Roy Exum: Tennessee’s Covert ‘9 Nanas’

Saturday, September 7, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is a secret, clandestine group in west Tennessee that has been operating undercover for the past 35 years. They call themselves the “Nine Nanas” and in today’s world where there is achingly little, their resolute and only mission is … happiness and hope. That’s right, no one knows who they are but every morning at 4 a.m. the women meet at an undisclosed restaurant and make the most delicious pound cakes you ever tasted, heavy on the butter.

And then under cover of darkness, they leave their baskets at a house whose window fan tells them whoever lives inside can’t afford air-conditioning, at the home of a recently divorcee they learned of in Sunday School, or at the apartment of an older widow. Pretty clever, huh? But the part you need to focus on is “35 years.”  As a wise man once noted, “Happiness is like jam, you can't spread even a little without getting some on yourself.”

The whole thing started when nine women got tired of meeting to play bridge. Four were sisters, one was a “sister-in-love”  and the other four were “friends by love.” They came up with the idea that they would tell their husbands they were meeting early each day to do all the laundry in a collective fashion. “Eighteen hands can wash and iron faster than two” and then each would have the rest of the day to work, tend house, watch the children, etc.

Inside, as “Nana Mary Ellen” recently told Huffington Post, “One of us starts sifting flour and another washes the eggs. Someone else makes sure the pans are ready” and for three hours they make-and-bake instead of shuffling cards back when they were Broads-for-Bridge. Today the women, ages 54 to 72,go about helping others on an even-grander scale because, about five years ago, one of their husbands wondered about the high mileage on her care and, worse, saw where she had been takes money from their saving account. “I called all the sisters and said, “Ya’ll need to get over here right away.”

Confronted with a highlighted bank statement and a weekly mileage log, Nana Mary Ellen had to squeal. So other eight Nanas came with their husbands and confessed to 30 years of “finding a need a filling it.” Each husband realized his wife and her friends were angels and they wanted to help. Now they assist with drive-by deliveries. They soon told their immediate children, who really got revved up, and started on online delivery where MaMaw Ruth’s pound cakes could be purchased with the every penny going to charity. (

According to the Huffington Post article, not long ago the Nine Nanas donated $5,000 of pillows and linens and personal care products to a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. Get this, so far they have contributed over $900,000 in Happiness-Happens. “Not everyone is as lucky as we were to have a Mammaw or papaw to take care of them, to fix all those things that are wrong. So this is our way of giving back,” explained Nana Mary Ellen. “We want people to know that someone out there cares enough to do something. We want to make sure that happiness happens.”

In each basket is a stunning pound cake (look on the website for the different flavors), a small jar of sweet curd and a note that simply reads, “Somebody loves you!” With the FedEx driver coming every day and repeat mail-orders spiking demand to over 100 cakes every morning, the Nanas still take care of their Germantown neighborhood. Sometimes they pick random names from the phone book and now their latest trick is to spy a person at the grocery store who can obviously afford very little.

Each Nana is “authorized” to commandeer that lucky person’s cart, helping to pick out whatever items they learn in on-the-spot conversation the person needs, and pay for the whole buggy at the check-out. They say anybody can do it; it’s easy to spot somebody who is having a tough time with groceries and agonizing whether to buy the bread or the milk this trip. That’s where the angel steps in, and don’t forget the washing powder, the toothpaste or whatever else the stunned victim says they can’t afford.

The Nanas have been known to go to the electric company, very anonymously paying a power bill in full for a single mother with children. They hear about a family with three children who come to school without coats and immediately three winter coats … in just the right sizes … are found on that porch after a drive-by the night before, strangely accompanied by a basket with a pound cake in it and a note that reads, “Somebody loves you!”

To this day nobody knows for certain who the “Nine Nanas” are but that’s the way it is with secret, clandestine groups. Like Mammaw Ruth explained, “We’ve been at this for over 34 years but, with what seems to be a bumper crop of sadness, it looks like we’ll be doing this for a long time.”

God bless Tennessee’s “Nine Nanas.”

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