My mother’s best advice was also her worst: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all”—advice closely linked to her perennial goodbye, “You be sweet, now,” administered with a bright red lipstick kiss on my forehead as I went out the door.
Mama was a true Southern lady, and she was raising me to be one, too, though I was not promising material. Born Virginia Marshall but nicknamed Gig, my mother was a home economics teacher who had come all the way across the whole state of Virginia, from her home on the Eastern Shore to our little Appalachian coal town to marry my daddy, Ernest Smith, whose family had lived in these mountains for generations.
Mama was determined to civilize Daddy and all the rest of us or die trying. She disdained the heavy mountain corn bread served at almost every meal, and she made “beaten biscuit” from scratch. In fact, she made everything from scratch. She believed in the Food Pyramid the way she believed in God and clean under-wear. Mama put flowers on the table every night for dinner, which she called “supper,” where she appeared in heels and her “Fire and Ice” lipstick. She loved people and wanted to know all about them. The high school seniors unfailingly elected her “Most Popular” in their class, a running joke that went on for years. She dressed up every day, even to go to the Rexall. Instead of being scorned for these pretensions, she was adored—everybody in town “kindly took a fancy” to Miss Gig.
For Mama followed her own Lady Advice to a T. She was truly sweet, and she was really nice. She knew how to relax a room; she was adept at drawing others out and making them shine. Everybody always had a better time when Gig was there.
As a girl, I learned the Lady Rules by heart, such as “Ladies never mention money” and “Ladies don’t sit like that!” (pointing at me).
But as I grew older, I realized that some of these precepts might not be such good advice after all. “A lady never lets a silence fall” could possibly ease some awkward social situations, but on the other hand, who wants a blabbermouth around? And think about this one: “A lady never causes a scene.” What if a lady needs to cause a scene—to right a wrong or protect herself, say?
The most important rule of all, “A lady never expresses direct anger” now seems like downright terrible advice to me. There are times when we all need to express our anger, to speak up for ourselves, to say what we think and do what we must. We all (especially girls) need to be able—enabled—to do this. The flip side of repression is depression, and my sweet, beloved mother suffered from bouts of depression all her life—though of course we didn’t mention them.
Lee Smith’s most recent novel is Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger.