Somewhere in West Tennessee, not far from Graceland, nine women - or "The 9 Nanas," as they prefer to be called - gather in the darkness of night. At 4am they begin their daily routine - a ritual that no one, not even their husbands, knew about for 30 years. They have one mission and one mission only: to create happiness. And it all begins with baked goods.
"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.
Over the next three hours, The 9 Nanas (who all consider themselves sisters, despite what some of their birth certificates say) will whip up hundreds of pound cakes, as part of a grand scheme to help those in need. And then, before anyone gets as much as a glimpse of them, they'll disappear back into their daily lives. The only hint that may remain is the heavenly scent of vanilla, lemon and lime, lingering in the air.
"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." MaMaw and PaPaw are the grandparents who raised four of the women, Mary Ellen included, when their mother passed away; and they took in Pearl as their own, when her parents needed some help.
"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?
So the ladies began brainstorming.
"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."
And then the women started listening. They'd eavesdrop - all with good intentions, of course - at the local beauty shop or when they were picking up groceries. And when they heard about a widow or a single mom who needed a little help, they'd step in and anonymously pay a utility bill or buy some new clothes for the children.
"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."
The Nanas would find out where the person lived and send a package with a note that simply said, "Somebody loves you" - and they'd be sure to include one of MaMaw Ruth's special pound cakes.
The more people they helped, the bolder they became.
"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 three decades, the ladies' good deeds went undetected - that is, until five years ago, when Mary Ellen's husband, whom she lovingly calls "Southern Charmer," started noticing extra mileage on the car and large amounts of cash being withdrawn from their savings account.
"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.'"
So 30 years into their secret mission, the 9 Nanas and their husbands gathered in Mary Ellen's living room and the sisters came clean. They told the husbands about the laundry and the eavesdropping -- even the drive-bys. And that's where their story gets even better - because the husbands offered to help.