Disclaimer: All characters are recalled through the misty lens of creeping age and perhaps a tall-tale slip—except for my homage to our town’s community grocery store, “The Pig,” pet name of Crestline Village’s three-generation Piggly Wiggly.
Catching a man couldn’t begin too early in the South. Not that mamas coached their babies in helpless sighs, arch glances, and pretty pouts. Those charms came naturally—at least for a few girls who budded early, their hot-pink and lime-green dresses giving the dusty playground a lush look. Their hair, parted precisely in the middle, rippled long and shiny, especially the blond manes. As these little lovelies turned jump ropes, their wrists flashed their steady boyfriends’ silver i.d. bracelets.
I sighed at the mirror every morning. After a particularly sweaty gym class in sixth grade, it dawned on me to wash my hair every other day. That reduced my mildly greasy geek look. The bottle-cap granny glasses did not flatter.
On sunny days, my long, black hair was a fluffy cloud sprouting from a mass of cowlicks. Years later, my rather fetching French hair designer (fashionably fresh from France) declared, “Ah, Cah-tr-r-r-e-e-e-n, what cow-leeks yew ahv!” Was he saying I was a vegetable head? (For the record, he now speaks English like a diplomat.)
Humidity? Imagine Cousin Itt sticking one of Uncle Fester’s lightbulbs in his invisible mouth and shocking the hair from the roots. I was a rather sparky miss. How I longed for the elegant Morticia Addams’ tresses.
(In high school, I learned the trick of rolling my hair with four large orange juice cans atop my head so it would straighten. All the girls did. At some point, my father probably shook his head, thinking he was bankrolling the citrus industry in Florida.)
I was a late bloomer on a perpetually delayed timetable. Until age 14, puberty bypassed me except for a sprinkle of acne on the celebrated “T” zone. On the first day of junior high, I discovered something was afoot when I slid onto the warm backseat of Mrs. M’s green convertible: my eyes riveted on two pairs of smartly buckled navy blue shoes with heels. Their owners squealed as if they hadn’t seen me since Pompeii fell to the volcano.
“Hey, Ca-a-a-thy! How’s it going?”
“Your skirt is so-o-o cute.” (Actually, a 6-year-old hand-me-down that I had desperately rolled up at the waist three times to hit a modest mini length.)
“Love those beads.” (Yes, my mother had permitted that purchase at the local five-and-dime.)
“And that peasant blouse!” (My sister Mary’s discard.)
The most sophisticated passengers glossed their lips with strawberry or peach-scented glazes that mingled with airy perfume. No wonder Mrs. M cracked the window of her marvelous showboat. Ah, Mrs. M. She was cool. Red hair, Jackie O sunglasses. My mother drove a nondescript Pontiac wagon, dinged by blue hairs riding high (on telephone books) in their monster sedans as they backed in and out of the local “Pig” (aka Piggly Wiggly) parking lot. Mom didn’t care. She was in too much of a hurry for one of her cherished weekly outings: the big recipe swap with Aurelia, the Pig’s most beloved cashier.
Mrs. M’s kitchen was a thrill to behold. A metal staircase spiraled upstairs. Until then, I thought my family quite evolved, as my father had installed a laundry chute and an intercom system through which he barked early a.m. rise-and-shine orders: “All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” (Or something to that effect.) My mother managed to sabotage the intercom at some point.
Evidently, I had missed Teen Talk 101 over the summer. Between giggles, the carpool chatter was littered with boys’ names—David, William, Chris, John, Bert—and lingo: “Re-e-e-a-lly? . . . You’re kidding! . . . I can’t be-e-e-lieve we are at the junior high. . . . Y’know, that bio teacher, Mr. C, is so-o-o creepy. . . . He has a piranha in his room. . . . Yeah, in a giant aquarium. . . . If I have to dissect a cow’s eye, I will die, positively die. . . . I just love David. Love him to death.”
I found Mr. C. infinitely fascinating. Unless confusing my memory with some Dickensian fiction, I recall he had a scarred, loosely hung arm to which I attributed an unfortunate feeding frenzy on the part of his pet fish.
Amid all this twaddle, I looked down at my loafers with the penny wedged into each “buttonhole” and prayed to God that Mom would let me shave my legs above my knees this year. Then I pondered the meaning of someone “loved to death.” Was it a crime of passion or simply emotional overkill?
