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There she is ... Ms. Senior Florida

I headed to Sun City Center, my car laden with clothes. I had the black-and-white outfit for the group number, the flouncy skirt and spangled blouse for the talent show, and the new black evening gown. At the urging of my employer, who once had been a judge, I would join the contenders for Ms. Senior Florida - a can-do role model for older women. Was that me?

"Come on down just for fun," said the pageant director on the phone.

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"Why not?" I asked myself. It will be an adventure. Criteria included poise, talent, and an interview with a panel of judges.

Soon after I arrived, I fell victim to over-confidence. I was slimmer than the other eight contestants, I noted. Being the only brunette was bound to distinguish me, and I'd put together a clever skit on stage fright. "Looks promising," I thought.

But my confidence began to unravel while practicing the opening number, "New York, New York." I was No. 8 in the lineup, sporting a black bow tie. A long black cane fitted nattily in the crook of one arm.

"Enter with canes up," shouted our director, "and then put them down and lean over them as soon as you hear, 'Start spreading the news.' "

We sauntered in well, but I missed our musical cues: No. 9 nodded toward my cane, which was still poised over my shoulder. No. 7 signaled me to face left, with the others. Oops.

For the talent rehearsal, ladies Nos. 1 through 6 sang, danced, and performed skits. No. 7 was next. I stood mesmerized as she belted out "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as if Judy Garland herself was singing. Wow. Everyone applauded loudly.

"You're up," she said, gasping as she came backstage. "What are you doing?"

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"A skit on stage fright," I muttered, and proceeded to the mike where I promptly forgot my opening.

No. 9 tapped her way across the stage, singing her heart out in a rollicking routine. She, too, received great applause. I lingered between the stars.

The next afternoon I sat on a chair in the hall, waiting for the interview. Behind closed doors sat No. 7, keeping the judges in stitches. Was she telling them a joke?

Then it was my turn. Stiffening my spine, I froze my smile and prepared to meet a barrage of questions. I was up on world events. Or maybe they would ask me about literature.

"If you could spend six months on a desert island with anyone in the world, who would you spend it with?" The opening question left me momentarily speechless.

"I'd take my husband," I said at last.

"That's a safe answer," the questioning judge replied.

"Well," I said, "if I have to pick berries and nuts or cut wood, I'd rather we do it together."

I left on a polite "thank you."

Saturday night the theater was packed. The stage teemed with flowers and spotlights lit up the stage.

To the opening chords of "New York, New York," we strutted in, my cane once again lingering too long in the air. I forced an apologetic smile.

The talent portion came next. No. 7 brought down the house with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." I muddled through my skit, grateful for the few chuckles. No. 9, her taps clicking away, garnered huge applause.

Finally, the big moment arrived. We formed a line, stood tall, and smiled.

"The second runner up is ... No. 6!" boomed the emcee. Lovely Anne stepped forward to receive her roses.

"The first runner up is ... No. 7!" Sandy, the modern-day Judy Garland, stepped forward, all aglow. My heart palpitated. Nos. 6 and 7 had been called. I was No. 8. Could it be?

"And the new Ms. Senior Florida is ... No. 9!" Addie the tap dancer swept forward to receive her tiara and flowers. And there I stood, sandwiched between the winners. I remained still, breathing in the fresh scent of roses.

This year's adventure was over, but next year, I mused, I just might return, tuck a bright red hibiscus behind one ear, and belt out a number from "Carmen." It just might do the trick.