Good books and warm friendships make for long lasting bonds

Wednesday, September 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- For Mary Elizabeth Criswell and the other members of a local monthly book club that has met for more than 60 years, the pleasures of good books and warm friendships have ripened with age.

The club that began in the 1930s thrives, but the bonds are less a love of literature than a genuine feeling of family among the members. These women have spent two evenings a month together for more than half a century, after all, and have watched each others'

families grow with their own.

"We started out as groups of young, married women," remembers Criswell, one of the charter members of what was originally Round Table Unit 7 of the Round Table Federation.

Many in her group were neighbors and friends who lived in the College Gardens area.

Marville Washinka, another charter member, said her mother-in-law lived across the street and she and her friend "immediately began finding things for me to do as a young bride,"

she recalled with a smile.

Unit 7 officially was born in October 1939, with a dozen charter members and a review of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" by Mrs. O.D. Duncan.

Membership numbers bloomed soon after.

As one of the nine Round Table groups in Stillwater at the time, book club meetings were swell affairs.

"Everything was very formal," said Criswell. "We wore our hats and gloves and high heels. It has become very informal now."

It was mom's night out and, as such, children were expected to be elsewhere.

"We were supposed to entertain ourselves. This was something they did," said Priscilla Kinnick, a daughter of Washinka.

"Dads or older siblings would babysit."

"My sisters and I often got roped into serving refreshments before we disappeared."

The ladies met twice a month then; more recently only once a month. They used to meet in the afternoons, but during World War II, when they didn't have husbands around to help watch the children and most had to wait until after school to get a baby sitter, the club began to meet in the evenings.

As part of the Round Table, the ladies paid dues and were assigned a number of books in each genre to cover, said Washinka.

"The council would give us directions each fall. It really was strict," she said.

But Round Table Unit 7 chafed a bit under the regimentation. In the 1970s, the group pulled away from the organization, becoming its own club, with its own bylaws and organization, that later took the name "Potpourri Book Club."

After they broke off, the club took on a less formal approach to the reviews, and became more friendship-oriented, Criswell said.

Ironically, it's one of the only book clubs to survive the years.

"We covered everything from cookbooks to drama," Criswell said. "We have done poetry, history, biographies, novels, short stories, all kinds of things. Quite often, the best sellers of the day." Lately: "Chicken Soup for the Soul," "The Greatest Generation," and a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

"We've kept up with literature for a long, long time."

They've had some remarkable reviews and reviewers, but the best part of the meeting is just seeing each other. Anymore, their meetings include a review, a dessert, and lots of talk and reminiscing.

"If we don't have a reviewer, we usually bring an anecdote, a poem. Everyone just shares," Criswell said.

The members again meet in the afternoons. The numbers are smaller, and it takes more effort to meet. Some can't drive, though a handful live at Golden Oaks Village and are allowed to hold their meetings there. Washinka takes advantage of the homebound book service by the Stillwater Public Library.

When a member's health begins to fail, it's often their activity in the book club that's hardest to surrender; Washinka said some hold on until the bitter end.

"It's like family. We're so comfortable with each other, and we rarely miss a meeting."

"When we have a meeting, it's so hard to go, because we just don't want it to end."