Thereafter, I panicked at the 7:35 a.m. horn honk. How it summoned me to silence amid all the twitter about gauchos, bell bottoms, minis, boots, homecoming, Carole King, Carly Simon, heartbreak, and Bonne Bell Astringent. I longed to drop a boy’s name. Any name. However, the only boy I talked to was my brother Bud, whose homespun name and non-athlete status never rose to the carpool’s standard in praise of great men.
Even more shame to bear. “P.E. is a plot to humiliate me,” I cried, storming home one day. “Today everybody had on a bra and matching lace panties. I’m still wearing full-size granny cotton underpants from JC Penney.”
“Do say ‘undah-gah-ments,’ deah,” interjected Nannie in her South-Carolina-tinged accent. “Cotton is bettah foh you.” A long silence left two key words hanging in the air: “Cotton is bettah foh you down they-uh.” (Translation: “Cotton is better for you down there.”)
“Nobody told me to get a bra. I was so mortified I dressed in the bathroom stall.”
“You’ll get over it, dear,” my mother replied over her coffee cup with Carol Brady’s aplomb sans shag ‘do. Frankly, my mother resembled Alice, the Bradys’ housekeeper sans uniform. “College makes up for junior-high blues.”
Oh, yeah, right! In SEC country, men suddenly admired co-eds just for their brains when they turned 18.
“Mother-r-r-r, I may die before college. I need a bra. Now!”
“Goodness, you must be upset. You’ve never called me ‘Mother-r-r-r’ before.”
“Ah do buh-leeve it is custoh-may-ry foh Ya-un-kees to call theyah mamas ‘Mothuh,'” Nannie smiled slyly. (Translation: “I do believe it is customary for Yankees to call their mamas ‘Mother.'”)
“What a fuss,” Mom threw up her hands.
“Sistah, you didn’t way-ah [wear] a brah till you packed up foh Agnes Scott,” Nannie said, referring to my mother’s all-girl college that my oldest sister Martha labeled The Cloister.
“I was flat and free as a girl,” Mom said. “Now you’re dying to have a bra, and I imagine Martha wants to burn hers in front of the student union. And I thought she wanted to be ‘cool.’ What is the world coming to?” On Martha’s first visit home from college, my mother managed to raise only one eyebrow but keep her mouth clamped: my sister sashayed in the shortest fringed mini that ever graced the Birmingham airport. Despite my role as one of four shunned siblings, Martha’s style elated me.
Yes, my mother was to ride many waves: psychedelic was merely the first. Her cultural surfing career wound down with punk rock and big hair.
(My Republican parents were mightily perplexed that they managed to conceive a couple of radicals who later simmered down. In fact, Martha wound up in the Jackson, Mississippi, Junior League.)
At first, Mom hauled out a couple of Mary’s throwaway bras. (Although Mary and I were only one year apart, she already had a bosom that could heave.) I went from skinny to “frumpled” for a couple of months until my mother finally saw me clearly.
One afternoon, Mom smoothed my poufy hair. “Look in my closet for the green bag on the top shelf, and then promise me you will not burn yours until you are a freshman in college.”
After all, she was casually concerned about my obsession with Gloria Steinem’s aviator shades. I was ready to trade in my thick specs.
I scrambled for the package: a 32AA bra with lacey padded cups that I could squish between my thumb and forefinger, even when tightly strapped in. But I didn’t care. I almost went cross-eyed from glancing down at my newly packed chest, overflowing with pride that I, too, had something to lift and separate.
Footnote: The beloved Piggly Wiggly in Crestline Village (part of Mountain Brook, Alabama) closed its doors in late 2013. “The Pig” was a three-generation tradition. As noted, my mother held up the customer line every Friday afternoon when she and cashier Aurelia traded recipes. Nobody seemed to mind. The usually sedate residents revolted and mounted a campaign to save The Pig. They packed Mountain Brook City Hall in December 2014, and the city council unanimously voted the return of the community grocery store. Main Street thrives in the shaded village of my childhood. Well done, dear friends!
Flowers courtesy of Africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The original Morticia Addams played by Carolyn Jones
Cloister courtesy of Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons /
Girl in mini skirt courtesy of Justso, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Justso
Tie-dye courtesy of Ksd5