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THEY ALWAYS SAID that some day we’d thank them, and we do—every day. Just for starters, we wouldn’t have had the material for our books without Ann Gayden Call and Julia Morgan Hall Hays, our wonderful Southern mothers. We miss them every day, and, whenever we think we might be turning into them, we thank our lucky stars. Both were great Delta conversationalists, and both gave the lie to William Butler Yeats’ contention that souls are had only by those who are “not entirely beautiful.” They were belles of every ball and quietly courageous—and they knew all the gossip. (P.S. We never sit on strange commode seats or say s-t-i-n-k.)
We can’t thank our agent Gail Ross enough—without Gail what we have come to jokingly refer to as our “pastel trilogy” (our three “Southern lady books” have pastel covers) would not exist. Gail shaped and sold the idea and has supported us throughout the process.
We have also been fortunate to work with a great team at Hyperion. We especially thank Leslie Wells for her deft touch with prose and because, a Virginian transplanted to New York, she still speaks Southernese—what more could we ask? Well, one more thing you get in Leslie is an editor who is considerate of authors and gets back to you so quickly you think she’s able by some mystical means to read your copy almost before you’ve hit the “send” button. Anybody who writes for a living knows how much this means.
We are indebted to a host of friends and relatives who shared stories about their mothers and allowed us to use their treasured recipes; we must also thank Gayden’s witty nephew Hugh Dickson Gayden Miller for essential help with the sidebars.
We originally considered making a list of great Southern mothers we have known, mothers of our friends, mostly, but we realized this was too fraught with peril—we inevitably would leave out somebody whose charm and kindness has nourished us. So let us just say a general thanks to Southern mothers we have known.
The Southern Mother’s Rules for Life
YOU MIGHT BE A SOUTHERN MOTHER IF:
YOU TOOK the initiative to help pick your daughter’s husband, silver pattern, nanny, honeymoon destination, and even the flowers in the table decorations—at her birth.
YOU KNOW the route and schedule of every soccer/ballet/fencing/karate mom in the PTA.
YOU THINK “cheerleading” is an honorable major for your daughter at the University of Mississippi, though you feel a double major in M.R.S. is best.
YOU HAVE an enormous library of small-format videotapes documenting your child’s every move since your first sonogram. (If you are a Southern grandmother, you worry that Precious will see the sonogram picture and figure out that it wasn’t the stork that brought the baby.)
YOU KNOW the proper technique for hanging and dressing venison.
YOU ACTUALLY shot the deer yourself.
YOU HAVE helped your daughter cram for the all-important exam for her M.R.S. degree. Some people call their exams “finals.” The M.R.S.-seeking student calls them “vows.”
YOUR HUNTING dogs have better manners than your children (and cost a lot more, too).
YOU PARTICIPATE in a county-wide exchange program for domestic help when holidays and birthdays come around.
YOU STRAIGHTEN up the house prior to your house-keeper’s arrival for fear she will quit if she sees how things really get some days.
YOUR CELL number is on your daughter’s teachers’ speed dial.
YOU BELIEVE it’s better to get an A in deportment than in French.
YOU KEEP a discreet stash of sedatives for the days when report cards come home.
YOU HAVE made generous donations to the alumni association at your school to ensure your daughter’s acceptance.
YOU RUN into a friend and the first words out of your mouth are “How’s yo mo-thuh?”
(Hugh Dickson Gayden Miller, a Southern nephew, who is also the son of a Southern mother, compiled this list.)
Southern society is arranged along matriarchal lines. The Southern matriarch is a far more formidable creature than the much nicer Southern male. She has to be this way. She has no choice. She was put on earth with a sacred mission: to drum good manners and the proper religion—ancestor worship—into the next generation. Whenever a Southerner sees a man seated while ladies remain standing, she thinks: “I know what kind of mama he had.” Mama is well aware that, should she fail, total strangers will someday condemn her with these very words. She reminds us of this frequently.
