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The World's Oldest Living Brownie Tries For One More Merit Badge

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If at first you don't succeed... wait 40 years, finagle an invitation to an exclusive club, and steer clear of the kitchen sink.

By Lisa Kogan

I was never a group person. I don't join clubs, I don't get picked for jury duty, and I'm proud to tell anyone who will listen that I spent the summer of 1995 not doing the macarena. There's no getting around it; I'm a wallflower at the proverbial orgy -- and I've come to like it that way. Besides, it's not as if I didn't give the team thing a try.

The year was 1969 and the group was the (pre–Camp Fire Girl) Blue Birds. Things went okay at first. We sang "Silent Night" in a mall, we decoupaged empty cans of Minute Maid frozen pink lemonade into pencil holders, we brought hot soup to old people. And then one day, there was... an incident. Let the record show that I did not intentionally flip the switch to the garbage disposal in Debbie Schiller's mother's house, nor did I know there was a large glass stuck in it when the aforementioned switch was flipped, nor do I accept responsibility for the tiny glass shards that flew across Debbie Schiller's mother's kitchen and made 11 Blue Birds look like extras from the invasion of Normandy scene in Saving Private Ryan. Suffice it to say everyone pretty much agreed, I was just not Blue Bird material.

Raise your hand if you remember the Brownies. After my Blue Bird career ended, I'd watch these future Girl Scouts going off to meetings in their matching cocoa-colored shirtdresses complete with little felt cap and tangerine necktie, and I'd find myself wondering what it was like to be born with all your homework done. I didn't know what took place at a Brownie get-together, but I knew it involved cookies, and I knew they got merit badges, and I knew that their moms stitched those badges to the sashes they wore to display their many achievements. And thanks to the carnage of 1969, I knew one other thing: I would never quite fit in.

I'm still not particularly gifted at being one of the gang -- uniforms make me panic and crowds make me claustrophobic. But I've learned to wear my eccentricities like little badges of courage. Still, an actual Brownie badge of merit... well, I wanted it. I wanted it bad. And I don't mean I wanted it in the metaphorical, your parents say they're proud of all your accomplishments sense; I mean I wanted somebody to teach me the secret handshake and toss me a Thin Mint.

That's right, at 49 years of age, I cast off my outsider status and finally finagled an invitation to my first Brownie meeting. I will be part of a community; I will set right an old mistake. As God is my witness, I will merit a badge.

"Hi, I'm Lisa," I say, doing my best to mingle. "What's your name?"

"My name is Nia T. Montero and I'm 5 years old."

"What's the T stand for?"

"Brittney."

"What do you like to be called?"

"Nia T. Montero."

Karolina, also age 5, asks me how old I am, as she narrows her eyes and zeroes in on the crow's-feet that appear every time I smile. "How old do I look?" It's a rookie mistake, but now that I've made it, all I can do is suck in my stomach and brace for impact. She circles me, does some calculations in her head, and finally replies, "I dunno... maybe 15." I think I'm going to like it here.

Den mothers pass out paste and construction paper, glitter and magic markers, and we settle into our places here in the church basement at Saint Joseph's Parish of Yorkville and begin to design our bird collages. "Eewww," 6-year-old Audrey proclaims as her hands hit the paste. "Oh, please," I tell her, "you think that's icky, try scrubbing three-day-old lasagna off a Pyrex baking dish."

In retrospect, this might've been the moment when it first became apparent that, to quote Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the others." There were many such moments. Ella, Mercedes, and Lily had all lost teeth. "My gums are starting to recede!" I say, trying to build a little camaraderie. Here's the bottom line: When someone wants to know your favorite color, "taupe" is not the answer that'll get you put in charge of food coloring when it comes time to frost cupcakes. It's not pretty when a table full of grade-schoolers look at you with pity. "Maybe you should try the Brownies," says Nia T. Montero, pointing to a troop across the room. "But I thought you guys were Brownies," I say. "No, that's for when we grow up." Lilliana chimes in. "Actually," she adds, "when I grow up, I'm going to be a waiter. For now, we're all Daisies."

"We didn't have Daisies when I was a kid. We didn't even -- " But before I can get into how there were only three TV channels and I could have bought a penthouse on Central Park West for $35, they are off to donate the cans of food they brought in. Who knew I was supposed to bring canned goods? My quest for a badge has hit a major snag.

I wander over to the table where the Brownies are sitting: The six girls in my new troop range in age from 8 to 10. Today they are supposed to interview somebody, and it's been decided that I'm "it." If the Daisies have taught me nothing else, it's that receding gums does not an icebreaker make, so I tell them that I've always wanted to be a Brownie, and wait for the questions to come.

Molly's hand shoots up. "Do you know any famous people?" she asks. Olivia and Nia (not to be confused with my Daisy pals of the same names) decide to get specific: "Have you ever met Lady Gaga?" I tell them no, but to let them down easy, I add that before there was a Lady Gaga, legend has it that my Aunt Sondra wore vinyl hot pants and a tube top to a bris in New Jersey. "What are hot pants?" asks Anaise. "What's a bris?" asks Amberly.

Sometimes a change of subject can be an aging Brownie's best friend: "So, what do you do when you're not selling cookies?" I ask, deftly sidestepping the bris question. Manon tells me about family ice-skating day and a sleepover on the Intrepid. They all talk about a father-and-daughter luncheon cruise and a mother-and-daughter ceramics-making party.

"My daughter would love that," I say.

They are surprised to hear I have a daughter. "Is she home with your husband?" Molly wants to know. "She's at ballet right now." "And then your husband picks her up?" Molly is taking on a certain Mike Wallace quality. "I'm not married," I say. "Wait a minute, you had a baby but you're not married?" Olivia asks. I take a deep breath. "A bris is when -- "

"Who's ready for cookies?" our troop leader mercifully jumps in. We snack and check out our bird collages, then the Daisies and Brownies form a circle. Could this be that elusive award ceremony I've been waiting for? No. It's time to repeat the Girl Scout Law:

"I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place, and be a sister to every Girl Scout."

I actually find being strong kind of overrated, and people in positions of authority generally have to earn my respect. But all in all, I'd say it's a pretty good pledge -- and the girls seem to be sticking to it. They support each other, laugh together, and still manage to maintain their individuality. Ella's bird collage has the earrings and false eyelashes to prove it.

Could it be that an outsider is really just a Brownie waiting to be asked in? That the right group of women will always welcome a few eccentricities? "You know, there's a lot to be said for belonging to something, for not going it alone every single day," I tell my troop leader as I look to see if there's anything stronger than a juice box with which to wash down my cookie. "Really," I say, "I can imagine coming every week." My leader looks alarmed. "I mean, just until I earn a merit badge."

It turns out, meriting a badge is easier than it looks. I am instantly presented with one -- but they must be so anxious to make sure I get home safely that I'm escorted out the door before I can even give the acceptance speech that's been burning a hole in my pocket for more than 40 years.

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