To "Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby," Rhoda Rarick glided onto the floor of the Franconia Skating Center yesterday morning, ready to take a solo turn.
"We have someone who has a birthday, and it is a milestone," announced longtime rink manager Charlie Lowe over the loudspeaker. "Rhoda, if we look as good as you when we reach your age, we'll be very, very lucky."
Rarick, who turns 90 this week, glanced over her shoulder with a grin.
"Well, you don't have too far to go, Charlie."
Not many 90-year-olds have roller rink birthday parties. But Rarick, who has been lacing on skates at the rink since 1975, said there is no better place to celebrate than with the ladies -- and the one or two men -- of the Tuesday morning skating group.
Every Tuesday at 9:30, they file into the rink, handing over $4 apiece to Lowe as he greets them at the door. There's 80-year-old Dora Borland, who has been coming since the mid-1980s and drives from Warrenton. And Kay Ray, 72, who admits that she can't even recall when she started. Rarick always gets a ride with her friend and neighbor, Florence DeWalt, 82, who drives a Dodge Stratus with the license plate "SK8N FLO."
The ladies say this is their time. Doctor's appointments, and even an occasional surgery, are scheduled around skating. Most of the husbands stay home, and Denise Zimmerman, 54, a substitute teacher in Fairfax schools, tells administrators that Tuesdays are off-limits.
"We're like the mailman used to be," said Evelyn Forster, 70. "Through rain, sleet, snow and hail."
Yesterday morning, Lowe, 80, set out the usual coffee and doughnuts for the group, a treat he supplies each week at no charge. Once a championship skater, Lowe knows his customers. Discarding the rock-and-roll, he popped in a recording that Ray's brother, Jimmy Boyce, made years ago on a Wurlitzer. The skaters circled the wooden floor to "Blue Moon," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "The Beer Barrel Polka."
"It's like going back in time," said Joy Bovernick, 55, a former Fairfax schools guidance counselor who came to the rink, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, the first Tuesday after her retirement in June and hasn't missed a gathering yet.
About 20 regulars skate Tuesday after Tuesday, sharing stories about their children and grandchildren. There's chatter about everything from the weather to art to recipes and occasional commiserating over uncooperative husbands. When someone doesn't show, she usually gets a call, just to make sure she's all right. There's no formal name for the group, and anyone is welcome. Most of the women came after they stopped by the rink for a child's party and noticed the session listed on a schedule.
The group has evolved over the years. Tuesdays at the rink can be a time for jokes -- even the occasional off-color one. But the sessions have also become a support system. The women talk about illness and challenges at home. They send cards when someone is not well and have visited each other in the hospital.
Vera Gadeken, 49, a regular since the late '80s, said her skating friends "walked me through two pregnancies."
"If something happens, they've gone through it all," Gadeken said. "Just to come here and talk to the ladies, you know you're not the only one."
Rarick said she'll never forget the comfort the group gave her when her husband, Wilmer, died in 1997. "They were more important to me than my church," she said. "They called me and talked to me and said, 'Don't stay home, come out and skate as soon as you can.' "
It was spring 1974 when Rarick spotted DeWalt coming home carrying roller skates. Rarick had skated in Pennsylvania as a child, at least until the local rink was converted into a clothing factory, so she decided to give it a whirl again.
The two friends started coming to the rink when the fall sessions started up. And that year, for Rarick's 60th birthday, her husband gave her roller skates from Montgomery Ward. They're a bit worn now and have had some mending, but she's never replaced them.
"He teased that if I got real good, he'd get me water skis and take me up and down the Potomac," Rarick told the group yesterday as they shared a potluck lunch of stuffed shells, three-bean salad and ambrosia fruit salad.
Rarick left yesterday with a bouquet of flowers, a pile of cards and a present from the whole group -- a gift certificate that will pay for her Tuesday skates through February.
"We like to say," said Nancy Costello, 65, "as long as we can, keep on rolling."