While Daddy can spoil and dote on his precious little baby dahlin—whom he will still call Precious Baby Girl long after she qualifies for Social Security—it is Mother’s duty to turn Precious into a lady and Trey (for the third—Southern mothers love Roman numerals after a son’s name!) into a gentleman. The words “lady” and “gentleman” do not connote mere gender to the Southerner. They do not mean “male and female, He created them”; they mean “lady and gentleman, She created them.” The words “lady” and “gentleman” enshrine a chivalric ideal which Mother must uphold and preserve, even if it kills her, and us. Look on the bright side: This ensures a future income for members of the mental health profession. To achieve her ends, the Southern mother practices shock-and-awe parenthood. She is shocking in her demands and awesome in her subtlety. She speaks in code—the nice code. In the hands of a practiced Southern mother, being nice is lethal; her children and associates often feel that they are being stoned to death by bonbons.
Machiavelli could have taken lessons from the Southern mother. She has perfected the art of diplomatic double-speak. “Aren’t you chilly tonight?” is not Mo-thuh’s update from the Weather Channel. What she really means: “You look like a floozy. Go upstairs and change right this very minute.” If a Northern mother says, “My, it’s humid tonight,” what she is trying to say is: “My, it’s humid tonight.” When the Southern mother makes this seemingly innocent statement, what she means is: “Haven’t you ever heard of cream rinse? Your hair’s frizzier than a grizzly bear’s.” Beware of the Southern mother who purrs, “It’s a beautiful afternoon—don’t you want to take a walk?” Translation: “You are fatter than Buddy Boy Jones’s 4-H pig.” Nor is “You look so pretty with your hair up” as kind as it might sound to the outsider; it actually means: “Get that ugly thicket off your face.”
When a Southern daughter has a hot date, Mother will likely present her cheek for a farewell peck. This is not because Mother is starved for affection—she is testing for halitosis.
We have a friend who was not blessed with a Southern mother. But she acquired a Southern mother-in-law. She should have gone to Southern Berlitz school before joining the family. When she and her mother-in-law went shopping together, she was actually pleased whenever Mrs. Nelson Senior said, “That’s right cute.” We finally had to break the news: If there’s anything “that’s right cute” doesn’t mean it’s “that’s right cute.” We explained that neither “right” nor “cute” was the operative word. What Mrs. Nelson was actually seeking to convey was: “That outfit makes you look like the side of a barn, if not the whole damned barn.”
The life of a Southern mother is bound by rules, which she in turn uses to make her daughter polite but neurotic. We were going to allow the daughters of our friends to write chapters of this book, but when they started demanding equal time for their therapists, we thought better of the plan. The Southerner, incidentally, is ambivalent about shrinks. Many of us are stark raving mad, or at least crazier than a Betsy bug, though it’s hard to differentiate us from all our wacko relatives. Even if Aunt Betty hears voices and prefers dressing in men’s clothes, many Southern families will choose to ignore these minor eccentricities. Only vulgar people feel the need to face reality. Nice people pretend Aunt Betty was once in love with a man. Emily Potter Aycock had not ventured out of her house for several years when the family doctor cautiously suggested that Mrs. Aycock might benefit from the insights of a gentleman of the psychiatric profession. Her father, Old Man Potter, was insulted. Did the damned fool doctor think a Potter was…crazy? Mr. Potter retaliated by paying his dawtah’s doctor’s bill with bags of nickels. No crazy folks here!
Whenever a support group for DSMs—daughters of Southern mothers—gathers, we almost always discuss Mother’s rules. There are heartfelt sighs of recognition. One rule concerns never uttering the word s-t-i-n-k. We know middle-aged DSMs who would rather run nekkid on Main Street than say s-t-i-n-k. Some of these DSMs could take the paint off the side of a barn with their curses. But they won’t say s-t-i-n-k. Mother said it wasn’t nice. Mother never told us not to use any of the really bad words. She didn’t know them. Thank God.
But she did know the rules. Here are the key rules by which a Southern mother lives and which, in her role as preserver of culture, she instills in her daughter, no matter the psychic cost:
- 1. Never sit on the commode seat in a filling station. Always hover. Hovering is great for the legs. By the way, we say commode, not toilette.
