her celebrate the birth of her cookbook? I was going to find out. With the other events of the holiday weekend unfolding, I planned what to wear and what to bring to the party. I printed out a map (just in case) and logged the venue’s address into my iPhone. The lunch would be held at the Butter Valley Golf Port, a rural airport/golf course, in Bally, PA. We’d been there once. The charm of the place is that the drive up to the restaurant crosses the airport runway, and if you don’t heed the “Stop, Planes Landing!” sign, you could find yourself face to face with a Cessna 172 taxiing down the runway. (Really—one woman I met that day admitted it had happened to her.)

Watch for landing aircraft when driving up to restaurant at the Butter Valley Golf-Port!
I had to wear hearts, right? I have a honkin’ Brighton heart necklace and earrings set my mother-in-law had given me that always seems too big for any occasion except Valentine’s Day. I also needed to wear pink or red, of course. I had to give it some thought. Ah, yes! I have a damn cute long linen skirt and jacket to match, with big buttons and back pleats in *pink* (a very dusty rose, actually) that would look great with said Brighton stuff. It’s old but still in great shape—a coup from a local boutique clearance rack—and one of my favorite outfits. White long-sleeve T, brown boots, and belt, and I’m good to go. Casual and comfortable but fun, and perfect for Valentine’s Day. It would carry from work in the morning to The Lunch, to Dinner with Husband, and home again in the evening.

Now what to bring? Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine—the old standby. But, which bottle? There on my “wine rack” was the last bottle of Sunstone Sauvignon Blanc, my favorite variety from my favorite Santa Ynez, CA, winery. It was hard to part with, but Julie was worth it. The invitation said “Bring a bit of humor, from the heart a Valentine’s thought.” Hmmm, what does that mean? Maybe our hostess is being purposely vague! A humorous thought from the heart? Then, I had a thought . . . and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might work. There was a poem from my childhood, about a burglar and an old maid. It is quite entertaining, and it would be great for the Dirty Old Ladies. I’d have to go over it, though . . .

Before I knew it, it was time to head out. The back roads I traveled, quickly cutting across one county and almost into the next, probably weren’t healthy for my Prius, but over the last rise, the muddy road finally gave way to a clear view of the expanse of fields, the runway, and the restaurant of the Butter Valley Golf Port. The “Stop, Planes Landing!” sign greeted me, as I had remembered. So, I was there, and only fashionably late. I went up the steps and inside, bottle of wine in hand, not knowing what to expect. I was greeted by a heartening sight: a host of smiling, chatting women of various ages—my guess would 40s to 80s—decked out in red and pink, Julie herself distinctive in black. I kissed our hostess hello and handed her the bottle, whispering, “This is for you!”

A Get-Together to Remember
Introductions were made—I became acquainted with a veterinarian, an editor, a gem specialist, housewives, nurses, and cooks. Some were Julie’s friends since grade school; others, like me, she had met much later. I ran into one woman I knew from a local political group. “What are you doing here?” we said, each to the other. All of us had smug looks on our faces, for we were the Dirty Old Ladies. With Julie Longacre as a common bond, we quickly struck up a conversation with the nearest partygoer and placed our “favorite cup” (brought from home, per the invitation) at a random place setting.

Julie rings "Come and get it!"
Oh, and the table was lovely. It was a horseshoe-shaped banquet table, one side bedecked with pristine white twisted tulle, pink velvet ribbon, and satin flowers. The other side offered a single row of pink and white luncheon place settings, each sporting several printed notes: a listing of “love” quotes, an off-color joke, and the lyrics to the song “When I’m 64,” all in pink and white. We picked up our heart-shaped doily name tags from a sideboard near the door and helped ourselves to mimosas spiked with peach schnapps. Soon, Julie rang a small bell—a gift from a local school teacher, who used it in a one-room schoolhouse—and invited each of us to take a place at the table.

Julie’s friend Connie catered the luncheon, and the fare was simple but scrumptious: Julie’s homemade red-beet borscht with sour cream, “the way her grandmother used to make it”; Connie’s stuffed cabbage soup (evidently on p. 122 of The Dirty Old Ladies’ Cookbook); and small sandwiches of ham, tuna, and chicken salad on Hawaiian rolls. Deli pickles and olives completed the spread. I tried to eat delicately, as the occasion demanded, but I’ll admit that after making sure I had at least one serving of both soups, I was stuffed. Dessert was handmade vanilla or chocolate ice cream from nearby Longacre Dairy, heart-shaped cookies dipped in chocolate, and the plethora of chocolate candies that garnished the tables.

Connie, caterer extraordinaire, passes around a "basket of laughs."
One of the partygoers brought around a delightful chocolate liquor that someone said was wine but I had pegged as whiskey, so I asked for an appropriately sized portion. I wasn’t accustomed to drinking mimosas and hard liquor in the afternoon! (Feeling creative, we even started adding the latter to our coffee.) We ate (and drank) in a reverie not matched by any gathering I had attended in recent memory, engaged in conversation with the ladies to either side of us. I pulled up a YouTube video of “When I’m 64” on my iPhone, just to remember the tune, and three of us began to sing. No one heard us over the din.

