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Thoroughly modern milieu

After half a century, none of the women in the Current Issues group recalls exactly how it began. Now in their 80s, they relish companionship as much as asking tough questions of guest speakers.

September 12, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I don't remember much about our first visit, beyond the elegant home in Beverly Hills, the delicious home-cooked lunch and the coterie of elderly women hosting me. They called themselves the Current Issues group, and I was one of the writers, artists, politicians and academics asked to speak at their monthly meetings.

A decade has probably passed since then, but I can't remember what year it was, what subject I talked about or even who invited me. I only know that I enjoyed myself, and that's what brought me back each time they asked -- most recently on Wednesday.

So I shouldn't have been surprised this week when I turned tables and questioned them about their history -- to share their story in this column -- and found gaping holes in their memories.

"I couldn't tell you anything about it . . . about how it started or all the things we talked about," said Jackie Gottlieb, at 77 the youngest of the two dozen women on the group's roster.

"We just wanted to know more about current events, and we got all these wonderful people to come out and speak. And I guess we just stayed interested." She shrugged. "Because we kept coming back."

Every month. More than 400 times. For almost half a century.

--

I have been invited back a few times since our first session. They're mostly octogenarians now, though sometimes it seems there's not a gray hair or un-manicured nail in the crowd.

No one talks about grandchildren or any touchy-feely stuff. My subjects Wednesday were prison reform and foster care. They shot back with concerns about civil liberties and laws. They can be a tough crowd, peppering a speaker with questions, challenging assumptions and fighting one another for a chance to talk.

I left Wednesday with questions of my own: What has held them together for 50 years? And how much longer will they go on -- a throwback to an era before everything you needed to know about current events could be found instantly online or in a 24-hour news broadcast.

But I didn't get the answers I sought. They didn't want to talk about themselves, though I couldn't tell if it was modesty or fading memories at fault.

No one could recall exactly how the group started. They were housewives with young children, living in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles. Someone came up with the idea of turning kaffeeklatsches into intellectual salons that would meet each month at a different home.

"The hostess would provide a sandwich and a salad and something sweet, and the speaker would talk for about an hour and a half," recalled Roselle Pizer, one of the original members. "I'm going to be 84, and I can't remember when I wasn't involved."

Their topics reflected social issues of evolving eras -- from the prospects of the young nation of Israel to America's growing female political power to the consequences of concentrated poverty in Los Angeles' public housing projects.

"None of us worked; we all had husbands," recalled 80-year-old Rae Ann Sherwood. "We were those typical '50s and '60s wives. We stayed home and took care of the kids. . . . We really just needed some stimulation. We had energy that needed an outlet."

It was clear to me this week that their energy is still strong. I had a hard time tracking them down for interviews, between their bridge and mah-jongg games, music lessons, volunteer work and the poetry and writing classes they teach.

I ended up learning more about them, not from their answers to my queries, but from the insatiable curiosity they displayed as my interviews morphed into their interrogations of me.

They wanted to know about my job, my family, my romantic forays . . . what I thought about the war in Afghanistan and the prospects for the president's healthcare plan.

And they saw through my journalistic interest, to something deeper and more personal.

"I understand," said Eleanor Barrett, the retired psychiatrist who arranges the speaker roster. "You look at us and see yourself. You're wondering where you fit in.

"It's not all downhill, you know," she promised.

And I realize that's what keeps drawing me back to them.

--

I can't help but compare their intellectual vitality with my mental exhaustion. And I admire the accommodations they make to the sort of infirmities that I imagine are beginning to encroach on my life with every new ache and creak.

"We're pretty determined to keep going," said 78-year-old Bunnie Fisher. When the burden of making lunch for meetings became too much, they switched to a caterer, then to box lunches. Now they're down to cookies and coffee, "because we don't want it to be too hard for anyone."

They manage to find the silver lining in the nuisances of aging. Instead of news about the grandkids, they talk about the new medications they are taking. They have any easier time parking at their monthly meetings, because so many have handicapped placards now.

And they keep showing up not just because the speakers intrigue them, said Sherwood, "but because we pretty much really like each other."

They're trying to find new blood to keep the group going. On Wednesday that was Gudren Brock, Fisher's 48-year-old daughter-in-law.

She's trying to bring her friends onboard. But most, like her, are the mothers of young children, "and it's hard to get a commitment, to find time to come. Even though every time we do, we love it."

So do I.

Over the years, I've seen the way they have slowed down. On Wednesday there were a few more canes; I had to speak a bit louder than last time around.

But I look at 87-year-old Harriet Bergman, the oldest of the group, and smile. She's catching a few winks on the couch during my talk. Her clothes are stylish; her brunet hair is in a fashionable bob. When the meeting ends, she needs help getting into Fisher's car. But she never misses a meeting, because her friends will always give her a ride.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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