The English ivy wanders at leisure from thick, old roots, heaping privacy on the walled patio. Bushes shroud the house tucked at the end of a secret lane and shelter the doves cooing farewell to a heat-splattered day in Orange, Calif.
On the patio, the women -- most of them aging feminists -- lay hands on the shoulders of Gloria Davenport, 62, daughter of Dedrikka Jane, granddaughter of Johanna, niece of Luella, mother of Kim and grandmother of Kirsten.
Together, the women recite:
"We stand firm in the faith that women make a difference ...
"As women of age, we make a difference ...
"In this world, you, Gloria, have made a difference ... "
Davenport is becoming a crone. A woman of age, wisdom and power. An elder in a female lineage reaching back beyond her memory and further ahead than she can see.
The croning ceremony has been revived by WomanChurch, a loosely organized group of women studying women's spirituality. Davenport's ceremony, taken from the WomanChurch liturgy, was written by a friend, a spirituality student.
Designed to honor women 50 years or older, the ritual connects the word crone with the Greek word "chronos," which means time. Its purpose is to change the idea that women beyond the child-bearing and child-raising years are useless, says Carolyn Harrison, author of the ceremony and a student at Claremont Graduate School.
"This is not a religious ceremony," Harrison, 61, says. "It is a way of marking, of viewing the passage to old age in a woman's life. From birth to death, women deserve a way to honor our value."
Her ceremonial words are misty recollections of once-powerful matriarchal societies where older women were revered. These old women were seen as powerful incarnations of the Great Mother, the creative female goddess, the controller of the Earth and the elements, Harrison says.
This goddess is found in early Indian, Arabian, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, Aegean, Mediterranean, Celtic and Teutonic myths, according to scholars.
The celebration of the creative goddess ended when the monotheistic Hebrew religion defined man -- not woman -- as being born in the image of God, scholars say. From that time on, crones became synonymous with hags and witches, ugly old women, according to studies on the subject.
Thus far, Gloria Davenport has passed -- unheralded -- through maidenhood and motherhood. Now her contributions in old age will be celebrated, Harrison says.
Davenport is a teacher and a student. She teaches courses in personal growth and assertive self-development at Santa Ana's Rancho Santiago College, with which she has been affiliated since 1971. She also is a counselor in the college's human services department, where she leads workshops and support groups on college survival and re-entry for older adults.
And, like Harrison, she is working on her doctorate at Claremont Graduate School. Her topic: successful aging.
"Gloria is a unique woman in that she has served as a model for many women in their own aging. And she has inspired so many women to develop their own potential."
Harrison is wearing a royal purple gown, purple stockings, even purple shoes with silver spangles. From a purple cord around her neck hangs a purple crocheted, beaded bag filled with ceremonial herbs.
As the recent ceremony begins, Harrison holds a "talking stick," a branch wrapped in purple ribbon that gives the bearer the authority to speak to the group.
... "Gloria, as sisters in spirit with you today, we wish to crown you as crone, a wise woman among us," says Harrison.
One by one, the women, friends and contemporaries of Davenport, embrace her and offer her spiritual gifts: Peace. Serenity. Joy. Full Conscious Awareness. Love. Thankfulness. Happiness. Health.
Davenport is silent. Then she says, "I feel different, honored. In all the accolades I have received, none have been for just being an older woman. That is very powerful for me."
The women in the group share their feelings.
"This ceremony reminds me how we under-celebrate the events in our lives. We could do more," says Sarah Farmer, a former student of Davenport's.
"Our culture does not want to deal with events in a woman's life -- with menstruation, with aging, with things we don't really have a language for," says Ellen Davis, a psychotherapist associated with Orange County's Department of Mental Health.
"We need to be able to communicate," says family educator Dorothy Nolte. "It's as simple as that. As simple as being able to say what is on my mind and rejecting the myth that if I say what is on my mind, the world will end."