- 2. Always wear a piece of good jewelry when going to the airport—that way people will know you are from a nice family. (Why do we care? We jes’ do. We secretly believe people might treat us nicer if they believe our rich daddy will horsewhip them if they don’t.)
- 3. Speak to all the chaperones. (If you don’t, Mother will know because in the Delta there are no secrets.)
- 4. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
- 5. Tell me everything. I am your mother. (We will reveal some of Mother’s tricks for pumping the truth out of unsuspecting daughters in subsequent chapters.)
- 6. Always be nice to the other girls—they’ll help you get to the boys.
- 7. Always wear nice underwear—you may be killed in a car wreck, and you don’t want the EMS workers to take one look at your poor dead little body and say, “Well, she certainly wasn’t a lady.” That would be a fate worse than death.
- 8. You can date him, but you don’t have to marry him.
- 9. It is as easy to feed a good dog as a bad dog.
- 10. Never reply to a formal invitation in blue ink.
And the Southern mother’s all-time favorite rule of life:
- 11. Serve left, retrieve right.
The Southern matriarch is bound by genetic makeup to pass along these rules—she cannot help herself; her mother before her did this to her, and her daughters will one day do it to their own daughters. For hundreds of years, no Southern child has been allowed to consume a morsel of food in peace. “Little boats go out to sea,” the matriarch will singsong meaningfully if Precious isn’t eating bouillon (a favorite matriarch treat) correctly. “I bet the other little girls aren’t rude to adults,” Mother will say, fully expecting that this will pacify the most recalcitrant three-year-old. The Southern mother believes that on Judgment Day, He will ask: “Did your children stand up whenever an older person entered the room?” She is rarely troubled by theological nuances but sometimes finds herself pondering: Did the twelve Apostles have good table manners? “I’m not sure if God cares if you write thank-you notes with a ballpoint pen,” one matriarch confessed in a rare moment of doubt, “but I know I do.” “Our children might go to jail,” our friend Grace observed, “but it won’t be quite as bad if they have nice manners and are sweet to the warden.” We are told that this is not a sentiment widely embraced by mothers in other parts of the country.
Another interesting attribute of the Southern mother is that she does not have bodily parts, and she is determined that her daughters won’t either—or, at the very least, that we won’t know what to call them. “I remember one very clear rule,” says Melinda Baskin Hudson, daughter of Greenville’s beloved Sally Baskin. “Never refer to your own body part with the same vocabulary that is used for livestock. ‘Belly’ comes to mind. Goodness, what a common word.” It is a miracle that DSMs are able to tell the doctor what hurts.
When Alice Hunt’s mother was forced to go to work after her second divorce, she got a job at the House of Fashion, not necessarily the ideal place for a lady who didn’t know the names of the parts of the human body. She had, after all, withheld the facts of life from her daughters, through delicacy or ignorance, we aren’t sure which. When it came time for her to reveal to her fourteen-year-old daughter that a baby sibling was winging its way to earth, she had not exactly done the groundwork. “Does Henry know?” the perplexed teenager asked. Henry was her stepfather, Mrs. Hunt’s then-husband. Mrs. Hunt paused and cleverly pretended to ruminate for a few moments. “Why, yes,” she finally said brightly, as if she had just recalled something fascinating, “I believe I did mention it to Henry.”
Mrs. Hunt came running from a dressing room one day as if she had been shot. But it was worse. She had been hit by something a Southern lady detests far more than speeding bullets (which, truth to tell, she sorta likes): vulgar language. A customer, obviously not the daughter of a nice mother, had used a slang word to describe part of her body. “I refuse to be a part of this,” Mrs. Hunt sobbed. She threatened to quit her job, even if starvation loomed. It was several days before we realized she had no idea what the word meant. But she said it sounded bad. By that time, Mrs. Hunt was so thoroughly shocked by her racy new coworkers that wild horses could not have dragged her from the House of Fashion. She also knew that she could hold her head high. She would not have liked to have been called tough. But she was. That is the paradox of the Southern mother: Behind every magnolia façade is a will of steel.
It should be noted that the Southern mother’s love of indirect language extends far beyond unmentionable parts of the human body and into all realms of life. “My mother, as were most of our mothers, was a master of the euphemism,” recalls Melinda Hudson. “We don’t need to go into that” is the Southern mother’s response to any unpleasantness.
