- Published: 05 May 2014 05 May 2014
I used to worry a good bit about not being a gentleman, at least a gentleman by breeding. The writing business is lousy with gentleman, the way chiggers are prolific in Johnson grass. I was just a Southern man, without a title or an old name, or a passed-down Confederate saber to hang over my mantle. My great-great-great Aunt Minnie Bell never had to run and hide the family silver when she saw the Yankees a comin’. When I go hunting, I do not wear a bow tie, or anything tweed. I do not own a pink cotton button-down. When I go fishing, I do not fish the interior of Mongolia. I fish for the noble bass, in the interior of Mr. Paul Williams’ cow pasture. I do not own a fly rod, but I can drop a spinnerbait or chartreuse plastic worm into a five-gallon bucket from thirty-five yards away. If I fight you, and I can reach one, I will hit you with a tire iron. I look at cleavage; I do not give a damn.
I do not write my stories on an old Underwood, under the magnolia, on my writing porch. As I have often said, you need electricity to do this stuff right, to keep up with the hot mess of thoughts that come screaming out of your ill-born head. Muddy Waters used electricity; I bet he was no gentleman.
My father was not a gentleman, either. He bet on chicken fights and fought men with knives after he came back home from a war where he killed a communist soldier with his bare hands. My grandfathers were not gentlemen. One made good liquor in the trees and fished the Guntersville dam with a crank telephone, and was once given up for dead for about a week when it turned out he was just doing time in Birmingham. The other drank the liquor the first one made, in five-gallon cans intended for paint thinner, and once fought a man naked. The less said about that, the better.
I guess, by the same standards, our women were not proper ladies. My mother was not a Southern belle. She dragged me on a cotton sack, and went most of her young life without a new dress so I could have more of what was there. My grandmothers had iron in their bones and were still gentle, not genteel. My maternal grandmother beat a city woman half to death for trying to steal her husband, but mostly because the woman washed her silk stockings in her dish pan. Later, she buried a baby daughter in the mountains of north Georgia in a time when the gentlemen of the age considered the working people of the foothills – the laid-off mill workers and miners and cotton pickers – to be of little value. My paternal grandmother worked a twelve-hour shift at the cotton mill, and nursed her babies on a ten-minute break, standing on a concrete slab.
We don’t have much use for belles.
We don’t need gentlemen. They don’t even travel with jumper cables.
What we need, is more people like Cassandra King.
Oh, the belles and the gentlemen tried to get her. She could have disappeared into that world when she was a belle-in-training in college, been locked into those traces, and made to pull those traditions throughout her life. She rebelled then; she laughed during convocation.
She figured out early there are things in this life that seem important, are made to seem that way, and then there are things that are. In her mind, friendship, true friendship, was more important that society. She figured out, even in college, when many, many young people are still trying to locate the library or fashion a passable fake I.D., that you can say anything, claim anything, but it is what you do in this sorry ol’ life that matters. You can’t hold a cotillion big enough, or wear a hat tacky enough, to change your legacy, if in your years you were not kind. Not sweet. She does not give one flip about sweet.
She learned, in the midst of people who take themselves very seriously, to laugh out loud at herself. And she has learned, year by year, to appreciate the most precious thing of all: time. People only think it’s money.
I am glad the belles did not keep her. She says she is a failed one, but I think that denotes a desire to have been one in the first place.
We come from the same rough geography, she and I. And I bet she would have liked my people, if they had known each other. I bet she would not have looked funny at them, and they would have been comfortable, at peace, in her company.
In these pages, taken at least partly from a talk she gave at her alma mater, she writes about that failed ascension to properness, but mostly about what’s important, and it’s not ball gowns.
She says her mama failed to make her a proper lady. Maybe she just made her a great one.
--Rick Bragg, from the Forward to The Same Sweet Girls Guide to Life: Advice from a Failed Southern Belle, by Cassandra King (Maiden Lane Press, 2014)
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