AIKEN -- When Fran Marra's husband died with no warning, she didn't have to look for a support group to get her through the numbness and grief that followed. She was already involved with WOW -- Wise Outrageous Women.
The group "saved my life," she said Saturday, briefly pausing in her hurry to deal with details of the group's annual retreat at Camp Long.
"It was inspiring, supportive and challenging," she said. "Everything it was supposed to be to help me get my life back."
She does not think of herself as a widow but as "a lovely, older single woman."
The 130 women who attended Saturday's retreat found a little bit of everything WOW offers of fun, fellowship and fond memories.
Chinese music played softly as a group of them swayed in the graceful movements of tai chi as instructor Darlene Murdock led them through the movements:
"Hug the tree," she said. The tree had to be imagined. "Feel the energy from the Earth and the tree. Feel the energy. Pull it into you."
They shifted into an ancient ballet that can also be brutal.
Ms. Murdock yanked a volunteer from the group to demonstrate but pulled her punches.
After a deft movement, she announced, "I just broke her wrist, and she's on her back. Trust me. There are elements of self-defense here."
Several hundred yards away, some women molded their own heads in clay while others waited for "the healing touch" of Jane Hightower of Martinez, who brought crystals and an explanation of their power.
"Do you have some right-hip pain?" she asked a woman who was lying on a table. "I don't usually hurt there, and I feel it."
There were classes in meditation; interpretations of fairy tales; medicinal herbs and herbs for menopause; massage; exercise; breast and cancer awareness; and "good grief."
Those who chose to could paddle a canoe, take a nature walk or enjoy an old-fashioned campfire.
Saturday's retreat was WOW's third. The tradition began with a "Make a Difference Day" award from USA Weekend and the Points of Light Foundation. The grant money financed the first Women in Celebration retreat, which is fast becoming one of WOW's most anticipated events each year, said its founder, Dr. Doris Hammond.
This year's retreat was sponsored by Aiken Regional Medical Centers, BNFL Savannah River Corp., the Mental Health Association of Aiken County and Westinghouse Savannah River Co.
The group was intended to help women tap their inner resources and learn to care for themselves and their physical and emotional needs, Dr. Hammond said.
As a therapist working with older people, she had seen women withdraw because they thought that's what they were supposed to do when life's changes left them alone. Unlike other clubs, there is no secretary, no minutes and minimal business. But there are speakers -- some motivational, some moving and some maniacally funny. There are dinners out, new things to learn and do, concerts and other outings. The women also work with children and children's issues, including special projects at Helping Hands.
The club appeals to people of all ages, as Saturday's retreat showed. Its youngest member, 29-year-old Christy Cuellar-Wentz, unwittingly chose the same classes as one of the oldest, Virginia Lybrand, who at 83 says she chose a young doctor because "I want him to be around as long as I am."
Both women said WOW adds a unique dimension to their lives.
"We have an opportunity to meet people who are interesting, the companionship of each other and the understanding of each other," Ms. Lybrand said. "All of us know there is always someone there who will help us if we need them."
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.
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