Deal these Ladies In

The Journal Times (Racine, WI) December 15, 2006

As a kid, it struck me as exotic that once a month my mom donned her black heels and a dress, put on lipstick, and arranged her dark, curly hair. Getting ready for “Club” with “the girls”–my aunts and other female relations–Mom looked so pretty.  I still remember her perfume lingering in the air those nights.

My mother raised five kids. Needless to say there wasn’t much time for her to go out on the town, particularly after my father died and she was left by herself with an unruly brood, of which I’m the youngest. Nevertheless, my mom, Mary Isaacson, her six sisters-in-law and some female cousins carved out one night a month for themselves. Says Ione Isaacson Oertel: “We wanted a night without our kids and husbands.”

“Nobody can remember exactly when it started,” says Mom. Delores Isaacson helps pinpoint the date a bit: “We got married in 1952, and it was after that.” As for who started the card-playing club, Jeannette Isaacson credits Aunt Ione: “She was always the one who led us along.” “We called it the Sister-in-Law Club because there were seven of us,” says Aunt Ione. “None of us were sisters, but we got along so well. Then cousins Bev Helling, Janet Pedersen and Pat Londry joined us too.”

Janet Pedersen remembers: “I was the last to join. It was already going on. My sister Bev was in before me so I knew about it.”

For decades, they met at about 6:30 for dinner. “Angie was always a little late. She did her dishes before coming,” says Mom. “We had supper and played cards. We didn’t usually get home until 12:30.” Adds Aunt Ione: “A lot of times it got kind of late and the guys got worried–not that we’d get in trouble, but that something happened.”  “We were regular nighthawks,” declares Aunt Jeannette.

Aunt Ione waits to play her cards in the Isaacson monthly card game. 

Aunt Ione waits to play her cards in the Isaacson monthly card game. 

It was a tradition that at the beginning of the year each member drew a name to see who would be their “Secret Pal”: another member to whom they would anonymously sneak birthday presents and other gifts. “Your Secret Pal would be revealed at Christmas,” explains cousin Janet. These days at holiday time the group brings “white elephants” to exchange. For years, the card club has also served as a culinary lab. Says Aunt Ione: “We always tried out our best recipes on each other.” Aunt Delores adds: “We even made up recipe books of our favorites.”

A prize would be given to the winner of the evening’s games. Says Aunt Jeannette: “Never anything big, just a little remembrance, sometimes it was a homemade gift or craft.” Aunt Delores elaborates: “Sometimes we gave funny things, Halloween stuff or Christmas stuff or even vegetables from the garden.” The group has never played for money. “You think Grandpa Isaacson would have allowed that?”  Hillery Isaacson kidded, a rhetorical question

Aunt Hillery adds: “It was a way of keeping in touch with the family. If there was anything coming up–the grandparents’ anniversaries or something like that–we’d plan those things.” Despite Aunt Hillery’s claims of loftier purposes, cousin Janet agrees with my mom, who said, “Hillery was always pretty lucky in winning.” And Aunt Hillery admits: “My husband Merle would joke, ‘Don’t come home unless you have a prize.’”

Who plays hostess alternates. Years ago we all knew well ahead of time when it was Mom’s turn: she cleaned the house like a madwoman. During the gathering itself, us kids were banished from sight and sworn to silence. My sister Laine recalls one time when, as teenagers, we were exiled to a freezing outdoor movie theatre and ordered not to return until 11:00. Back in the warm indoors, a meal would be served, to be followed by a night of dessert, gossiping and games. The evening’s hostess also determined what would be played; it might be Bunco, Rummy Royal, 7-Up, Crazy Eights, Five Thousand, Kings in the Corner, or anything else she chose.

Over the years, the club offered needed support in the hard times and plenty of laughs in the good. “For a while, there was always someone pregnant,” says Aunt Hillery. Indeed, over a seven-year period in the 1950s, these ladies were at least partially responsible for 15 new Isaacson children. Says Aunt Jeannette of the club during that busy time: “This way we would get to see each other, and not just occasionally. A lot of people marveled that we all got along so good together.”

The game-playing ladies no longer care to drive at night, so these days the cards are dealt on Thursday afternoons. The youngest of “the girls” is in her seventies. (I like to stay on my aunts’ good sides so I won’t get into specifics about age.) Original member Evelyn Isaacson and Pat Londry moved away. The club lost my wonderfully spunky Aunt Angie Isaacson in 1981 and Bev Helling in 2004. Some five decades or so after it started, attendance is a bit more irregular, given aches, pains and whatnot. Back at its inception, it may have been time away from the kids, now it’s a chance to reminisce. “And gossip,” Mom adds, “I like to hear what’s going on with everybody.”