Soon other women saw the red hats and by 1999 there were two chapters and astoundingly, five years later, there were 40,000 chapters worldwide.
The Red Hat ladies mission is a simple one — to have fun, friendship and fellowship with other women, to support them and encourage them from middle age and beyond.
The Sugar Plum Girls are one of several Red Hat chapters here in Middle Tennessee, and from my glimpse into their world, I’d say they have certainly fulfilled Sue Ellen’s mission.
To see it is to believe it. Red Hat members who are over 50 wear full regalia including distinctive red hats and purple outfits. Those younger than 50 wear pink hats and lavender outfits.
The Queen of the Sugar Plum Girls is Bernice Blankenship, and what a Queen she is. Bernice’s sister started the group in 2004, and when her sister became ill and stepped down, Bernice took over. Her group has 30 members with ages ranges from late 30s, middle age and beyond. Sugar Plum Girl Founding Queen Mother, Bernice’s sister, Dean Agee, visits as she feels up to it and will be Queen for Life as will Queen Mother of Vice, Bernice.
The Sugar Plum Girls are a fun bunch of family members, old friends and new friends who have chosen to come together in sisterhood. They meet weekly for meetings, breakfasts, lunches or get-togethers, and you can tell from this group that they enjoy each other’s company.
Each lady is given a nickname upon entering the group, such as The Divine Ms. D, Princess SuperStar or my favorite, Lady Laughs Alot. These ladies often go on trips, partake in local fundraisers, share birthdays and support charitable organizations together such as Books From Birth, Habitat For Humanity, New Leash on Life and Country K-9 Pet Rescue to name a few. You have probably seen the ladies yourself during the Lebanon Christmas Parade, where they don their Red Hats and hop onto a float or, for the past several years, a double-decker red Party Bus, waiving and laughing with the crowd.
Many in the group commented that they knew no one when they first joined. Either they moved to town looking to meet new people or were retiring and wanted to start a new journey.
Several of the ladies teared up when they spoke about how close the group had become, many having suffered serious illnesses or losses and their Sugar Plum sisters were there every step of the way. “I haven’t quit smiling since I joined,” noted Debbie Walker, a.k.a Diva Doolittle, wearing her Red Chef’s hat. Or as Lady Nitabug commented, “they are always there when you need them.”
Gypsy Lady, the member who I personally voted as “Best Hat” in her red-feathered masterpiece, shared that she had suffered from cancer several years ago and, “these ladies made me brave. I will never forget how they held me up when I was not strong enough to do it myself. I cherish them and thank them.”
No holiday is missed, mentioned Princess Superstar, a.k.a. Tiffany Cunningham, who wears a pink hat and is the daughter of the Queen. “We have pajama breakfasts, celebrate almost all holidays together including Valentine’s Day, St. Patty’s Day, and even Cinco de Mayo. Can you tell, we tryto find ways to get together and have fun,” she laughed. “And in the summer we will have a family get together at the park and already have several trips planned. For instance, every year we have either a Spring or a Fall Fling in Gatlinburg. This year our fling will be in Atlanta, during the International Red Hat Convention where we can meet other Red and Pink Hatters from all over the world.”
These ladies have never met a stranger and invited myself, Angel and Wilson Living photographer Donna Neely, to a full-course breakfast meeting on a Saturday morning this past January. We were warmly welcomed immediately upon entering the room, not just by these exuberant ladies but also their husbands.
The Sugar Plum Girls call their husbands “Red Hat Honeys.” While technically invited to a few meetings or events to offer their husbandly assistance to their wives, it’s obvious there is kinship between them as well. And the guys get nicknames, also, for instance, Jim Martin is known as Sweet Baboo. (Sorry, Jim, Angel made me include this.) But honestly, it was obvious these husbands enjoyed the fellowship as much as their wives did.
A few days after sharing my morning with the Sugar Plum Girls, I headed out to my parents’ home to see if I could find a photo of my Mom in her Red Hat days. Unfortunately, I never did find one but instead had the opportunity to visit with my Mother and tell her about my breakfast adventure. She laughed as I showed her the pictures of all the ladies in their Red Hats. Years ago when my Mother was a member, I didn’t quite understand her fascination with her Red Hat ladies group, but now, I get it.
And I’m thankful to the Sugar Plum Girls, for helping me figure it out.