COMING OF AGE: Life in Fort Hunt

Reading the Obituaries Daily

Stories by Fredrick Kunkle, Washington Post Staff Writer | Photos by Carol Guzy - The Washington Post
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Three Women Discuss Their Community Over Tea
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From left to right, Liz Smith, Betsy Stephens, Dotty Ann McClelland, Myrtle "Mike" Niccolls and Mary Thompson enjoy a cup of tea at a community meeting at the home of Valerie Gregg. For many seniors in Fort Hunt, it's the sense of community that makes them never want to leave. The women from the Tauxemont community discuss the relationships they've made along the years. (Photo by Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)

Although some elderly people become isolated, Myrtle Niccolls keeps a schedule almost as punishing as when she was an aide to then-Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, managing Government House and acting as social secretary.

She raises money for her beloved alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, networks with fellow Bryn Maw alumnae and hosts teas with recent grads she calls her "girlies." She attends a book club she started 50 years ago -- its most recent selection was Jane Austen's "Emma" -- and helps from time to time with business at Burgundy Farm Country Day School, which her children attended.

She used to belong to a poker group and attended the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church, which she helped establish, until the church began the practice of holding hands at the conclusion of the service. It's not her style, she says.

No one calls her by her given name. She is just "Mike." She will be 90 in September, and she is, she thinks, the oldest member of Tauxemont, a neighborhood about a half mile or so north of the service station.

Although she has devoted most of her time over the years to the circle of college friends, she also has benefited from the closely knit community, a tiny enclave that had been known long ago for being "pink" because of its cooperative ethos and liberal political activism. Networks of friends, book clubs, semiannual Dutch (potluck) dinners and even the uniformity of their political views -- almost everyone in Tauxemont announces that he or she is a Democrat -- have eased some of the difficulties that come with aging.

Just as important as community are the houses in the neighborhood. Many are modest, one-story dwellings built in a Contemporary style made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright.

"One of the things that makes life easy for me is I live all on one floor," Niccolls said.

Yet, for Niccolls, aging still has meant unrelenting loss.

"I just read of another friend's death today," she said recently, after learning of her 93-year-old friend's death in the obituaries. "That's the first place I look. I look to see if I'm there, and if I'm not, the day will be okay."

Niccolls has already written her obituary. For the past year, she has also been writing her will. She would like a covenant to guarantee that the next owner of her home will not put up a McMansion, although she doubts whether it could be enforced. But she says she could still haunt the place.

"We have lost so much. The sense of loss I feel now is overpowering," she says. "The loss of hearing. The loss of health. The loss of independence. The loss of some very dear friends. The loss of memory. It's about loss. When I get a phone call, I lift up the phone now with apprehension. It's just an abiding sense of loss. And trying not to be overwhelmed by the loss."

Her biggest regret, she says, is that she wishes she had known herself back then as well as she knows herself now. She would have been less judgmental.

"I think I laughed a lot, but I think I would have laughed a little more," she says.

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