Coffee Mates keep it real (and funny) in Bristol

BRISTOL — Over the past 15 years a group of senior women calling themselves the Coffee Mates have become something of a fixture at Almost Home Market in Bristol.
Every Wednesday morning they buy coffee and baked goods, overspread the long table in the back and fill the place with conversation and laughter.
“It is a happy group of mostly senior ladies growing older and up together,” wrote Sylvia Coffin, 86, in her brief history of the group. “We keep it on the lighter side.”
According to Coffin, it was Wilma Brown who founded the Coffee Mates back in 2004.
“Wilma had the idea for a coffee group of women when her husband, Gordon, started going to the Old Farts group,” Coffin recalled.
The Old Farts Club is a group of senior-age men that meets every morning for coffee at Cubbers Restaurant. They did not choose that name for themselves.
Using Brown’s meticulously kept diaries, her daughter Brenda was able to pinpoint the Coffee Mates’ first meeting: Sept. 1, 2004. Present at that inaugural get-together were Barbara Brown, Rosemary Bryden, Jane Campbell, Ruth Coates, Ruth Lathrop and Prudence Tomasi.
Today their Wednesday morning numbers range from seven or eight on a quiet day to as many as 20.
This isn’t a group of people who knew one another beforehand, however, Coffin said. Many of these friendships have developed over the years.
“Everyone who is interested in coming to this group are welcome and it has grown in regular numbers just by word of mouth,” she wrote in her history.
Kathy Coakley has been a Coffee Mate for three years. She discovered the group after attending a few senior meals in Bristol. At 65, she figures she’s one of the group’s youngest.
“There will be two or three conversations going at one time,” she said. “Sometimes, if you want to find out everything that was said, you’ll have to come back the next week and ask, ‘What was it you were talking about?’”
Many of their conversations center around childhood memories.
“Some of us grew up in the Depression or during (World War II),” Coffin said. “We can laugh now about things like the sugar coupons and gas coupons.”
ON MAY 22, the Bristol Coffee Mates celebrated Betty Eaton’s 95th birthday. Eaton (center) managed to attend the meeting (and pose for photographs) in spite of having suffered minor injuries from a fall two days before.
Independent photo/Steve James
They talk about family, too.
“We’re older so our children are not around anymore,” Coffin said. “We have family things to talk about.”
Sometimes Bristol Police Chief Bruce Nason stops by. He’s married to the granddaughter of Coffee Mate Helen Vrooman. Among other things, he advises them to obey posted speed limits.
“He tells us if we speed he’s going to catch us,” Coffin said. “But he’s kidding. A lot of us don’t drive anymore.”
(Nason also occasionally checks in on the Old Farts, he said, as well as other groups in Bristol that meet regularly.)
Beth Marr, who has owned and operated Almost Home since 2012, said she loves having the Coffee Mates there.
“They’re hysterical. They walk in the door, they hug us and kiss us. They read jokes,” Marr said.
And Betty Eaton, 95, is their joke keeper.
“She scans the Internet for jokes that are stories — not just one-liners,” Marr said.
Or her friends send her jokes by email, Coffin said.
On the Wednesday that Independent photographer Steve James visited with the Coffee Mates, Eaton “kept them nice for him,” Coakley said. “But many of the jokes are unprintable.”
At first Coakley was surprised by that aspect of the group, she recalled. “But they say, ‘We’re over 90 so we can say these things.’”
The Coffee Mates also like to make a big deal out of birthdays.
“We keep a spreadsheet with everyone’s name, address, phone number and birthday,” Coffin said.
They maintain a running gift card at Almost Home, which they replenish every once in a while, so they can treat the “birthday girl” to coffee and a scone.
Then they sing “Happy Birthday.”
“But it’s not just ‘Happy Birthday,’” Marr explained. “They sing extra things to each other in low voices. There’s a set of lyrics that they read from — secret lyrics. It’s intense and moving. It almost makes you want to cry.”
Coffin confirmed that there is indeed an “addendum” to the birthday song, which all the Coffee Mates have a copy of.
These birthday celebrations often constitute the most memorable moments in the group’s history.
“Ladies turning 100 — that’s a big one,” Coffin said. “That’s happened two or three times.”
Coakley agreed.
“Lovey Burke’s 100th birthday was last October,” she said. “Her family brought her up from EastView (the senior retirement community in Middlebury) so she could come to the party. That was the biggest adventure I’ve been part of so far.”
Almost Home’s role, Marr said, is to help keep their traditions alive.
“This is their spot,” she said. “We love them and the feeling it gives us. I don’t even want to think about them not being here.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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