Divine Secrets of the
BLACK MASQUE SISTERHOOD
"Part of the mystery for me was how exactly our state college could become a better place because 12 young women who tended to over-involve themselves would get together and have fun."
By JOYCE KIEFER
The best chick-flick of the season opens with four young girls swearing themselves into the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It is night on the bayou and the flames of their campfire give each of them an eerie, other-worldly look. The headdresses theyve put together from flowers and bits of jewelry enhance the impression. Each girl takes on a name to be known only to the others: Queen Dancing Creek, Countess Singing Cloud. They cut their hands and swear their friendship in blood.
Any woman watching that scene immediately understands its truth: There is nothing like friends forever when women take on this commitment to one another as a group.
The film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the book its based upon tell the story of how three of the young girls mentioned aboveby now well into middle age --decide to end the estrangement between their fourth member and her daughter, a playwright who had spoken critically of her mother in a magazine interview. They show the young woman a scrapbook that her mother had maintained through much of her life. Through its pages the daughter would come to understand the heart of the quirky, alcoholic, abusive mother she had so bitterly described. In the depths of that heart was a wellspring of unconditional love and emotional understanding that her mother revealed best when she was with her little group of friends. In fact she had titled the album Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
After watching the movie with my tolerant and bemused husband in a theater filled with groups of women, I knew there was something I had to find at home. I dug through stacks of photo albums of trips and family reunions and finally located a big scrapbook with brittle, yellowed pages. On its cover was a crumpled black paper eye mask. Inside were the secrets of my active year in the mysterious senior womens honorary society at my college. It was called Black Masque.
Over 40 years ago, 12 of us juniors were selected by the graduating senior members to be recognized for campus leadership and academic achievement. This honor was more than a resume filler; we were brought together to become a social group and hopefully, a group of friends who would at least remember each other for a lifetime. The purpose of doing this, as the outgoing president stated at all-campus, the Banquet where we were tapped, to promote the welfare of the college through centralization of leadership of women on campus.
Our meetings and activities were supposed to be secret from non-members. When Black Masque was founded, it was called the Mystic 13 because there were supposed to be 13 members. We happened to be one shy.
Part of the mystery for me was how exactly our state college could become a better place because 12 young women who tended to over-involve themselves would get together and have fun. We had no idea that in years to come it would be our personal lives and those of our families that would be enhanced because we first came together on that warm spring night.
Our official outfits were long, black academic robes and black eye masks. Our pins were little black masks. We wore these outfits when we made public appearances as a group, such as handing out Halloween pumpkins at dorms and sororities and dancing the Charleston at a contest of womens choral groups.
At the banquet we found out we were members when each one of us was tapped on the shoulder by a member of the graduating group. I was shocked to be considered in the same league as the women campus leaders I wrote about for our college newspaper. As each of us was fingered, we were slipped a note which read, When we leave, follow me and dont speak to anyone.
Not having been through sorority initiation, I knew I was off on a new adventure.
We were blindfolded and stuffed into cars. We were let out to grope our way through the grounds of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and the sweet-smelling Municipal Rose Garden. We knew it was way past lockout time at our dorms and sororities. How could we explain our way back in? Would we spend the night among strangely shaped statues and thorny plants?
We ended up eating cookies in the living room of the parents of one of our captors. There we learned the secrets of Black Masque:
1. We love to eat.
2. We are exempt from lockout rules on Black Masque nights.
3. BMCDE (When) Black Masque Calls, Drop Everything.
Our classmate MichelleIll keep their real names among our secrets--took No. 3 so seriously that her fiance temporarily broke up with her because she wouldnt tell him where she was going on meeting nights. He thought she was seeing another man.
We initiates had at least heard of one another before. Half of us had already bonded as invited members of an honors program in Western Civ. Several were sorority sisters or had been roommates. We were all 20 years old, from middle class families, squeaky clean, and totally invested in the campus life of the late 50s. Like the ideal coeds some considered us to be, we wore Bermuda shorts and knee sox, sack dresses, or matching sweaters and skirts.
"May I have your attention, members.
Tonight our activities will get us
back to our dorms very, very late, so
make sure your masks are on in
case your house mother is watching!"
When we became seniors, most of us planned life after college as carefully as a class schedule: marriage right after graduation, a teaching position in the burgeoning edges of the San Francisco Bay Area and--soon--buying one of those new houses going up where the orchards were coming down. Babies would follow, of course. We spent lots of time attending bridal showers for each other.
I was an exception. I didnt want to teach and realized I wasnt aggressive enough to follow through in my journalism major as a newspaper reporter. Worse, my boyfriend and I broke up. And I was getting tired of school. The delight and support in my last year of college were the ladies of Black Masque.
