Shortly before noon every weekday for the last four years, Nina Crowther Martin has tucked her thinning brown hair under one of her faded chiffon-covered hats, bid her dog, Muffin, goodbye and walked the two blocks from her tiny Georgetown apartment to the rear of the Dumbarton Methodist Church.
The elderly and frail minister's daughter faithfully makes her daily trek so she can be with about 20 other senior citizens who meet at the church for an hour of crafts and a free hot lunch -- all part of a federal government-subsidized nutrition program for the aged.
But come July 1, Martin will no longer swap gossip with her friends, like Mary Kolb, who was born and reared in Georgetown 73 years ago, or Ann Marriot, who, at 79, still speaks with the accent of the wealthy Southern debutante she once was.
The Dumbarton senior citizens' center is scheduled to serve its last lunch June 30.
Mary Callahan, who heads the private organization which is closing Dumnbarton can cite many reasons: (1) In an age of belt-tightening, senior citizen centers need to serve at least 35 persons a day. Only 20 eat at Dumbarton and the number has been dropping. (2) There are two other centers in the same part of town where the funds could be better used, and (3) Georgetown doesn't have that many elderly who need to use the program -- about half of the Dumbarton group comes from outside Georgetown simply because they like the Dumbarton gatherings.
The reasons to close do more than make Martin and her friends mad. They make them cry.
"Good health depends on good friends. You can't talk to four walls and be healthy," said Rose Silver, a short, feisty woman wearing thick spectacles. "The food is incidental. It's the company, the friends, the caring."
"Elderly people need someone to say 'I love you.' Is that so hard to understand?" demands Kolb, leaning on her cane.
"When your friends and relatives have died, you get lonely. You get so lonely," interjects Marriot. "I don't know how I can manage without the center."
"None of us call this welfare," explains Argie Sorensen as John Schwoyer, an 87,year-old retired government worker gathers up Friday's paper plates and empty paper cups that line the table. "Most of us will not go hungry, but it's the being together that counts," she explains. Schwoyer nods.
"What make me so mad is how they made this decision on high. They decided our destiny. They came in here and they said, "We are the experts with our fancy degrees. We will tell you what is best.' They were patronizing and then they just did it in a bloodless way," thunders Clayton D. Loughran, one of the "youngsters" in his early 60s. "They didn't understand what this group means to each other."
What it means, says Martin, is a family -- someone who understands what it is like to be old, someone who understands when you ask them to bring you their morning paper every day because you can't afford one; someone who knows that you like to be called Miss or Mrs. or Mr. or who notices you are wearing a new brooch or snappy tie.
When Mary Flaharty's husband died a few years ago, it was her friends at the center who wrapped their arms around her and said they understood the pain. "I wouldn't have known what to do without them," Flaharty recalls.
Sometimes it takes Peggy Tripp an hour to get from her home in Petworth to the center. She has to catch two buses, but she is there every day. "Other's are closer, but this is my home," Tripp explains.
And Marriot, whose left knee was broken in an accident more than a year ago and has never fully healed, hobbles with her cane more than three blocks each day from her apartment to the center. "These people are so caring. We really are one big family," Mariot says.
Remember on George Washington's birthday, says Lucie Bourne, when the center was closed and no one realized it until they got to church. Why, Bob Kress just invited everyone to his apartment -- all 20 of them, laughing and giggling like school kids.
That's why, Martin says, they are fighting the closing. "I spent $5 writing to Mayor (Marion) Barry" and congress, says Martin. No one has responded, she said.
"It's a terrible thing," says Callahan, "any closing hurts people. But we must balance the hurts and the bottom line is that there are other places in this city where the need is greater, other needs (to be met) in Goergetown, other centers where these people's needs can be met."
So it looks like Dumbarton will close June 30, regardless of Martin and her family who claim they will continue meeting -- in a local park with sack lunches if necessary.
"I guess I'm a silly old sentimentalist," says Martin. "But my daddy was minister of this church once. I remember sitting in this room holding a penny in my hand. I was seven years old and didn't want to put that penny in the collection plate. I wanted to spend it at the candy store and that's what I did."
The confession still makes her blush. Even now, after more than 60 years, sitting in her father's church, the minister's daughter is still embarrassed by her deed.
"When you get older, the memories -- they become so very important because they are your life. I just can't believe they are letting mere dollars close our doors."