I was walking down the street the other day eating a banana.
I know that sounds like the beginning of some kind of bad and possibly pornographic joke, but it’s actually just what was happening. And I was uncomfortable with it. And that got me thinking about why I was uncomfortable with it.
And the answer? My Southern roots are showing again. Seems like they do that more often than not.
My sister-in-law (or more accurately, my two-year old niece) gave me a book last Christmas entitled, “Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On!: What Southern Mamas Tell Their Daughters that the Rest of Y’all Should Know Too” by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson. The book is kind of a retrospective of what we Southern women heard and learned as we were growing up. While it didn’t resonate with me as much as my own memories, it was entertaining, and brought some other thoughts to mind, which I’ll jot down here.
If you’ve read much popular Southern chick-fic (otherwise known as fiction books written for women), you’ll see terms such as DGs (Daddy’s Girls), Sweet Potato Queens, Ya Yas, and GRITS (Girls Raised In The South). Those terms didn’t exist back in my day.
If I was anything, I was a Southern Belle, although that label carried a connotation of wealth that I never hoped to achieve. Those were the girls who lived in Hope Valley, who were invited to participate in Cotillion, and who then became debutantes, complete with virginal white dresses at the Debutante Ball. It still happens every year, and I’m sure those not invited are still slightly, if silently, devastated. I recall presenting a “who cares” attitude to the world when my classmates all went off to dancing lessons – I was volunteering at the hospital, and working in a restaurant – but I still had a touch of longing in my heart. I spent my life on the fringes of the wealthy society of Durham, because I went to a great private school; I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. In reality, I think I had a much better time being on the outside.
But I digress. I guess you’re used to that. I will make an excellent old lady storyteller someday.
Back to the street and the banana.
I remember that, as a very (and I mean very) small girl, certain rules of propriety were hammered into me in that gentle way that only southern matriarchs can hammer. I believe these rules came from my Father’s Mother (known to all as Coochie), though it’s possible that both my Mother’s Mother and my Mother herself had an iron hand/velvet glove touch in reinforcing them. My Mother’s Mother was much more of a rough-and-tumble farm/mountain woman, but she stil made sure I had a hat, gloves, and a purse when she took me to church when she came to visit.
And as an aside, all the women in my family have that rough-and-tumble mountain woman touch to them. Myself included.
I can’t remember all the rules all at once. I seem to remember them piecemeal; that is to say, when I am breaking them, something stirs within me and I hear a gentle drawl in my ear, reminding me that I am violating some code of ladylike behavior.
Eating on the street is one of those rules. I don’t think I have ever, in my entire life, purchased a piece of food from a street food cart. Because then I would have to eat it on the street. And that just isn’t done. Whenever I find myself having to eat anything on the street, I find myself uncomfortable. Because the bottom line?
Ladies don’t eat on the street.
What else don’t ladies do?
Ladies don’t brush their hair in public. I do this, once in a while, but just as with eating, I feel uncomfortable, like several generations of southern ancestral women are looking over my shoulder, pursing their lips (which is a thing they did so very well to express their displeasure with something, while not actually uttering anything critical).
Ladies certainly don’t apply make-up in public. And this is assuming that one can still be considered a lady (as opposed to a harlot) if one even wears make-up. Coochie wore powder (she had several lovely compacts), a touch of lipstick, and a dab of rouge from the rouge pot. But not too much. And that was it.
I still have a vague feeling that I should be wearing gloves when I am out. I actually love wearing gloves – not big, Sasquatch, winter gloves, but dainty cotton, voile, or nylon gloves that fit your hands like, well, a glove. They are cool, and soothing, and your hands feel like they are being charmed and charming at the same time. Like you’re hiding something lovely beneath the fabric. (I have pretty hands, so I can say that I am.)
As I said, all the notions of what ladies do and don’t do aren’t at the surface. There are a few that rest beneath the surface, such as “Never use a toothpick in public” (though I don’t like it when anyone, male or female, does that) and “Ladies don’t chew gum in public” (a habit which I still find off-putting, though my Mother used to chew it in the car, but I think the car wasn’t quite considered public.)
My Mother also was relatively cautious about the length of my clothes. The rule was that it had to cover my “zatch”. The definition of the “zatch” area was slightly fuzzy (no pun intended) because we didn’t discuss the beginnings and endings of such physical limits in great detail. I believe when I asked, her answer was, “If you have to ask, you know what the answer is.” Suffice it to say, I knew. And now, though I am as far from a prude as I am from living in Antarctica, I find myself looking at 20-somethings teetering down Larimer Street on a Friday night in 5-inch heels and skirts that perhaps come up just shy of the “zatch zone”, and pursing my lips.
Perhaps I’m a Southern matriarch in the making after all.