I watched a loyalty develop among us that surpassed that of some of my one-on-one relationships. Who else could simply put up with someone with an unexpected clumsy streak? Deep down I must have been a bit nervous about keeping such prestigious company. One weekend we gathered at the home of our president's parents. I managed to spill a bottle of ink on her mothers lace dresser scarf. I could see the reaction of silent horror in everyones eyes. But Marys mother simply mopped up the spill and everyone relaxed. Like the Ya-Ya sisters, we shared secret nicknames. I was called Dropsy.
Clearly we were not like the alpha girl cliques described in the best sellers Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons and Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman. With those groups, its one false move and youre gone.
After graduation we kept in touch through a newsletter started up by our historian Betty, who did become a newspaper reporter. We sent her news of changing addresses and new babies. A few years later she produced our biggest story: She was the first to get divorced. She preferred that we spread that news by word of mouth.
We continued to meet several times a year, including Betty and all three of her husbands. At picnics we got to see the children who smiled out of the Christmas card photos we sent each other. At couples parties whoever was hostess brought out her wedding china to serve the theme dishes we each brought. We maintained the enthusiasm we always had for something new, but the perfect lives wed envisioned had begun to crack.
Brilliant Kara, who wanted to become a doctor, dropped out of school in our senior year and went to work in Reno dealing cards. Her parents had divorced and left her without financial support. She never returned to college. She kept in contact only with Mary, once her roommate, who shared her letters with us. I kept Kara on the mailing list when I took over the newsletter. Once a Black Masquer . . .
Lisa moved to New York and lost touch. Our newsletters to her were returned.
Pauline and Donna, who did not have children, began to keep their distance but did write occasional notes to be shared in the newsletter. Donna returned to our fold a few years ago, but Pauline recently told Mary, who was her sorority sister, that she has moved on and Black Masque is no longer part of her life.
Several more women got divorced. They would keep their distance for a while but eventually return to the dinner parties, sometimes feeling quite alone. Our continuing acceptance worked like dripping water: They came around and brought their new husbands into the fold. All our menwhoever they arehave said they appreciate what Black Masque has meant to their wives. They learned to enjoy our company and their own as well. When Marys second husband was dying of cancer, he and she managed to get themselves to one of our all-weekend parties. Later she wrote in the general Black Masque alumni publication that he felt comfortable enough to go with me to a get-together with this group and their spouses. He had been refusing even family activities.
Our classmate Sue died in 1992. I cant recall how we got news of her colon cancer but I know that she didnt tell me about it directly. We have never lived each others lives like the Ya-Ya sisters or like one-on-one friends can do. Within the group some of us have developed close relationships that wax, wane, and sometimes wax again over the years. We dont ask probing questions of one another. But the closeness is there. With the men outside, weve huddled together at parties to listen to Betty tell another chapter in the tragic story of her daughters drug addicted life or to several women describe how they face the reality of their daughters or step-daughters lesbian lives.
To me the biggest shock came when Carols life cracked open. She always seemed perfect to me: homecoming queen; student body officer, one husband, three darling sons. A few years ago she and her husband came up to our area on his business trip. Over lunch she told me of her nightmarish breakdown, of being confined, of medication that left her shaky. Her depression defied a quick fix. Last year she had shock treatments and lost bits of memory. The woman who did so much in college could barely load the dishwasher.
On the year of our 40th anniversary we had a sleep-over at our house. Most of us were there, including Carol. My husband retreated to our vacation home. We played Kingston Trio albums, as we sat on the bed to eat popcorn and pore over college yearbooks and the albums Id made of our groups activities together over the years. We chuckled over the way Black Masque has changed at our college, now a university: It admits men, due to Title IX, and it is no longer secret. Our conversation made seamless segues from past to present and back again. We talked about old boyfriends, youthful insecurities, students we have taught, grandchildren we enjoy. We see the way we were and the way we are as a continuum. We still keep in touch but e-mail has replaced our newsletters.
As a group we have left an imprint on one anothers lives and its a compound of all of our experience together.
I find that my one-on-one friendships with women may be more intense and more intimate. But they are quite vulnerable to the hurts and disappointments that become so vivid in singular relationships. I cherish the reliability, duration and on-going acceptance of my special group of Black Masque. The sum is greater than the parts.
Ya, Ya to us all!
© 2002 by Joyce Kiefer. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
You can comment on this column online. Please address your message to either "The Editors" or Joyce Kiefer. To send an email, click here: email@example.com
Home About Us Archives Talkback Shopping Mall