Sporting matching sequined berets in green and gold, musicians and longtime Barron Park residents Gary Breitbard and Jena Rauti took up their instruments -- a violin and an accordion -- and serenaded the 18 diners in Cibo Restaurant's private dining room. The venue was decked with a holiday tree and festive wreaths on the windows.
Clinking glasses and diving into sumptuous lunches of broiled salmon filets with saffron sauce, chicken with spinach and mushrooms in light cream and tofu stir-fry with assorted vegetables, on Dec. 13 the Barron Park seniors capped off a 16-year tradition with holiday song.
Every two months for the past two decades the seniors have gathered to share stories, food and friendship at local bakeries and restaurants, and occasionally at Bol Park for a summer picnic. The neighborhood tradition brings seniors together with their peers, with whom they share generational history and experience.
Julie Spengler, a lively woman with carefully coiffed, pale-blond hair who has been co-coordinator with Rosemary Jacobsen for 15 years, said the gatherings have been a great way to feel connected to one's peers.
"When you are among seniors, it's wonderful. We all relate to the same things," she said.
Younger people talk about things such as their children or jobs or cooking -- life events and activities that most of the seniors can't relate to anymore, the seniors said.
The luncheon idea came after senior coordinator Mary Jane Leon and Spengler sent a survey to association members in 2001 asking which services seniors needed. Most said they wanted events. Possibilities included music, game parties or lectures. Many people expressed an interest in getting together for either lunch or coffee, Leon said.
The first successful gathering garnered 26 people in June of that year in Hobee's restaurant's small back room. "Food was good, service a little slow ... and volume was so high we all had to yell to carry on conversations. We didn't let that stop us at all -- just went ahead and yelled," Leon wrote in the Barron Park Association newsletter that fall.
Lunches, which were for a long time organized by Jacobsen, Spengler, and former resident Bob Frost, attract about 20 to 30 people, Leon said. Sometimes they meet at Cibo; other times at a nearby Szechuan restaurant; mostly, they gather at The Corner Bakery, all venues within walking distance.
Agnes Paccagnini, a slender, silver-haired woman with sparkly eyes, said she can't recall how many years she has attended. "I live nearby, around the corner. I have been coming steadily. I see some of the same people there," she said.
Reine Flexer, a petite woman with blond hair and glasses who also lives nearby, agreed. "It's an opportunity to socialize," she said, adding that she came to the holiday luncheon because of the musicians.
The bimonthly gathering doesn't impose any rules or requirements on the seniors. One month someone can't make it because they are off visiting grandchildren or traveling the world; another month someone just might not feel too well. The lunches offer consistency and an open hand of warmth and friendship to anyone who desires it, they said.
With dinner now well toward finishing, Breitbard and Rauti, who took time out to eat, started handing out Christmas carol lyrics books and jingle bells. The pair, who have been performing at the senior holiday party for six years, said it is always a highlight. Breitbard played the accordion while Rauti led the seniors through holiday songs, some familiar, some more obscure: "Nuttin' for Christmas," "Deck the Halls," "Santa Claus is Coming," "White Christmas," and "Let it Snow," -- the latter two admittedly incongruous for the Bay Area, they noted.
Through the years things have changed. There are fewer seniors in the neighborhood as old neighbors have moved away or died. They want to recruit younger people -- new retirees in their 60s, they said. Spengler and Jacobsen said they are retiring from organizing the luncheons. But that won't stop the gathering and celebrating or the discussions about politics and travel; of growing up with two big brothers; life during World War II and the invasiveness of the internet.
On the latter subject, Gee Gee Lenhart had a lot to say, and she wondered how the younger generation will socialize as they grow older. Would they gather around food and share the sounds of voices and warm bodies and song? Or would they choose the remoteness of text messages, emails and Instagram?
Spengler said the gatherings will continue in a less-organized way every second Tuesday of every other month at The Corner Bakery, 3375 El Camino Real, at 1 p.m.
"We always, always have stuff to talk about," she said.