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The Red Hatter tea party in Annapolis resembled an Alice in Wonderland tale with a baby boomer twist.

Over buttered cucumber sandwiches, a gathering of ladies in red hats and purple clothes agreed their monthly meetings are excellent for camaraderie and, as one put it, cheaper than a psychiatrist.

Gales of laughter ensued as scones were passed and tea was poured at their June get-together, held last week at Tara's Gifts & Parties on Annapolis Street.

Welcome to the 11-woman local chapter of the Red Hat Society, a national organization that has spread in the past few years. The society embraces red hats as a symbol of growing older with whimsy and spirit - specifically for the 50-and-older set.

At this middle-life stage, founding member Pat "Queen P" Bruce said, the time for pleasing and doing mainly for others is over. Grandmotherhood, which has arrived for most members, is the time for pleasing oneself - and defying social conventions about aging.

The tea talk turned to future outings to Easton and Baltimore to visit other chapters - where there would be chances to jitterbug, play the accordion and do karaoke. The idea of a pajama party was also floated.

"To Easton we will go," Bruce said with a flourish.

"You get to a certain age and those things [age stereotypes] don't matter anymore," she said. "We can be individuals now, and our hats demonstrate that. We earned that."

That statement was accompanied by a chorus of "yeas."

"With every last year," said Lynne Sherlock, the shop owner, nodding vigorously.

Debby Hintz, a silver-haired reading specialist in Annapolis, explained the emboldening and empowering effect of wearing a red hat.

"When you put on a red hat, you feel freer," she said. "When we all wear hats, we make friends."

For the Chessie Chix, the name the Annapolis group has given itself, and other chapters, wearing purple clothes with red hats is key to their purpose.

Inspired about four years ago by the popular poem "Warning, When I am an Old Woman," which extols red hats and begins with the line, "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/with a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me," the California founders of the Red Hat Society donned purple frocks to go with their red hats for a tea party.

And so a minor British poet, Jenny Joseph, unintentionally set off a chain reaction, even revolution, of tea parties across America.

"Little did she know the effect she would have on women in their 50s," Bruce said.

Before retiring from her career working for the General Assembly, Bruce recruited colleagues Mary Anne S. Kuehn and Nancy Lore to join the fledging chapter. Kuehn in turn invited her lifelong friend Hintz to join.

Their relationship dates to when their mothers were friends on the maternity ward in a Cumberland hospital, nursing them as newborns. They later attended Frostburg State College together.

"We're attached at the hip," Kuehn said.

Sherlock, the shop owner, first met some of the women during her days as an Avon lady about 30 years ago.

The club does have one member who is in her 40s. But protocol calls for those younger than 50 to wear pink hats with lavender clothing.

Turning 50 is a rite of passage that brings with it the red hat privilege, members said.

"It's like going from the Brownies to the Girl Scouts," Lore said.

The Annapolis chapter started meeting last fall and chooses different venues and activities for each meeting.

At the inaugural meeting, Bruce was crowned the "Queen P" of the chapter. In another gathering, they visited a nursing home in full red and purple regalia.

As the tea party drew to a close, Sherlock put on the red hat the members gave her as a gift and said she would love officially to be one of them.

"Would you add this fine lady to the list?" Bruce asked the members ceremoniously.

The answer was yes. And then they were 12 Red Hatters.

Warning, When I am an Old Woman

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

with a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me;

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

And satin sandals, and say 'we've no money for butter.'

I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired,

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells ...

And run my stick along the public railings,

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain,

And pick the flowers in other people's gardens,

And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

And eat three pounds of sausages at a go

Or only bread and pickles for a week

And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry

And pay our rent and not swear in the street

And set a good example for the children.

We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised;

When suddenly I am old and start to wear purple.

- Jenny Joseph

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