Long before the 12-step programs had popularized the concept of denial, the Southern matriarch had elevated it to an art form. Out of sight, out of mind—these are words to live by. The Southern matriarch navigates the shoals of life not seeing anything of which she disapproves. If it is unpleasant, it doesn’t exist. Somebody had a ten-pound preemie? Well, isn’t modern medicine a marvel! Living in a constant state of denial takes a toll, but it also gives nice Southern ladies a certain vagueness that is useful to their daughters, until they, too, mature and begin to find that it’s better just not to know.
We have a friend whose mother, Miss Janie, had a particularly awful experience in New Orleans. Miss Janie felt that it was the proper time to take her two daughters to see the Mardi Gras parades there. On the way to the Rex parade, Miss Janie got caught speeding. The policeman had the gall to insist on taking her in to the police station, where she was fingerprinted, as her daughters gaped in horror at what was not happening. Nice Southern ladies do not get taken to the police station (exception: the wild debutante who likes her toddy); though, Miss Janie had to admit, being fingerprinted was sort of fun. All Southern mothers adore being the center of attention, and nothing gets everybody’s attention quite like being fingerprinted in a New Orleans jail. On the other hand, being fingerprinted is enough to remind even the vaguest Mississippi lady that she is being held at central lockup. Being arrested is not on any mother’s top ten list of genteel things to do. Miss Janie simply pretended it wasn’t happening. She faced reality just long enough to call her New Orleans cousin, a lawyer, who came down to the lockup to bail her out. When he said, “I’m here to get my relative out of jail,” Miss Janie literally covered her ears. The cousin gallantly told her not to worry about a thing. She didn’t.
This turned out to be very bad advice. Summonses from the court in New Orleans began to arrive at her residence in Biloxi. Since Miss Janie did not acknowledge that the unpleasantness in New Orleans had occurred, she stuffed each offensive new summons, soon arriving at an alarming rate, into her sewing basket. “What are you doing with the summonses I bring you, Miss Janie?” the sheriff asked. “Putting them in my sewing box,” she replied primly, irritated at the sheriff’s effrontery. Finally, the sheriff brought an arrest warrant instead of a summons. Miss Janie was driven downtown in a police car. After her husband arrived and quietly settled the mess, she had to admit her jailbird past, which was the first and last time the events in New Orleans were ever mentioned. From that day forward, Miss Janie never allowed anybody in the family to so much as allude to Mardi Gras or New Orleans. Both had ceased to exist.
We think we know what was going through Miss Janie’s mind as Sheriff Akers drove her off in his squad car: “What will the neighbors think?” This is one of Mother’s biggest concerns. When the brother of one of our friends became engaged to an overweight redneck, his mother’s first thought was, of course: “What will the neighbors think?” She was also worried that the fat daughter-in-law would ruin a family portrait that was to be done in the spring. This mother has a very Southern mother way of dealing with life’s little vicissitudes: She barricades herself in the family’s house on the lake until she has worked out a solution, which generally is just a matter of getting her story straight. Usually, the Southern mother just gets out her scissors and snips plump daughters out of family photographs. But that doesn’t work so well with oil portraits. Fortunately, Mother was able to come up with a way out of this dicey situation: She persuaded the artist to change the appointment and paint the family a few months early. That way the fat daughter-in-law was not yet a member. The price was obscene—but well worth it.
