As she turned 83, my mother, Jill Burger, declared that every birthday is worth marking in a big way. I jumped on a plane to be with her for her most recent special day when she was the star of a family party featuring cake, presents and three generations of loved ones.
A few days later, Mom invited me to tag along to another birthday observation, this time with a group of friends whom she calls “my Red Hat ladies.”
“No matter how old you are, it’s good to be with women your own age,” Mom told me as I zipped up her purple tunic studded with metallic bangles. “This is such a fun bunch, they’re stylish and peppy. You’ll see.”
She popped a red hat with dyed-to-match ostrich feathers on her head and loaned me her other red hat, the one with a purple veil, and we were off.
Red Hat Society: Looking for Friends and Fun
For the past decade or so, I’ve been hearing tales from my mother’s Red Hat Society chapter, whose members circulate among the most elegant restaurants in St. Augustine, Fla. (The Red Hat Society is a 20-year-old international social organization for women.) The majority of members in mom’s chapter, in their 80s and 90s, are relative newcomers to Florida, having settled in the historic coastal community after retiring. They arrived looking for friends and fun and found each other.
“Everything I got is old except my hearing aids!” she chuckled.
Resplendent in red hats festooned with flowers, jewels and veils, the 20 women greeted each other with shrieks of delight and hugs. They “dress to kill,” in Mom’s description, choosing glamorous sequined tops, purple ponchos and lots of jewelry.
“We’re not subtle when we’re all together,” said Jean, who chose a red fedora with a large purple tulle bow from her collection of eight red hats. “We love the camaraderie. We’re all young at heart; I say we’re the oldies but goodies.”
“We lie to each other about how good we look,” added Carolyn, wearing a sparkly red baseball cap. “I don’t know how we got this old, but at least we don’t act it.”
There’s something in the conspicuous donning of their finery for one another that sets the table for them to cut loose.
Red Hat Ladies as Role Models
The youngest club member is Amy Robinson, 51, who began attending the monthly luncheons when she moved south to be near her retired mother several years ago. In accordance with the rules of the Red Hat Society, Robinson wore a pink hat until her 50th birthday, when she was officially welcomed into the club.
“These ladies are role models for where I’m heading,” Robinson said. “I love the way they care for each other. They show their elegance and sophistication; they have beautiful manners and respect for each other. We have such a grand time.”
The Red Hat Society originally started with a tea party among a few California girlfriends and has since expanded to 20,000 chapters in the U.S. and 30 other countries. Initially restricted to women 50 and older, but now open to women of all ages, it takes a playful approach to encouraging female empowerment.
Celebrating Each Other
There’s little formal structure in the monthly get-togethers of my mother’s group, known as the Feisty Femmes. Each gathering honors the women celebrating birthdays that month, so there was a chorus of Happy Birthday as the plates arrived.
According to tradition, each Red Hat brings a greeting card with a $1 bill tucked inside for the birthday girls, and the cards, which ranged from irreverent to mushy, are passed around the table while the women visit. (Only one featured a scantily clad man, which brought on a few snorts of laughter.)
Their chatter included updates about who has met a new great-grandchild, who has taken on a volunteer gig and, this being Florida, who has gotten their roof back after the most recent hurricane.
“We all have our aches and pains, but no one wants to drag down the group talking too much about that stuff,” my mother said.
A Group of Caring Friends to the End
I see the pleasure these women take in the confidences shared in their monthly meetups and in the ways they look out for one another beyond their luncheons. When my mother was at a rehab center after knee surgery, a number of her Red Hats stopped by to visit and others called or sent cheerful get-well cards.
They encourage and keep track of one another, right to the end. Since joining her group, Mom has attended two members’ funerals; she donned her red hat and sat with her similarly attired club sisters as they paid their final respects.
Observing their girlfriend bond gave me a peek into my own future and showed me how important it is to make regular dates to spend time with kindred spirits.
My mother’s Red Hat ladies demonstrated how, when you possess companions who help you keep your sass and sense of humor, life continues to be rich, varied and full of laughter.
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