I winced inside and out when then candidate Donald Trump called his opponent Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.” I winced again when Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon portrayed Hillary sipping coffee from a mug emblazoned with “nasty woman.” Ugly name-calling aside, it was the actual word that triggered my reaction. When my sister and I were growing up, “nasty” was a word not allowed in our household. In fact, washing our mouths out with soap might have been mentioned for this particular infraction, and using profanity or obscenity was simply unthinkable. We really didn’t know any, so that was not much of an issue.
Each of us has only one childhood, and mine occurred in North Carolina, so I really don’t know what goes on in families from other parts of our nation. I suspect each family everywhere has its own peculiarities, and we Southern families certainly do, a total ban on the word “nasty”—I can write it but still cannot make myself say it—is one of them. There are plenty of others.
Susan Stafford Kelly is a North Carolina novelist married to a native Fayettevillian, and she often writes for several of our state’s magazines. I was delighted when I picked up a recent edition of Pine Straw: The Art and Soul of the Sandhills to find Kelly’s spot on essay, “The Brief Unwritten Social Rules of the Southern Womanhood.” Talk about relating…
Kelly’s piece brought back a flood of memories, most of which make little or no sense, but which came to Susan, countless other Southern girls, and me as rules of the world. Several days before I married—five days short of 30-years-old, friends of my mother, who had been dead for more than four years, began arriving at my door with gift-wrapped boxes. Each one contained a lovely but tasteful nightgown, or as we say in the South, a “nightie.” Nothing too low or too high. Since my mother was not around for my wedding or this gifting experience, I was baffled until my plainspoken aunt informed me that these thoughtful women were doing what my mother would have done. They were providing my trousseau lingerie!
That tradition has long since bitten the dust, since all the young women I know now sleep in old T-shirts and have been in their hubby-to-be’s beds for years.
Here are a few more rules for Southern women that are not written anywhere, but which we somehow just know—or are supposed to. More than a few involve our clothes, as Susan Kelly notes.
We carry pocketbooks, not purses. I was in college before I found out that a tiny little baggie thing my mother and grandmother referred to as a “coin purse” was not what other people meant by purse. We wear underpants or, generically, underwear. If you wear “panties,” you were probably born somewhere else. Whatever you call these garments, they had better be white, as had your slips, if anyone remembers what they were. Ditto for bed linens and maybe bath towels. We also wear stockings, not hose. The first time I heard hose, I was very confused, wondering why and how that green moldy, snaky thing left out in the yard could fit on my legs. Then there’s the white shoe, white pants only between Memorial and Labor Days rule, but even I have had one white pants in recent days. I wonder if global warming is playing a role in the demise of this rule….
Of course, you must always write a thank you note for every gift both large and small and certain kindnesses, and what’s more, you must do so on your good, preferably monogrammed, stationery and in black ink. This is another Southern rule that seems to be leaving us. I have had pre-printed notes that on which my name was filled in and which said “Thank you for the lovely_____________” with the name of some item handwritten in. My mother and grandmother never heard of a thank you email, but I have had some of those, too.
A Southern friend whose mother grew up on an estate in Mississippi shared several rules she and her two sisters learned during their childhoods in Tennessee. They were not allowed to use the word “rich” or to talk about how much anything cost. Nor could they use “kid” to refer to a child, lest their mother inquire whether they were talking about a goat. Actually, my mother said that, too.
And, then there are those things that are not rules but just expressions Southerners use, or did when I was growing up. We went to the beauty parlor, not the salon, and the picture show instead of the movies, or heaven forbid!—a film. We ate cheese crackers, not Nabs, and washed them down with Cokes or Pepsis, not sodas.
Every generation writes its own memoirs, and each is different. Susan Kelly and I are both Baby Boomers, and we both have three Precious Jewels, who in true Southern fashion, know each other.
I hope I get to enjoy their Millennial memories.