Another rule by which the Southern matriarch lives: Never learn how to do anything you don’t want to do. We know a Leland, Mississippi, grandmother who didn’t want to cook or drive—so she didn’t learn how to do either of these plebeian tasks. “And Grandmother was never late and didn’t starve,” her awestruck granddaughter recalls. Our friend Harper’s mother loves toodling around town, but she has adamantly refused to learn how to drive in traffic. “Mother doesn’t do traffic,” Harper explains. This turned out to be important when Harper’s mother had to be evacuated from her house because of a hurricane. “We told Mama to get her friends and pack her valuables,” Harper recalled. She got her three friends and packed her valuables: the liquor cabinet and casseroles from the freezer. She was going to be somebody’s houseguest and she needed to take houseguest gifts (e.g., the casseroles). The liquor cabinet was for herself and her friends. Because of Mother’s refusal to do traffic, she eschewed the highway, preferring to drive exclusively on pig trails in Texas. (We think of Texans as Southerners who won their war for independence—and have more money than we do.) It made for a circuitous route. Mother also didn’t do gas pumping. When the tank was low, Mother and her immaculately coiffed friends would find their way to a small-town gas station and get out of the car to stand near the pump. “What Galahad might come along and fill our gas tank?” Eventually a stranger would fill the tank and do the credit card for them. Identity theft was never a problem—the Galahad always assumed that the ladies were on some retirement residence’s Most Wanted List. Sometimes the Galahad cursed under his breath—which didn’t matter, because Southern matriarchs refuse to hear bad language. Mother and her friends would then leave town and continue on dirt roads and shortcuts. However, to reach their destination, they eventually needed to cross a four-lane interstate. Because of the evacuation, a nice policeman was there to conduct traffic. “Mother explained to the policeman that if he just stopped traffic, they could get across,” Harper said. He refused. But then Mother sweetly explained that her three friends, all little old ladies, might have heart attacks if he didn’t. Would he like to have that on his conscience? As horns were honked angrily, the defeated policeman stopped traffic and let them cross.
It took Mother and her friends three-and-a-half hours to make what is generally a much longer journey. They were to stay with the son of a cousin of a friend of a friend. “I think your guests are here,” their host’s secretary announced. “Oh, no,” he said, “they won’t be here for hours.” “Well,” she said, “I see four little old ladies driving around the town square in circles.” They stayed at his house for three days, playing bridge and consuming the contents of the liquor cabinet Mother had so perspicaciously brought. Harper dutifully called each day. “Oh, they can’t come to the phone—a bridge game is in progress,” she was told the first day. “I’m sorry but they’re out having their hair and nails done,” she was told the second. The next day they were hosting a cocktail party. After three days, they felt they had to move on because they had run out of houseguest gifts—and liquor.
As Mother’s schedule of activities for Day 2 indicates, the Southern matriarch cares intensely about how she looks, even if she happens to be an evacuee. When one Greenville mother emerged from a complicated back operation, a potentially fatal one, she was asked by her sister-in-law, “Can I get you anything?” “A manicure would be nice,” she sighed weakly.
Monogramming is an essential element of home-and self-beautification. The Southern mother will monogram anything that doesn’t fight back. Sometimes she must force herself to stop before she gets to her toddler’s eyelet underpanties. One reason the competition to be a cheerleader is so intense is that cheerleaders get their names on their bloomers—the next best thing to a monogram. “I’m going to embroider rose petals on your panties” is the Southern mother’s way of elaborating on one of her most important maxims: Down in front. We know DSMs in middle age who never sit on porch steps but that Mother’s ghost doesn’t drive serenely past, waving and making her trademark down-in-front motion.
Unlike her counterparts from other parts of the country, the DSM arrives at school with everything needed for the all-matching dorm room: color-coordinated sheets, towels, and bedspread. Mama herself has monogrammed the pillow shams, which contrast strongly with the DYM’s (daughter of Yankee mother) Army Navy blanket. “Give the Southern mother a theme, and she runs with it,” said a DSM who shudders at the memory of her all-pink dorm room. When the daughter of a Southern mother is exposed to the daughters of mothers from other parts of the country, she is likely to experience culture shock. “Mother,” more than one stunned Delta girl has wailed upon settling into her dorm room, “I just don’t know what to make of my roommate. She didn’t even bring a dust ruffle.” There is one accoutrement the Southern mother neglects: the reading lamp. You can go blind trying to read in a Southern girl’s dorm room. Higher education has never been a Southern mother priority—at least not like homecoming maid/queen, Chi Omega, and/or cheerleading. As we have noted elsewhere, the Southern mother’s trifecta is cheerleading, sorority, and marriage. Note: Phi Beta Kappa didn’t make the list. It’s not a real sorority.
- On Sale
- Apr 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Books