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A very senior prom

Women who outlived their husbands swirl on the dance floor at an El Sereno Christmas party.

December 20, 2008|Esmeralda Bermudez

Red purse, red shoes, red lips.

Josephine Chavez primps her hair in the mirror one last time before heading out the door. She and the girls have two parties to attend, nine hours in high heels -- eating, laughing and dancing.

It's 9:30 a.m. and she is 76 years old. Irene and Alice are 80; Armida is 82; Ruby, 84; and Mary, 85. Lucy, 88, is the oldest of today's party group because Eva, 91, canceled with a bout of heartburn.

One by one, they outlived their husbands, except for Lucy, who never married. And wherever they go, they outnumber the men.

"They couldn't keep up with us," Josephine says.

At this time in their lives, many of the ladies are savoring a type of freedom they never experienced growing up in the socially conservative 1950s or during 30, 40 or 50 years of marriage.

On Thursday, they permed their hair, manicured their nails, donned fur coats and adorned themselves in their best jewelry (much of it gifts from their late husbands) to pretty themselves for the Christmas dance at El Sereno Senior Citizen Center. Then, they planned to drive to the second annual Senior Snow Ball, a party drawing nearly 500 from the Eastside.

At 9:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the party begins, Josephine steps into the center's decorated hall.

"Hi J.C.!" the other ladies shout and wave from their tables. The room is decked in red and green tablecloths and wreaths. A shiny disco ball hangs from the ceiling and "Silent Night" squeaks electronically from the Christmas tree.

The widows, like Josephine, sit on the left. The couples sit on the right.

"I don't know why we do that," Josephine says. "It's just the way it is."

Josephine mourned for a year after her husband, Joseph, died in 2002. She didn't want to meet new people and wasn't sure what her life would be about. During 49 years of marriage, he had been the gregarious one, the one to whom everyone gravitated.

Then she found the ladies and soon, she learned to open up.

"We blend together like a garden with all different flowers," she says. "We all thrive, we all survive together."

There's Irene Flores, the big sister of the group, who offers rides to those who can't drive anymore; Alice Duran, who commutes from Lakewood just to spend time with her friends; Ruby Romero, the feisty one in Guess sunglasses who needs to be shushed for her loud comments during raffles ("Look at her! Why is she using a cane? She gets along just fine without one."); Armida Campos, whose son "has to know everything: where I go, who I'm with, who calls me, what's in my mail." Every Thursday she spends with the ladies feels "like a holiday."

Together, they have come to understand and sometimes make light of what others might tiptoe around: their aches, their views on romance, coping with solitude and relishing their freedom.

As the band sets up onstage, one of the ladies from the widow side of the room wanders over to a table full of couples. She walks up to a wife.

"My vision is getting real bad. I can't tell what I'm grabbing half the time," the woman says, "so you better watch your husband." Everyone erupts with laughter.

Often, some of the senior citizens sneak in alcohol. The scofflaws asked that their names be withheld because they didn't want to be reprimanded for drinking.

About noon, the band begins to play a mix of rancheras, rock 'n' roll and cumbias.

Josephine hops off her seat, grabs Irene and the two glide onto the dance floor embracing each other. All around, couples twirl and bop to the rhythm. Soon, more widows fill the floor, quickly outnumbering the husbands and wives.

Not long ago, the ladies used to take turns dancing with a dapper 77-year-old fellow named Rosalio Sosa. But soon he began dancing all the time with Annie Acosta, another widow. The couple are now engaged.

"He doesn't come around with us anymore," Josephine says.

More than 20 years passed since Josephine had danced. Her husband suffered a stroke, leaving his left side paralyzed and stealing one of their favorite pastimes.

The first time the ladies dragged her onto the dance floor, she felt as stiff as a telephone pole.

"I'd never danced with a girl before," she says.

Today, she is considered a favorite among all the widows for the smooth way she sways to the music. They'll walk over from across the room and ask to dance with her.

At 1:30, even though the band is still in full swing, the ladies begin to clean up their table. If they don't hurry to the senior ball three blocks away, they will miss out on a good parking spot.

They arrive at 2 p.m., an hour early. The ladies line up outside, shivering with dozens of other widows and a few couples.

Everyone knows men are in limited supply, but the ladies still scope out the room.

"We're not looking," says Mary Berger, who has been a widow for almost three decades. "But if something comes up, then who knows."

Years ago, she met a man at the center and they became boyfriend and girlfriend. But he died after a few years.

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