Sixty-five is when most people start thinking retirement. Nearly all of us are retired by age 75. But two Washington, DC area women have decided retirement is not for them – and they’re centenarians.
Meet Marilee, an artist who lives in a retirement community in Washington, D.C., and Mabel, a caterer who lives in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland. Marilee is 103 years old, and Mabel is 102. Both women give new meaning to the phrase “aging well.”
Marilee’s apartment is a testament to her devotion to her work and the arts; on her worktable is an artist’s array of tools. Scattered throughout the studio are prints from Marilee’s camera. She describes her art as evolving. Marilee confesses that she has been afraid of color photography, so that’s the medium she is using now, honing her skills. Her photography consists of playful, abstract images of flowers, bubbles and shadow.
Always an artist, Marilee had her first art show in 1938 in Chicago. In the decades since, her work has been sold in galleries in Washington. Marilee later spent time as a staff member at American University and as an art therapist at the National Institute of Mental Health. Through two husbands and raising two children, Marilee remained devoted to her art.
In her late 80s, Marilee began having trouble working with the heavy bronze that marked her style at the time. But Marilee didn’t retire – she adapted to her changed circumstance. At age 88, she enrolled in a class on digital photography. Alongside her 20-something classmates, Marilee learned to use a computer and work with Photoshop. The prints scattered about her studio are from the digital camera Marilee uses now.
Meanwhile, in Silver Spring, Mabel is working at her catering business, which she launched when she was 70 years old. A typical event for Mabel could be a lady’s luncheon, where she serves turkey, mashed potatoes, kale salad, vegetables and her famous sticky buns. Other events that she handles, sadly, include funerals of her friends. On one occasion, Mabel learned that a family friend had passed away and the funeral would have only cake and coffee. Mabel didn’t think that was right. So, she woke up at 3 a.m. the day of and made a couple hundred little tea sandwiches for the service.
Before her catering business, Mabel lived a rich professional life. She was a schoolteacher in her native Iowa until World War II. It was then that she decided that “everybody was doing their part” and that she should too. Mabel chose to move to Silver Spring to take a government job where she worked as an administrative assistant at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
During this time she started catering on the side. Mabel never married and never had any children. She believes this life path choice was her secret to continued fulfillment. While Mabel didn’t form her own nuclear family, she was very involved in putting her brother and nieces and nephews through college. She has strong ties to family, friends, and friends of family.
In her spare time (which is limited these days – Mabel caters about 100 events a year), Mabel is an avid shoe collector. She especially loves her pair of black-and-yellow polka-dot pumps she bought years ago at the now-defunct Garfinckel’s department store. Mable also loves sports and does a March Madness NCAA basketball bracket every year. She belongs to Wallace Presbyterian Church and asks God for guidance every day.
In America, the number of centenarians is growing, having nearly doubled in the past 30 years to about 55,000 today. People are living longer, and longevity isn’t the same challenge it once was. But living fully in the second century of life still is.
We would do well to take our cues from Marilee and Mabel. They are lively, engaged in their own lives and their communities, and vivacious consumers of life. All of this, and they’re still working.
Cover and In-Text Images: (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) /(Paula Eve/Paula Eve)