Finally, as lunch was winding down, Julie rang her bell once again, and order was restored. She proceeded to introduce each of us, telling how she came to know us, in case we hadn’t already met one another. At times she asked us to tell a little about ourselves. She started off by introducing me (much to my chagrin) and announcing that “Robin has a Valentine’s Day story she’d like to share with us.” When I had first arrived at the party, I had also mentioned to Julie that I had brought a story along, not knowing what she wanted per the invitation. (Since then, I had found out how various partygoers had contributed: some helped decorate, some made dishes, and others typed up cute jokes and quips for distribution. One woman even stitched exquisite little heart-shaped bibs for each of us to wear during lunch to help keep our blouses clean.) So, I was to tell a story. Pretty funny—the quiet editor who works from home! Well, I thought of my daughter Sarah, the actress, and tried to channel some guidance.

“This is a story my grandmother taught me, almost 50 years ago. I thought the Dirty Old Ladies might enjoy it,” I began. “It’s a love story, although some people might disagree with that. Pause! Breathe! It’s a poem, actually.” Then I stood up, “Don’t judge the performance, though,” I said, ”because I’m no actor.” And thus went “The Burglar’s Bad Luck”:

I’ll tell you of a burglar, bold,
Who tried to rob a house.
He lifted up the window,
And crept in, like a mouse.

He looked for a place to hide himself,
‘Til the folks were all asleep.
“Then,” said he, “With their money,
I’ll make a quiet sneak!”

Robin recites "A Burglar's Bad Luck."
So under the bed the burglar crept.
He lay close to the wall.
But he never knew ‘twas an old maid’s room.
Or he wouldn’t have had the gall.

He thought of all the money he’d get
As under the bed he lay.
Then the clock struck nine and he saw a sight
That made his hair turn gray!

At nine o’clock the old maid came.
“Oh, I’m so tired!” she said.
But thinking that night that all was right,
She never looked under the bed.

She took out her teeth and her false glass eye,
And the hair from off her head.
Now the burglar, he had seventeen fits
As he looked from under the bed.

From under the bed the burglar crept.
He looked a total wreck.
But the old maid was wide awake,
And GRABBED him by the neck!

She never screamed or hollered a bit,
But just as sweet and calm she said,
“My prayers have been answered,
And, at last, I’ve got a man!”

Then she took a revolver
And to the burglar said,
“Young man, you now must marry me,
Or I’ll BANG blow off your head.”

She held him tight and the burglar saw
There was no chance to scoot.
He looked at her teeth and her false glass eye,
And then said,

“Have MERCY, shoot!”

Well, I’ll have to say that whatever inspired me to recite that poem—the ghost of my long-gone-yet-still-beloved grandmother?—I quickly thanked. Everyone roared and clapped, and I had to laugh. Grandmom’s poem had never had such a willing audience. And, I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much in the process, so all was good.

Friends for Life
The party went on, with Julie orchestrating an expansive, group-wide conversation, trying to remember how she met each of us. She reminisced about the time she was so furious at her husband, Newt, that she stormed out of the house, only to realize that it was nighttime, and also the middle of winter. She walked several miles to Pat’s house, where her friend took her in and helped her calm down before she called Julie's husband to come and get her. They’ve been friends forever. Likewise, she’s known Ginny since she was 6—they were best friends in grade school.

The Dirty Old Ladies: Front row (L to R): Kathy, Catherine, Julie, Kate, and Jean. Second row: Sandy, Liz, Patty, Robin, Connie, Adele, Barbara S., Dr. Clair, Adrienne. Third row: Elaine, Nancy, Pat, Marsha, Barbara Schmoyer, Jody, Ginny, and Judy. Angie took the photo.
Dorothy has been veterinarian for all of Julie’s dogs and cats through the years. She runs a woman-only staff there; she’s hired a few guys over the years, she said, but they never seemed to work out. Adrienne, receptionist at the veterinary clinic, sat to her left. Jean has a rock and fossil shop in town and makes wire-wrapped jewelry. She wore one of her pieces, and it was apparent that she’s very good at it. Jody commissioned Julie to do a painting of her farm many years ago, and she took all the photos at the luncheon. Candace has managed Julie’s ongoing gallery exhibit at a local historical society, and Kate was instrumental in getting Julie the commission to do a painting for a state historical renovation project. She also met Marsha as a result of her paintings.

Sandy, Nancy, Patty, and Catherine are artist friends of Julie’s and members of the original DOL. Catherine has written a memoir; others are following suit. Kathy, a nurse and teacher, is a friend of Catherine’s. Like me, this was her first DOL gathering. Judy and her husband donated a wing/library to a local hospital. Connie is cook for the Butter Valley Golf-Port Restaurant, as well as Julie’s caterer and friend. Angie, the youngest attendee, works for Connie; it was her first party as well. Liz, Barbara, Elaine, and Adele also attended—they are all friends of Julie or of her friends.

These ladies have lived. Many are artists and homemakers. One had been an airline stewardess (before they became flight attendants). A few were nurses, others teachers, still others business owners. Some were church volunteers, others board members. They garden, paint, and hike, and “can create anything from nothing.” One loves her John Deere, and another lives in a haunted house. Julie and one friend have gone skinny dipping on a pond on her property. They’re creative, hard-working, and resilient. Each has a story to tell. Julie’s mantra is that “it’s important for women to talk together, laugh together, and be there for each other, if for no other reason than to listen.” And, that we did.

Well, I checked my BlackBerry several times during the party, and to my relief nothing major was happening on the work front. However, as it is with all good things, party time was drawing to a close. And because Sarah was at the house, and work, then special dinner with Hubby, beckoned, I was one of the first to tear herself away. Somehow, though, I think all of the partygoers were having the same thought: Would Julie do this again?

If she does, I hope my name shows up on the guest list.

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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