Mabel Sawhill died with a full appointment book — work gigs scheduled for weeks on end.
The Silver Spring caterer was 103.
“And a half,” she would remind folks. You get to count the halves when you’re 103, that’s fair. You also get single-name status. She was not Miss Sawhill. Just Mabel, thank you.
“She died with her boots on,” said Paula Eve, who had to phone Mabel’s catering clients over the weekend to cancel her bookings.
Mabel’s death, which came after she fell asleep in front of the television one night last week, leaves us with two lessons.
The first is Mabel’s key to longevity — vital engagement and a delight in everything life had to offer.
The second? Make that call you’ve been meaning to make. (More on that later).
Eve befriended Mabel years ago and replaced Doreen Moore, Mabel’s niece and longtime partner in the business, when Moore moved away. Eve took over driving duties when Mabel turned 101.
It was on one of those drives just a few weeks ago that Eve tried to ask Mabel about retirement. Seems that would be a reasonable conversation to have with someone who’s trending toward 104.
“Mabel, what do you think about next year with this club?” Eve said, as they left the Bethesda Women’s Club luncheon, having done another successful spread that included her beloved chicken salad and those sticky buns everyone raved about.
“What about it? I know they’ll book me,” Mabel snapped back.
No way she was going to stop. Catering was her third career, launched after she’d retired as an administrative assistant at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. With events booked well into the spring, why would she even consider closing down a business she started when she was 70?
Plus, she was already planning the menu for her 105th birthday. She’d never forget what happened at her 100th. They cooked for about 450 people, but 700 showed up. Mabel briefly left the party to sneak into the kitchen so she could cut all the meatballs in half.
This was the problem with being around so long.
She’d catered some people’s weddings as well as their 50th anniversaries. She’d also catered many of their funerals.
She got the friends, their kids, then their grands and even great-grands. Even after her contemporaries died, her circle of friends grew and grew. Her 105th was going to be huge.
Eve, who knows all the recipes to Mabel’s greatest hits, will, along with Mabel’s family, cater her funeral instead. They want to do all of her favorite recipes, but they’re not sure that they can make sticky buns that will live up to hers.
“We have to make her strawberry and spinach salad, and those sticky buns,” Eve said.
I met Mabel almost two years ago, when I visited the Bethesda Women’s Club and was blown away when I went back into the kitchen and met their caterer, the tiny, whirling wonder that was Mabel.
She loved politics, put together an NCAA bracket every year and created a scholarship in her name at Gallaudet University, to honor her deaf brother, niece and grand nephew, who played sports at Gallaudet and had Mabel cheering him on at every game. She was close to all her nieces and nephews, but she also created a family from the people around her.
I wrote a column about her and another 102-year-old who was still working, artist Marilee Shapiro Asher. The women had wildly different lives — Mabel never married and had no children, Marilee had two husbands and two children. But the thing they both had in common was their voracious appetite for their work and a constant curiosity.
Mabel was a schoolteacher in her native Iowa until World War II, when she decided that “everybody was doing their part, and I thought I should do something for my country.” So she moved to Silver Spring and took that government job.
She began helping with food at church, social and Navy events. So it was logical for her that after retiring from the government in 1983, she’d launch a catering business.
Mabel, Eve and I went to lunch not long after we met. We went to one of the trendy, foodie places in town, She said yes to just about everything on the menu — pate, salad, soup, the fussy entree, the hipster seasonal lemonade. She didn’t even snark when they brought the Iowa farm girl her drink in an ironic Mason jar. She consumed everything — with her eyes, nose and mouth — peppering the server with a million questions and studying the composition of a salmon BLT as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s how she lived her whole life. All in.
She also wanted a tour of The Washington Post offices. It was not a good day to tour The Post because we were just about to leave our old building. There were boxes everywhere and the upending of so many reporters’ crusty habitats gave the place a funky smell.
It didn’t bother her. She posed in her sparkly dress in front of every Post sign she saw.
I was remembering that last week and knew I needed to invite her to see our new offices, especially to tour the gorgeous new test kitchen, and I wanted her to meet Greg, the amazing sushi chef in the cafe downstairs.
I never made that call.
Make that call. And live like Mabel. Go ahead, order it all. Ogle, smell and savor every bit. Launch another career. Book yourself solid — whatever it is — if you love doing it. Don’t slow down, befriend a Paula Eve to help you keep going.
Thank you, Mabel. You fed us all.
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