“Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open.” John Barrymore’s words couldn’t have been any truer but it is also true that if you peep outside the door you might find something truly amazing. ‘The 9 Nanas’, a name the secret society in West Tennessee goes by, consists of a group of 9 women ages ranging from 54 to 72, who ensure happiness is delivered through the door, to the needful. These ladies started their noble mission decades ago and nobody, not even their husbands had the slightest inclination of their undercover activities, for more than thirty years.
“One of us starts sifting the flour and another washing the eggs,” explained Nana Mary Ellen, the appointed spokesperson for their secret society. “And someone else makes sure the pans are all ready. We switch off, depending on what we feel like doing that day.
“But you make sure to say Nana Pearl is in charge, because she’s the oldest!” she added with a wink and a smile.
The Nanas gather when the world around them is still lost in slumber and start conjuring the recipe for happiness, which includes baking hundreds of pound cakes. The 9 sisters, as they consider themselves (despite some of them not being biologically connected) will then disappear into the night without leaving any trail behind. The morning air though does smell of happiness – a mix of vanilla, lemon and lime.
A UPS driver is appointed to pick up the packets and drive by the addresses and delivers them. He however has no knowledge of the crucial part he plays in the Nanas’ grand scheme. Marry Ellen reflects on the fateful day 35 years ago when the sisters and their husbands had gathered for their weekly game of “Broads and Bridge”.
“Pearl says it was all her idea,” Mary Ellen teased, “but as I remember it, we were sitting around reminiscing about MaMaw and PaPaw and all the different ways they would lend a hand in the community.” She later adds that, MaMAw and PaPaw were the grandparents of four of the sisters, including herself. They took over when the sisters were orphaned after their parent’s demise. The elderly couple also adopted Pearl, because her parents were not so financially well-off.
“MaMaw Ruth would read in the paper that someone had died,” Mary Ellen remembered, “and she’d send off one of her special pound cakes. She didn’t have to know the family. She just wanted to put a little smile on their faces. And we started thinking about what we could do to make a difference like that. What if we had a million dollars? How would we spend it?
Thus came into being the 9 Nanas.
“One of the sisters suggested that we should all start doing our own laundry and put the money we saved to good use. I admit, I protested at first. There’s just something about laundering that I don’t like. But I was outnumbered! So among the nine of us, we’d put aside about $400 a month and our husbands never noticed a thing. Their shirts looked just fine.”
With the money arranged, it was time to put the second part of the plan in action. The sisters would go about their business as usual, managing their households, picking groceries or just visiting the local beauty shop. But oblivious to all they would keep their ears and eyes open, looking out for people who needed a helping hand. Be it the single mom who was falling behind the bills or the widow who needed new clothes for her children, the Nanas would eavesdrop (with best intentions in their heart) and pitch in to help them without anyone being any wiser.
“We wanted to help as much as we could,” Mary Ellen said, “without taking away from our own families, so we became coupon clippers. And we’d use green stamps. Remember those? We’d use green stamps and we’d make sure to go to Goldsmith’s department store on Wednesdays. Every week they’d have a big sale and you could spend $100 and walk away with $700 worth of merchandise.”
They would then pack the stuff and stick a note saying, “Somebody Loves You” and leave it by the person’s address. The package would also contain one of MaMaw Ruth’s special pound cakes.
“We gave new meaning to the term drive-by,” Mary Ellen said with delight. “We’d drive through low-income neighborhoods and look for homes that had fans in the window. That told us that the people who lived there didn’t have air-conditioning. Or we’d see that there were no lights on at night, which meant there was a good chance their utilities had been turned off. Then we’d return before the sun came up, like cat burglars, and drop off a little care package.”
For thirty years, these women had kept their mission a secret from everyone. Until one fateful day Mary Ellen’s husband started noticing that there were unaccounted cash withdrawals and car mileages.
“He brought out bank statements and they were highlighted!” Mary Ellen said, recalling the horror she felt. “I tried to explain that I had bought some things, but he had this look on his face that I’d never seen before – and I realized what he must have been thinking. I called the sisters and said, ‘You all need to get over here right away.'”
When everyone had gathered in Mary Ellen’s house, the sisters confessed. Right from the very beginning, when they decided to do the laundry themselves to the eavesdropping and their weekly haul at Goldsmith’s department store to delivering the goods anonymously, they explained everything. While the sisters waited for the axe to fall the men surprised them by offering to help in their noble cause.
“They were amazed that we were doing this and even more amazed that they never knew. We can keep a good secret! All but three of them are retired now, so sometimes they come with us on our drive-bys. In our area, all you need is an address to pay someone’s utility bill, so we keep the men busy jotting down numbers.”
The seniors finally decided to pass on the secret to happiness to their children and they were thrilled to be a part of the mission. They suggested that they take help of technology to reach more and more people. Within a short span of opening the online portal to sell the pound cakes, as many a s 100 orders a day started pouring in.
“The first time we saw those orders roll in, we were jumping up and down,” Mary Ellen said with a laugh. “We were so excited that we did a ring-around-the-rosie! Then we called all the children and said, ‘What do we do next?’”
After brainstorming, they decided to scale up the size of their operation and started working out from a professional kitchen instead of baking from their homes. The Nanas would come in the wee hours of night and start about their business. Once done they would leave discreetly before any of the restaurant staff arrived. They have another partner-in-crime code named Sunny, whom they like to call the ‘happiness coordinator’. She helps them in eavesdropping.
“We swore her to secrecy – her parents think she works in marketing. And, really, if you think about it, she is doing public relations and spends a lot of time looking for people to help at the supermarket!”
With their online program being a success, the Nanas are now able to make a bigger contribution. They found out a shelter which worked for resettlement of survivors of domestic violence and donated over $5,000 worth of linens, pillows and personal care goodies. For two years now they celebrate ‘Happiness Happens Month’ every August, where the Nanas select one individual from one state who has been working for the betterment of the community. The selected members then receive tokens of appreciation.
Wondering what happened to their dream of ‘what if I had a million dollars’? Well the Nanas have managed to give away happiness worth of $900,000 in the last 35 years.
But the Nanas have no intention of slowing down and continue to spread smiles of happiness.
“Not everyone is as lucky as we were to have MaMaw and PaPaw to take care of them, to fix all those things that are wrong.”
“So this is our way of giving back,” Mary Ellen said. “We want people to know that someone out there cares enough to do something. We want to make sure that happiness happens.”