birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


I had no interest in joining P.E.O., a woman's secret society to which my mother belonged. I wasn't going to spend more than a year in Wichita after graduating from college, just enough time to make enough money to survive until I got my first job as a reporter in Washington, D.C. But Mom was relentless. I was going to join P.E.O. or I would never hear the end of it. So I held my nose and agreed to do it. How bad could it be; one meeting a month. It was bearable.

I submitted the application, complete with three flowery recommendations from my mother's friends. The date for my initiation was set and formal printed invitations went out. I figured I was trading one evening of tea and cookies for detente.

I was wrong. Closer to the date of my initiation, my mother mentioned the black robes. I was not allowed to wear underwear under my robe.

I'd been though this kind of thing before. Black robes were standard practice at college sorority initiations. We had to drink this crappy thing called "bittersweet" (no alcohol, unfortunately) and share the secret handshake while repeating our secret Greek name. I'd forgotten my name (I was well lubricated by the time of the ceremony) and made up "Agripa" when it was time for the handshake. But underwear? It was thumbs up for panties and a bra at our house.

Okay, no underwear. Anything else, I asked. The secrets. I would learn them all and I had to swear to never share them with anyone, particularly husbands. No one outside of the sisterhood could know what P.E.O. stood for. And the secret password was only to be repeated when I met a P.E.O. sister. It was our way of verifying that we were both members.

Wait a minute, P.E.O. doesn't stand for Pigs Eat Oats? That bit of inside information was common knowledge in our home. That's the cover story, according to my mother.

Now I'm curious, though not in a good way.

Initiation night arrives. The ceremony is at a my family's home. The ladies arrive, 30-some women, most older than my mom, then in her mid-50s. The robes came out and the ladies disappeared into the bedrooms to change. After they came down, I went up to change.

My shroud smelled like a grandma, an old grandma. Two pieces of black cloth sewn together with enough room left at the top of the seams to accommodate my arms. A drawstring gathered the top of the garment around my neck. I picked up the garment and walked down the stairs.

The women were holding hands in a circle in my living room. I joined the circle. Verses were read. Things were said. I counted the minutes. Then the secret password was whispered, one woman to the next, close to the ear. "sooee" Did I hear that right? A pig call? It made sense, sort of, if Pigs Eat Oats was the organization's secret name. But I thought that wasn't the case. I repeated the pig call into the ear of the woman next to me. I received a benevolent smile in return.

The rest of the night moved forward with me understanding little of what was said. My mind wandered, floating out the door and around the world, away from Wichita and the little pigs in my living room. I knew it was over when the ladies hugged me, some with tears in their eyes, changed back into their street clothes and left.

I never went to a single meeting, for which I was never forgiven. I left Wichita and never looked back. It wasn't until many years later that my sister, who also joined P.E.O. and loved it, told me the story of the group.

The password is "soeur," French for sister. The initials stand for "Protect Each Other." The group dates back to the Midwest's pioneer days when women were worked to death and often abused, typically by their husbands. This secret sisterhood was there to quietly step in and provide shelter. I can only guess that this group was instrumental in getting Prohibition passed and in making Kansas the first common property state in the union. In the case of divorce, the wife gets just as much of the property as the husband, a radical idea back then.

In my defense, my mom didn't give a rip about this back story. This was a group that didn't let everyone in. You had to be "someone" to be invited. And that was enough for my mom. But back in the day, these women were running a sanctuary for women. Bless their souls.

There Is No 'Cry' in 'Team'