John Jones clears his throat and leans into a small microphone.
“B 61,” he calls out. Everyone’s eyes in the room are glued to their bingo boards in hope that their board will hold a winning combination.
It’s a busy afternoon at the West Oak Lane Senior Center. The upstairs banquet-style room is full of eager bingo players while music flows upstairs from the basement. The volume is louder than might be expected for a senior citizen’s center.
Thelma Taylor walks down the main hallway talking a mile a minute all while still bundled up from the brisk winter wind.
“Yeah, I live here,” she says, referring to West Oak Lane.
Sharlene Waller, director of the center, is quick to chime in.
“No one lives here. This isn’t a nursing home and this isn’t a care facility. Everyone is very active,” Waller says, all while keeping a serious face but maintaining her warm eyes.
Taylor is a longtime resident of West Oak Lane. She recalls working alongside State Rep. Dwight Evans with his initiative to bring trees and flowers to the Ogontz Avenue corridor
“Everyone knows about my decorating expertise,” Taylor says as she fluffs up the collar of her fuchsia sweater.
She just returned from the senior center located at Broad and Lombard streets, where she was decorating for Christmas. During the holidays, Taylor takes charge and volunteers to decorate at the Center City location and at the West Oak Lane Senior Center.
Each year Taylor decorates the basement area of the West Oak Lane location where there are three pool tables, a handful of card tables set up, an open area for dancing and a sewing room. The center will even host holiday jazz concert.
Taylor laughs at the idea of men enjoying decorations and says, “These men – they love the decorations.”
She admits that while someone else will hang the Christmas garland around on the main level of the center, she usually ends up stepping in to exert her expertise.
“I got to be moving. I am not going to sit at home and just watching TV. I only live two blocks away. I go to a lot of different senior centers in the city, but this one [West Oak Lane] is my favorite,” says Taylor. “ I can come here and be with my friends. And, of course, Sharlene is such a sweetheart!
The holiday season stresses the importance of spending time with family, but for some Christmas family gatherings are a thing of the past. Most of the men and women at the center have children and grandchildren that are grown and live in other parts of the country, which makes traveling more difficult.
Taylor recalls the Christmases of her childhood and how different things are today. Growing up in a household with nine kids the holidays were more about family rather than what kind of gift was left for you under the tree.
“We weren’t wealthy, I don’t think you could even say we were comfortable. We were just getting by. We had a roof over our head, clothes and food on the table,” Taylor says. “Christmas was about everybody getting together, eating and dancing. Whatever gift we got we appreciated it.”
Samuel Williams Jr., a man who seemingly hides behind his shaded glasses, opens up about the shifting Christmas culture.
“Oh it’s changed. But, according to me? It’s never changed,” he admits.
“Kids used to ask Santa for gifts, my grand kids just say ‘grand pop, buy me this’ so I guess I am still Santa in a way,” Williams Jr. says with a laugh that is trying to cover up the disappointment in his voice. “I used to pick what bills not to pay the week before Christmas so that I could get my kids’ Christmas presents. Whatever they wanted was usually affordable, unlike what kids want now.”
Williams Jr.’s family will be gathering in North Carolina for Christmas this year, but he will not be joining them.
“I’ll send some money along with the kid’s grandma so that I can still be Santa, but I won’t be going,” he says without offering more reason of why he doesn’t want to go.
While Taylor and Williams Jr. are OK with celebrating Christmas solo, Jones, who everyone calls Jay Jay, has a duty to report back to his aunt on Christmas.
“My mom passed away when I was 12. There were nine kids total and my aunt took all of us kids, she wouldn’t have us separated,” says Jones. “Everyone grew up and did their own thing, but when it comes Christmas time we have to report back to our aunt.”
As plans for Christmas vary, Taylor, Williams Jr. and Jones all agree that they are happy to be alive for the holiday season.
Even if Taylor and Williams Jr. are not able to spend the holidays with their family, they both have a chosen family at the West Oak Lane Senior Center.