As I tried to stuff Christmas decorations back in the little cold room in the basement, I saw a small box that was familiar. Opening it, I discovered a trove of pins and a tiny book. I recognized it all; at some point, this had been stored in the top drawer of my father's dresser, and we weren't allowed to touch it.
He'd been a Freemason. Growing up, I found this endlessly confusing. My dad was a bricklayer by trade, which he also called a mason. And once a year or so, he'd get dressed up and go to some mysterious meeting, where I pictured a bunch of men building brick walls. My father did not usually go to meetings, and he sure didn't get dressed up unless someone was dead.
The problem with mysteries and little girls? We had to know. My mother tried her best to explain it, but telling us a bunch of sombre men would meet to talk and there were no women allowed and there was certainly no wall-building and it was all very mysterious just made us more inquisitive. We took what we did know and used it to understand what we didn't.
We decided my father was a Water Buffalo, like Fred Flintstone.
My dad didn't find this very funny, but his choice was to reveal secret codes and handshakes or endure us asking him if he was going to his Loyal Order of Water Buffalos meeting. We asked if they wore tall furry hats with horns. He ignored us. I asked what was in the box, and one time he actually showed me: several little pins and a small book. It looked like the little book I had for being a Brownie. I asked if that was the same thing. Dad said, no, but I too had a few little pins and a tiny rule book, so I decided that all of these groups were pretty much the same thing, except being a Brownie wasn't a secret.
It took a few more years for me to put together the connection between my dad's secret meetings and that other secret group, Shriners. The Shriners used to put on a circus, and we were told we were going. I didn't want to go, but some friend of my dad's was a Shriner, so we had to go. I asked what a Shriner was, and got an answer very similar to what a Mason was, and the confusion simply escalated. If both of these groups were No Girls Allowed, I didn't think that was fair and wasn't interested.
My dad caught me snooping once, holding one of those little pins in my hand. He barked and I dropped it, then he apologized and realized he'd have to give me more if he wanted to keep me out of his sock drawer. They do good deeds, he told me. They help people. I asked what Shriners were. He said they sort of like Masons, but they did other things, too. Like the circus? Like the circus.
We'd see Shriners in parades riding around on little motorcycles wearing small red hats. We knew one of them, but we weren't allowed to say he looked silly but I'm sure that was why my dad never became a Shriner: he liked to help people, but he didn't like to look silly.
In the ensuing years, I learned the creators of The Flintstones were absolutely basing their Water Buffalos on Freemasons and Shriners. A wedge between a man and his daughters unravelled by a cartoon.