With a partner, hold out your right hands. Overlap your fingertips and wiggle them together for a few seconds. Stop, make fists, bump your fists together and hold them there. Thrust your thumbs upward and cross them back and forth like swords four times. Press the ends of your thumbs together firmly. Then draw back slightly and give each other a thumbs up.
That was the top secret handshake created by and reserved for Mom and me during our adventure as care receiver and caregiver. It was declassified after her death last December, and is being shared in this column only because you, dear friend, are now a trusted member of our clandestine society. Your initiation was simple. Just reading some of the notes she left behind and exploring the explanations with me has drawn you into this exclusive club. Since my co-conspirator departed with a nagging fear that she would not be remembered, I’m delighted to induct you by ceremoniously quoting a few of her last words.
Secret societies, including some with secret handshakes, have existed for centuries. Literature and films have memorialized many; some bona fide, others created or dramatized to advance a storyline. Who can resist the allure and mystery of the Knights of Templar, the Illuminati, the Jedi Order and the Sith, the Dharma Initiative and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? As someone of the feminine persuasion, though, I am most enchanted by stories about women of all ages who bond over a common problem, a shared belief system or a collective goal.
In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, young friends Carmen, Tibby, Bridget and Lena find redemption in a magical pair of thrift store jeans passed from one to another over the course of a summer. In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, lifelong friends Teensy, Necie, and Caro help pal Vivi reconcile with her daughter, Sidda. No matter what the circumstances, the women in these and other mythical societies unfailingly emerge triumphant; having forged strong friendships that last through the ages.
No one ever wrote a bestseller or filmed a blockbuster about them, but my mother actually was part of such a sisterhood. Find a recording of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo or Kay Kyser’s Jingle Jangle Jingle to set the mood and flash back to 1942.
In March of that year, Mom was a 17-year-old, slender brunette who removed her wire-rimmed glasses for class photos. With high school graduation rapidly approaching, she and several close girlfriends decided to cement their long-time friendship by starting a club. They knew that the only sure way to hold on to each other after they shed their caps and gowns was to create opportunities to spend time together. Without dissent, Friday became their sacred meeting night, and a different girl played hostess each week.
In minutes carefully preserved in soft-cover notebooks, they recorded debates about whether to make yellow gingham uniforms, the number of times a member could miss a meeting without a reasonable excuse, and what they should call their group. They bagged the idea of matching dresses, set strict attendance rules, and dissed several foreign-language designations before settling on the Semanons (No Names spelled backward). The short business meetings of “the Sems” were generally followed by music, dancing, singing and sugary homemade refreshments like Boston cherry cream pie and marshmallow malts. “A perfectly swell time was had by everyone,” the secretary wrote after a gathering in May 1942.
If the goings-on seem frivolous given the fact that World War II was raging, keep this in mind. In the months before they formed their club, they listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the radio about the December day that would “live in infamy.” They watched newsreels of the attack on Pearl Harbor. They looked on with sadness and confusion as their Japanese-American friends were ushered onto trains bound for internment camps.
Nothing and no one was safe, especially not in their hometown of San Pedro, California. Ships coming and going from the Port of Los Angeles, activity at the Fort MacArthur U.S. Army installation and the ominous presence of artillery embattlements for coastal defense created a distinctly military atmosphere. If that wasn’t enough, they watched their fathers and brothers enlist, obeyed blackouts and curfews, shuddered at the sound of pre-dawn air raid sirens, adjusted to rationing, and sacrificed their senior yearbook for the war effort.
Their Friday night gatherings helped them hold onto a shred of normalcy in an otherwise unstable world. Joy and laughter were always on their agenda. Along with the notebooks of minutes, the girls saved dozens of pictures, souvenirs, restaurant menus and live theater programs to commemorate adventures that sometimes stretched from Friday night to Monday morning. Surely, Big Bear Lake was never the same after they descended upon it to share a rustic cabin, shimmy into long johns and teach themselves to ski.
A line in the minutes of their December 7, 1945, meeting finally paid tribute to the dark days of the war. “On this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, in our first year of peace since 1941, we celebrated club at Mary’s house.”
Marriages, babies, jobs and relocation eventually forced the girls to let go of their weekly ritual. Christmas parties became Christmas cards. Periodic visits became telephone chats. But they never let go of each other. Their friendship endured through the years until, one by one, they passed away. When Mom joined the dearly departed last December, I was able to contact only one original Sem to share the sad news.
No alliance could ever truly replace the Sems for Mom, but life has a way of carrying us forward to different places and relationships. Mom rode the wave with anticipation and was never averse to forming new sisterhoods. In particular, the Oompa Loompa Girls always brought a smile to her face.
Oompa Loompas are short, fat beings that work in exchange for chocolate in Willie Wonka’s candy factory. No one remembers exactly when, why or how this came about, but some years ago Mom, my sister, Leslie, and my niece, Rachel, became the Oompa Loompa Girls. Mom’s tiny Yorkshire Terrier, Lucy (aka Lucerella), was their “plus one.” It probably happened during some self-deprecating moment when they were simultaneously lamenting their curvy figures and declaring their undying love for chocolate. I can imagine them all laughing hysterically (or barking as the case may be) and the name stuck. Every time Mom looked at a picture of their little group, she would declare, “The Oompa Loompa Girls!” It was the kind of inside joke that tends to make everyone else feel envious of the exclusive camaraderie.
I wasn’t an Oompa Loompa Girl, and I certainly wasn’t a Sem. Deep down I guess I will always be just a little bit jealous of those sisterhoods. However, as with the vast majority of caregiving relationships, I had my own bond with Mom that ran deeper than we could ever have dreamed. We didn’t have a name for our partnership, but ours was a “’til death do us part” promise that tested the durability of our connection while also serving to strengthen it. Our secret handshake was the symbol of our abiding pledge to one another, which most certainly is the reason she was compelled to commemorate it in one of the cards she left behind for posthumous delivery.
Don’t forget our secret handshake.
As briefly noted at the beginning of this column, Mom had a nagging fear that she would not be remembered. She was concerned that the space she occupied in our home and in the lives of those she loved would become a vacuum quickly swallowed up by new belongings, different priorities, and other liaisons. All I can say is that, under normal circumstances, a grown daughter could not possibly forget her mother. Our union, which reached far beyond the scope of a traditional parent/child relationship, will go down in the record books right next to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the bestseller that is destined to be written about the Sems.
If you’re listening, Mom, don’t worry. I won’t forget our secret handshake. More importantly, you will always and forever be in my heart and … well OK … in the hearts of those pesky Oompa Loompa Girls, too.
(This week’s column is lovingly dedicated to my friend, Connie, and her 92-year-old mother who had to bid their final good-bye this past week.)