Miss Mattie, Nannie’s grandmother, plunked sprightly tunes on the piano, crocheted, embroidered, sketched fruit bowls and cherubs, and danced divinely. At sweet 16, she waltzed down the aisle with 56-year-old Grandfather Dorn. Unlike most women, Miss Mattie skipped out on promotion to matronly duties after the wedding night. Forever Grandfather Dorn’s demure Missy, she rarely lifted her hand to do anything but wrap him around her little finger. However, she did pause 10 times for intense labor when she spat children into the world.
“Grandma was ornamental, never practical,” sniffed Nannie, who excelled at piano plinking, needlework, sketching, flawless etiquette, small talk, and copperplate handwriting—hallmarks of basic “belle” arts. “She wore a trailing black dress until the day she died and fainted on the train in the summer heat.”
One hundred years ago, the magnolia-and-moonlight-drenched myth of the Southern belle was alive and well. In 1915, Mary Nowlin Moon (Mrs. John) declared her reason for being at a meeting of the Lynchburg, Virginia, chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC):
I came into this world with the blood of a soldier in my veins . . . . . . a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine. . . . I am, therefore, a Daughter of the Confederacy because it is my birthright. . . . I’ve joined . . . an organization which has for its purpose the continuance and furtherance of the true history of the South and the ideals of Southern womanhood. . . .
In 1915, Nannie sat in the back of a gentleman caller’s roadster out in the middle nowhere Georgia, sipping warm beer. “Why, we had broken down, Sistah,” she explained to me seventy years later—in wide-eyed innocence as she imbibed her evening sherry. “There was neither pond nor creek for miles around. I was so thirsty I could have baptized myself in beer.” How convenient: her companion, a distributor, kept a case handy in the trunk.
At 16, she demanded driving lessons until Brother Bill acquiesced. Soon after, Nannie buzzed the backroads beyond Atlanta at the wheel of the family car.
My grandmother sped headlong into the 1920s and found the decade quite to her taste. At finishing school, she polished her social graces but donned a middy blouse and bloomers to play basketball. While UDC members ceremoniously saluted the Confederate flag, hands on hearts, my grandmother stalked fowl in the headmaster’s backyard. In a dither about the female academy’s bland dinners, she swiped a pullet from the coop and bribed the janitor to wring its neck and pluck it. Later that afternoon, she invited the young ladies to a chicken salad feast in her dorm room.
The UDC turned backward, tending to memories of the Lost Cause, the Glorious Dead, and a “noble and refined” culture. They solemnly declared, “Fate denied victory but has crowned us with glorious immortality.”
Nannie was all about her own cause: independence. Her grandmother was helpless; her mother, hapless. Nannie did not intend to repeat history. Her mother submitted to a tyrannical husband, gave birth year after year, and never took a day off. “Mama was tired, always tired. She spent her life in a hot kitchen,” she said. Aunt Tea, Nannie’s sister, sought shelter at the old homeplace after fleeing an abusive husband with her two small children. “Divorce and disgrace. Eternal damnation,” Nannie once sighed. “Aunt Tea couldn’t do anything but take in sewing.”
My grandmother couldn’t wait to vote. Moreover, she couldn’t wait to get in and out of business school. As a newly minted stenographer at an established Atlanta brokerage, she snagged her oldest gentleman caller yet. Nannie disarmingly blended charm and spunk on catching my grandfather’s eye.
“Miss Acker, would you do me the honor of joining me at the moving picture show?”
“Certainly not, Mr. Brannan,” she tossed her head. “I’m not in the habit of keeping company with somebody else’s husband.”
“But I’m not married!” he stepped back, shocked.
She stepped forward. “Well, you’re certainly old enough,” she sassed, her gaze sweeping past his thin nose and resting on his silver hair parted finely down the middle.
Pop fell in love right in the shadow of the Equitable Building.
I found tales of their courtship mystifying. Decades later, Nannie rummaged in her closet and hauled out three dark green volumes of Emerson’s essays. “Do you want to keep these?” she said, carelessly stacking them on her vanity. Until that moment, Emerson’s lofty meanderings bored me. I flipped open Volume I. Spidery handwriting graced the flyleaf:
To Miss Martha Acker
—April 20, 1921
Nannie shook her head. “God knows what your grandfather was thinking. What turns a girl’s head? Candy? Yes. Flowers? Yes. A dead man’s book? No.”
Pop was a bit of a mystery man. He broke with tradition, and I reveled in that fact. The Tillman-Brannan family’s devotion to The Long Gray Line died when Pop refused the obligatory appointment to West Point and ran away to New Orleans for 10 undocumented years. He had no love for Greek and Latin forcibly learned under his uncles’ stern tutelage and later refined at a preparatory school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
Nonetheless, ritual ruled Pop in his later years. He studiously pored over 15 monthly journals and four daily newspapers. He brooded over Edgar Allen Poe short stories, political op-eds, and financial pages. He breakfasted at eight o’clock sharp, including a swallow of one raw egg. He departed for work promptly at nine o’clock. He wore handmade quadruple A leather shoes. He always wore a tie unless garbed in pajamas.
My grandfather had a lifelong crush on his five-foot-two bundle of contradictions: razor-sharp business smarts buried beneath an almost giddy exterior. After their wedding night, however, Nannie took over. Who was hapless now? Her husband.
- Twin beds
- Two children (one boy, one girl, no more)
- A housekeeper
- A car (On Pop’s return to work, Nannie commandeered his ride and dismissed the chauffeur. Ever after, Pop took the streetcar.)
- Two one-week bridge party vacations with “the girls” on St. Simons Island, Georgia (every year, no questions)
My mother recalled her father’s admonition that she and her brother cooperate during Nannie’s escape: “Now children, Mother is taking her vacation, so let’s be extra good while she’s away.”
Pop protested once. He attempted to take back the car. “Of course, you may have it, dahlin’—if you learn to drive,” Nannie airily said.
She knew it an impossible task. Although Pop had only to prove that he could pull effortlessly into the garage, nerves overtook. He could never pilot 10 feet in a centered manner and repeatedly banged into walls.
From day one, when it came to men, Nannie was in the driver’s seat.
Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth by Martin Johnson Heade
The truth about Southern belles, revisionist history, and hierarchy: