Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Love of a good book leads to 50-year friendships, fun times
MILLCREEK — Back when their neighborhood was known as "Diaper Flats," Joan Varner and her friends looked forward to the second Tuesday of each month the way an overworked air traffic controller counts down the days to a Hawaiian vacation.
With their homes full of small children, dirty dishes and piles of laundry, there was one thing they could count on to carry them away: the Literary Adventurers Book Club that Varner started in 1962.
For a couple of hours each month, two dozen women left their husbands with diaper duty and delved into mysteries, romance and historical fiction — all without reading a single word. Only once every two years, each club member was required to select a favorite book and present an abridged 45-minute report that would leave everyone feeling as though they'd personally read the book from cover to cover.
Fifty years and 500 books later, Varner is one of only four original members left, but the book club is still going strong in a community that could now be nicknamed Granny's Roost.
"We're all a bit older now," admits 80-year-old Varner. "But we can't imagine a month without book club. This club has seen us through a lot over the years. It's played an important role in our lives."
In honor of the group's 50th anniversary, she and three other longtime members recently invited me to join them for a Free Lunch of takeout turkey sandwiches and chips at the home of Marilyn Wright, a passionate reader who learned to love words while staring at the back of a corn flakes box over breakfast at age 6.
"Every morning, I'd sit and read the same thing, over and over," she says. "There weren't as many choices in cereal then."
With three young children at home in the early '60s, Wright was thrilled to read Varner's notice in a church newsletter about the first gathering of the Literary Adventurers.
"We elected officers and put out an official handbook with bylaws," she says, "so everybody would know that we meant serious business. Honestly, I think today that's what has kept us going. That, and we really enjoy each other's friendship."
Club rules require that there be no more than 24 members at a time, with each person required to pay annual dues of $5 and put on a book presentation every two years. Detailed records of each book report are kept in large scrapbooks, along with photos, so there is never a risk of duplication.
While some members have died and others have moved away, "the rest of us know exactly where we'll be every month on the second Tuesday," says Jon (pronounced "Joan") Taylor, 77, who grew up reading with a flashlight under the bed sheets and still looks forward to her quiet time with a book every night.
The oldest club member, Betty Craven, is 90, while the youngest, Marcia Moon, recently turned 60, and considers it an honor that she was allowed to join.
As a mother of eight, "When my kids were little, book club night was my night — my 'me' time," she says. "I could go and sit down for an hour and return home feeling like I'd read an entire book. That was something I rarely had time to do at home."
In the hope of keeping the club going for future generations, Moon recently invited a younger friend to tag along.
"We might have a little work to do," she says, "because her response was, 'Why would I want to go read a book with a bunch of old ladies?' "
Wright sums up why the group is determined to keep its literary tradition alive:
Dimming eyesight and all, "We don't plan to fade away," she says. "There are still a lot of books to read. We plan to be around for a good, long time."
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