Lifeways

“I had to wait until I was old as Methuselah to learn how to have fun,” declares Annie Robinson. The sequins that cover her black vest sparkle, her appearance congruent with her colorful personality. Like most people, Robinson says she “used to see aging as a decline.” Now, however, she’s learned to look forward to growing old–”it’s a sort of renaissance,” she says.

Central to that renaissance is Robinson’s regular patronage of the Chatham location of Mather’s More Than a Café. It’s the café which she credits for her change in attitude, and she’s not the only South Side senior for whom Mather’s “Café Plus”—style community center is giving a renewed lease on life. First opened at 83rd and Wabash nine years ago, the nonprofit goes far beyond merely serving hot caffeinated drinks, offering exercise, educational, and computer-use programming aimed at the fifty-years-and-older crowd.

Robinson began coming to Mather’s to work with their “possibilities coach”–a fitness and lifestyle guru of sorts–after a night when she abruptly realized that she needed to turn her attitude toward aging on its head. Her only son took her out to dinner, and after a trip to the bathroom returned with red eyes. “He was crying because I was aging so poorly,” says Robinson. “He wanted to apply to Princeton to get his doctorate, but he had decided to stay in Chicago because I was not aging well. I was not going to rob the child of his dream.” She has been coming to Mather’s ever since, because she feels it is a place where she can continue to learn about herself within a community of life-long learners.

Her endorsement of Mather’s as much more than a conventional senior center would have brought a grin to manager Beedie Jones’ face.

“Beedie could sell the mole off of your face,” Dr. Jean Reese, another Mather’s patron, tells me with a laugh. “She could convince someone else that it would look just great on them no matter how ugly it was.”

After only a few minutes with Jones, no one would contest that statement, and the devotion of her patrons will attest to her success in growing Mather’s. She is in her seventies, but an energetic seven-year-old would get worn out trying to follow her for a day. She is wearing a canary yellow shirt with a black and gold vest, and a graceful downward wave of her hand tends to punctuate the end of her mile-a-minute sentences. Her hourly routine seems to consist of darting between the front of the café, where she greets guests, to her office in the back to grab some papers, but certainly not to sit down, until one patron or another pulls her into a lively conversation.

One of those patrons is Chappia Fote, who catches Jones’ attention while exercising on the stationary bicycle. Jones approaches Fote to remind the ninety-three-year-old that the trainer had told her to be careful to give her muscles enough rest. Fote’s response is to tell Jones about her weekend: she passed her driving test and saw the doctor. Elaborating about the latter, Fote adds, “I have my way of doing things, and they have their way of doing things, so we don’t always get along.” Her pedaling remains steady throughout the conversation.

As for Mather’s “way of doing things,” it is clear that whatever strong convictions Fote holds, Mather’s way and her way seem to be in alignment. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to me,” says Fote, in referring to becoming a part of the Mather’s community.

Most of Mather’s members, many of whom come four or five times a week, like Fote, are retired women living in Chatham, looking for a way to stay busy. But the men keep coming too, though they are outnumbered. Jones tells me with a characteristic twinkle in her eye, “We designed some classes just for men. That’s because we women show them up.”

The senior patrons are almost always joined in the café by a small group of a younger crowd from throughout the city and suburbs, drawn to stop by a couple of times a month in order to savor the food and the camaraderie. “You can feel like you are making a contribution of substance to the community,” said Eric Williams, a CPS administrator, as he explained why he and a group of friends, hair still un-grayed, choose to have Saturday brunch at Mather’s.

The sentiment that Mather’s is an important asset to the wider Chatham community extends beyond its doors. Consensus on the streets of the neighborhood is that Mather’s services and $55 annual membership fee are accessible to residents. Reverend Jerry Taylor, pastor at Salvation Church of God on 83rd Street–a block east of Mather’s–recently worked with Mather’s on a community health fair. He calls Mather’s arrival in Chatham “a kick-start to creating unity” in Chatham. Even some residents who did not personally frequent Mather’s sang the establishment’s praises, affirming that they had not heard a single negative word about Mather’s presence just a few blocks away.

Alonzo C. Mather, humanitarian and inventor, who advanced humane animal care with the creation of the first ventilated railcar for cattle, turns 165 this year. He would be smiling to see the community that bears his name in Chatham.