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Voices from the treetop of life

Betty Falk, left, and Betty Waffle put their heads together for a good laugh at Cafe Magpie, the once-monthly women’s breakfast held at the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center.   - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Betty Falk, left, and Betty Waffle put their heads together for a good laugh at Cafe Magpie, the once-monthly women’s breakfast held at the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

What happens when a chatty bird’s perch is cut down or uprooted?

She may find a new tree and new companions, or she may resign herself to life alone. Either choice comes with risk.

“It takes a lot of courage for people to walk into a new arena,” Lynda Williams said. “When I moved here, in spite of everything I tried to do, connections with people became a real challenge.”

Williams isn’t shy. In fact, the native Georgian is the picture of snap and sass, with copper hair, cowboy boots and chunky jewelry, and a bold Southern accent that heralds her assertiveness the second she opens her mouth.

The day after retiring from her career as a speech pathologist in the Carmel/Monterey, Calif., area, Williams moved to Bainbridge to be close to her daughter, son-in-law and grandkids.

She assumed, given her outgoing nature, that she’d make friends easily. But with job, routine and her usual organizing principles compromised – her tree uprooted, as it were – she wasn’t clicking socially. And she couldn’t figure out why.

Williams joined the Bainbridge Senior Community Center where, it turned out, she wasn’t the only one experiencing this later-life phenomenon. As she and other women began to share stories, the idea of a social club took hold, one modeled on the center’s already successful monthly men’s breakfast.

Out cried Cafe Magpie, which convened in November after Williams and other volunteers made a hundred phone calls to senior women, largely targeting newcomers.

On this winter Wednesday morning – the third Magpie gathering – roughly 15 women mingle over coffee and pastries before eventually settling down at the large round tables in the center’s Kallgren room.

Venera DiBella Barles, a published author, frequent group facilitator and devoted senior center member, throws out a few pointed topics for discussion.

“Why do we need to get together?” Barles asks the group. “How are the ways we connect? What do you need from a friend?

“How do we weave friends into our daily life? You can’t just walk up to someone and say ‘Hi – I want to be your friend.’”

“Why not?” one of the attendees quips.

“There are arenas and areas in our lives where we are outside the circle,” Williams answers. “And the circle doesn’t open to add a link, if you will.”

In other words, an established group probably won’t throw its arms open by default, especially on an island that many view as a private escape, in a region oft described as “friendly...to a point.”

Some women find it hard even to make the initial approach.

Tilly Warren, who runs the senior center’s thrift shop, describes herself as happiest behind the scenes. Give her a task to do or a counter to stand behind, and she’s all warmth and conversation. But plop her into the middle of a group, and shyness takes over, even if she’s dying to talk to someone.

Still, when she moved to the island six years ago, her wish for activity beat out her natural reticence.

“I needed to do something,” Warren said. “I didn’t know a soul on the island other than my husband.”

Bridge became her solution, a way to create social structure within an established realm of expertise. Regular games led to friendships.

But not all of the people who join the senior center ever set foot inside the door, much less participate in its large and varied collection of organized activities, whose range is limited only by the collective knowledge of its long-lived peer leaders.

And since Cafe Magpie attendees, as evidenced by their very presence, have already taken the leap to get their re-invented personae “out there,” they’re not worried about themselves.

Instead, as they look to their own futures and consider the realities of their peers, they’re most concerned about the ones who, for whatever reason, don’t, won’t or can’t show up to event’s like today’s.

Who’s lonely?

From the front of the room, Barles challenges the other attendees by asking if at social events, they ever sit by someone who seems lonely. A number of women shake their heads.

Mary Piette, who does marketing work for the senior center, volunteers for the Kitsap County League of Women Voters and who wrote last year’s seminal Chamber of Commerce guide to the island, “Bathrooms of Bainbridge,” is the perfect picture of an active senior and connected islander. Yet even she tells a story that gets at the challenging and potentially awkward heart of anyone’s attempts at friendship.

That very morning, Piette said, she saw an acquaintance in line at the post office. And while it was on the tip of her tongue to invite the woman to Cafe Magpie, she just...didn’t.

“She’s a brilliant gal,” Barles says of Piette. “But she’s shy.”

The answering murmurs at the tables speak to a slippery slope, one in which even the most accomplished individual, faced with changing circumstances in later life, can find herself isolated, perhaps by choice but equally likely by fear of rejection, growing reticence and attrition.

Someone mentions 81-year-old James Costigan, a former Hollywood screenwriter and long-time islander who was found on the floor of his apartment last month, roughly 10 days after his death.

It’s comfortable enough to be shocked and saddened by Costigan’s demise from the safe vantage point of youth, full-time work or a busy social calendar. For the women at Cafe Magpie, though, Costigan’s end represents not a distant opportunity for a pitying “tsk,” but a dire and all-to-real possibility.

“I do not want to be found sitting in an apartment,” Barles said. “I’m real intense about that.”

Barles, 75, points out that women of her generation were raised not to talk about their “stuff” and not to reach out – just to call someone simply to say they’re having a bad day is too much to inconvenience another person by admitting.

“You may see a big smile on their face, but there may be a hidden agenda that they don’t talk about,” Barles said. “It’s okay to tell you about my knee, but God help me if I tell you my heart is hurting.”

Practical suggestions spill out for how to reach out to women who, as Barles puts it, are “probably sitting in their holes, waiting for someone to come get them.”

First off, how about trying to find out who’s out there – of the roughly 15 people who add themselves to the senior center’s roster each month, who doesn’t subsequently visit the center? And how can more socially active women reach them?

Other solutions follow. Each Cafe Magpie attendee could commit to tracking down one or two people who don’t typically leave the house and checking on them periodically. A posse could convene to knock on doors. Or, more simply, each person could resolve to follow through on an impulse to invite someone along next time.

Williams allows that not everyone wants to be drawn in, or drawn out. In fact, the last time she knocked on a new neighbor’s door to introduce herself and invite her to the senior center, the neighbor curtly said, “I don’t do that sort of thing.”

The neighbor later apologized, and Williams graciously told her to think nothing of it. But in the face of that sort of response, few might be inclined to reach out again. Because as difficult as it can be to join a new group, it’s equally difficult to reach out from the group to pull someone in. To say, as Barles expresses it, “I need your company. I need your company.”

Everyone in the room recognizes the risk inherent in that simple statement. But in Barles’ mind, it represents the essence of Cafe Magpie – not just to sit on your comfy perch, but to fly out and bring lonely birds in.

“That’s what friendship really is,” she said.

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