Originally created 06/28/99

'50s fad brings girls together



WASHINGTON -- The first of Louise Parker's luncheon guests arrived shortly before 11 a.m. and slowly made her way up the tree-shaded driveway, clutching a brown paper bag with a few sandwiches tucked inside. Soon another guest followed, and another, until there were six.

They call themselves "the Canasta Girls," though it's been decades since any of them flirted with girlhood. Truth to tell, they aren't so sure they want to broadcast the bit about the canasta, either.

Their pastor might not approve of them sitting around playing cards on a steamy June afternoon.

But play cards they do -- and have done, one day each month, going back to 1949.

They were young wives then, with husbands called to Washington by the government or the military, and a passel of young children quickly filling up their Falls Church, Va., homes.

Frankly, they needed a night out, and thus was born the Canasta Girls. Ms. Parker and Maria Lehman, friends from Richmond, Va., and members of the same Baptist church, were the instigators. They got six other women to join them one night a month, while their husbands stayed home and baby-sat.

The 1950s were heady days for canasta, a Spanish word meaning basket. The game had originated in Uruguay a few years earlier and soon was the toast of Latin America. In 1949, canasta was introduced in the United States.

From 1950 to 1952, canasta was "the biggest fad in the history of card games," according to Hoyle's Rules of Games, and it attracted such devotees as Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower.

"It was a craze," said Jean Schlager, who joined the Canasta Girls in 1955 and was one of the six who met recently at Ms. Parker's home in Fairfax, Va.

"We got the craze and never gave it up," added Ms. Parker, reflecting on the group's 50 years of canasta-playing.

Cards brought them to the table, but friendship kept them there. Over the years, they have rejoiced in each other's happiness and helped one another through trying times. They have married off children and buried husbands.

They have watched as grandchildren were born and as their own health dimmed.

"It's not the game, it's the friends," said Thelma Scharr, who joined in 1952.

Jan O'Kelley agrees. Her mother, Mabel Smart, started playing canasta with the group full time in 1972 after retiring from her government job.

"These friendships are the source of her being," Ms. O'Kelley said. "Even though they don't see each other very often, they know they could call any time -- day or night -- and these women would be there."

The monthly get-togethers provide an occasion for the Canasta Girls to bring out their best frocks and beads.

"My mom will say, `What shall I wear?"' said Ms. O'Kelley, "and I'll say, `Just wear some pants.' And she'll say, `They don't wear pants. You have to wear a dress."'

It might be a generational thing, but the women guard their ages like a trade secret. "Just say it's been a long time since 1949, but we're still all 39," Ms. Parker joked.

"Well, you graduated from college in '36 or '38, so that's a clue," said Betty Baskin, winking.

"I did not! It was 1940!" Ms. Parker protested.

"I've seen the picture, hon, and it was at least '38."

Suffice it to say that the youngest club member is 73 and the oldest was born in 1912.

Over the years, about 20 women have belonged to the Canasta Girls. "They either die off or move to Florida," said Ms. Parker, with a hint of doubt about which is the worse fate.

Actually, openings are few. June Butters was wait-listed for years before she got in two years ago -- "the new kid on the block."

In the '60s, Ms. Schlager dropped out of the group to go to work.

"I came back 23 years later, and it was like I was never gone," she said. "When I left we were talking about politics and our children, and when I came back we were talking about politics and our grandchildren."

These days, politics is off-limits. "It got too heated, and we were too feisty," especially during the Nixon years, Ms. Baskin said.

The ladies pride themselves at not having mentioned Bill Clinton's name for several months.

But that hasn't hurt the talk at the card table. Between sips of wine served in crystal goblets, the conversation last week flitted back and forth like a child let loose at the circus.

One minute someone mentioned having seen Charles Lindbergh in a parade, which prompted a recollection about something Winston Churchill once said, which led to a comment about someone having met a Marine who was on Iwo Jima during the famous flag-raising, which prompted a story about a young granddaughter who mistakenly referred to her new bikini as a "zucchini," which was followed by group consensus that women shaving their heads bald is ridiculous, which led Betty to compliment Thelma's hairdo and Thelma to dismiss it as "all fuzz today."

The talk was interrupted by a squabble over how many wild cards can go into a canasta. The ladies consulted their guide, a yellowed scrap of paper with official rules that were last revised, according to the title page, in 1958.

That settled, the game quickly played to its conclusion, and prizes were doled out: first place, runner-up and a booby prize.

By club tradition, the hostess can spend no more than $10 total on all three.

Then it was time for lunch: salad, tea sandwiches (the bread must have its crust removed) and dessert.

Quaint, yes, and also appealing, apparently. Recently, Ms. Parker's 11-year-old grandson came to her with a question: "Nana, can I learn how to play canasta, or is that just for old ladies?"

"I told him, `Andrew, of course you can learn how to play, but we're not old ladies; we're the girls."'