It was an honorary picnic, a reunion, one might say, of peers whose compatriots are few. It was a celebration of old age--a chance to place moments in the passage of time, although the memories are now a bit muddled.
Scores of senior senior citizens--that is, all 80-, 90-, and 100-year-olds--turned out for the event, the fifth annual Maggie Taylor Picnic, thrown for them by the National Task Force for Senior Citizens at D.C. Village Saturday afternoon.
The eldest of the honorees was easily spotted, not by any signs of age or the physical difficulties that it brings but rather by the red cardboard-and-felt crown that she wore atop a surprisingly young-looking face.
Ella Lomax, queen for the day, looks a mere 75. She rarely uses her prescription glasses, has half her original teeth, and does quite well with just her walking cane.
She turns 107 on Independence Day and still bowls every Thursday night. Her secret?
"I just do like other people," said Lomax. "But I don't smoke and I don't drink a whole lot of booze. Never did."
Details about her century-long life ebb out slowly as she searches for just the right entry in her mental catalogue. She's lived in Washington for "70 or 80 years," worked as a nurse and as a cook at the Navy Yard and used to drive a Ford. She had one husband ("that was enough") who died 20 years ago.
However, small details weren't so easily recalled for Maggie Turner, a charming wisp of a woman who passed the century mark last year, but couldn't seem to remember when.
"Let me see . . . ," she said, looking toward the sky, "I can't think of . . . you'll just have to . . . well, they've got it down there somewhere."
The first president she voted for? "Wait, I'll get it . . . ," she said, before blurting out the name Hoover. "I just can't keep all that in my mind."
However, the oldest man at the picnic, the Rev. Andrew Williams, 93, recalled the events of his life in vivid, sometimes rambling detail.
"Way back in 1921 or something like that," he began, "I was coming from Alabama to Charleston, W. Va., on the train . . . " The conductor told him to get up and sit in the Jim Crow car, but Williams refused to comply.
"I almost had to fight him because he said he'd throw me off," recounted Williams, who won out in the end. "He didn't throw me off and I didn't go back."
The picnic's senior honorees were inadvertently upstaged, however, when a string of local luminaries dropped in to either receive or bestow awards, or, as in the case of mayoral hopeful John Ray, "to show my face and see friends from the 10th Street Baptist Church."
Mayor Marion Barry arrived two hours later than scheduled to present awards to the honorees and to the Task Force volunteers who put together the event.
"Everybody's going to get old, if they live long enough," said the mayor against the crying backdrop of his 2-year-old son Christopher, the youngest person there. "You the senior citizens must have been blessed by God to make it this far."
More than 30 local businesses chipped in to provide picnic lunches and supplies for the honorees, while 13 buses from the D.C. Department of Recreation transported the senior citizens from their pickup sites. Edwina Murphy, executive director of the Task Force and picnic coordinator, said she tried to reach as many elderly ones as she could via television and radio advertising.
WDVM news anchor J.C. Hayward could barely get to the podium to receive her plaque before she was deluged with autograph requests.
"Miss J.C., I look at you all the time on TV!"
"Would you pose for a picture with my nephew?"
"Gimme some sugar, J.C.!" said a 50-ish woman, grabbing Hayward as she left the podium and pecking her on the cheek.
Hayward, who had brought her mother all the way from East Orange, N.J., just for the picnic, said, "It wasn't really anything for me to give my time for something like this. When I get 65 or 70--or, dear God, if I ever get 106--I hope that someone will care about me, too."