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Forever Friends

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Lee McCullough (left) and Charlene Massing sit amid some of the flowers they grow in their Cottage home gardens and in the Asbury Solomons' community garden.

For sisters Lee McCollough and Charlene Massing, being together in retirement was a foregone conclusion. “From the time I was little, I’ve had this picture in my mind of two, little old ladies walking down the street,” Charlene says. “I could only see them from the back, but I just always knew it was my sister and me.”

A resident for just over a year, Charlene lives in a cottage adjacent to Lee and her husband, Michael. They are less than 150 steps away from each other most days – and neither would have it any other way.

Talking to them is a bit like talking to highly energetic, very happily married couple – each jumping in to finish sentences and add details to a story. Their admiration for each other is evident. Lee brags about Charlene’s green thumb in response to a question about her master gardener status.

“I just play around with flowers,” Lee says. “Charlene had a farm in Indiana and grew all her own food for years.” Likewise, Charlene points out Lee’s degree in fine arts and her success as a painter during a conversation about the sisters’ love of all things crafty. Lee’s watercolors are in several corporate headquarters in Cincinnati where the sisters lived for 10 years, and she used to show paintings (pictured) created during summers in Maine in a Bar Harbor gallery.

They’ve been close since they were girls, though Charlene, 73, recalls annoying her “perfect sister” as a teenager by tagging around with her. They competed on who would get the comfortable living room sofa versus the hard porch swing when they brought home dates, but were in harmony on just about everything else.

Asked if they ever wear on each other’s nerves living so close together, they say that’s not an issue. “We play a mean three-hand game of pinochle,” Lee, 76, laughs. “And Mike is a Type-A personality, so when I’m worn out sightseeing or don’t feel like going out, he’ll use Charlene to get me going.”

The three enjoy traveling together, too. They’ve taken trips to Alaska, Holland to see the tulip fields in spring and are headed to Acadia in August. However, both sisters spend part of the year in separate residences they own in Florida and take trips independent of each other. 
“If I need time alone, I just go to my cottage,” Charlene says. “It’s not like we’re together all the time.”

Growing up, they loved heading into the northern Kentucky hills to hunt for wildflowers. That passion is evident today in Charlene’s wildflower garden where she grows jack in the pulpits and Virginia bluebells and is eagerly waiting to see if seeds for the rare, Lady Slipper wild orchid purchased in Vermont will germinate. Lee concentrates on growing cutting flowers, which they also grow in a garden plot in Asbury Solomons community gardens. 

“The joke around here is that people only recognize us from behind,” Charlene laughs. “Everyone sees our rear-ends first, sticking up from our gardens.”

But residents benefit from the sisters’ floral efforts. They make bouquets for common spaces in Asbury Solomons’ main building and are planning to grow straw flowers in the community gardens next year to use in crafts for Asbury Solomons’ gift shop. Their primary contribution to the gift shop are one-of-a-kind cards (pictured) they sell with all proceeds benefitting Asbury Solomons’ benevolent care fund. For many years, the sisters made a variety of art, including handmade pottery, which they sold at craft fairs. As for their cards, “we draw, paint, use stickers, ribbon, string, glitter pencils, pieces from magazine, you name it,” Lee says. “We spread out our boxes on the table and start grabbing. But no material ends up the way it was. Retirement lifestyle at Asbury Solomons is truly what you make of it.

“We’ve been doing art projects and design together for 50 years, Lee continues. “Here we found a new audience to enjoy it.”