On The Day You Were Born
Mimi begs your indulgence while she sends a few words of wisdom to the newest member of her extended family. Miss Penelope arrived around 6:30pm on May 29. It might be worth noting that the young lady held off from her supposed due date so that she could arrive under the sign of Gemini rather than Taurus. As a result, Penelope will be a multi-talented thinker, talkative and social, scattered with diverse interests, a person who loves variety and excitement. Mimi will now speak on the subjects of Southern Ladies, family, and tradition.
I am your honorary great-aunt by adoption on your Grandmother Betsy’s side. As a result, if we should ever meet, you should speak sweetly and distinctly to me, treat me with the kindness reserved for the elderly (and/or the mentally fragile), and offer me the best chair. You do this in case I have wads of money and might be flighty enough to cut my own children out of my will and name you as my sole beneficiary. (Should this actually happen, you will likely inherit the care of a slightly-crazed Chihuahua who thinks he’s a cat and a large cat who thinks he’s a Chihuahua—best of luck.)
I hesitate (but only slightly) to mention that you did arrive a bit late. This is a characteristic your great-grandmother, my own mother, and ladies of their generation would consider a no-no. Ladies arrive on time—unless it’s to a party, in which case you don’t want to be first because that makes you look desperate or pushy. Arriving on time allows you to smile in a sorrowful manner at those who were not so prompt and mention their “upbringing” in a loud whisper. (As in: Well, what can you expect—considering the way she was raised?) Raising is important.
Texas has never been for sissies, and your family roots go deep into Texas soil. The earliest migrants to Texas were real pioneers. To most folk east of the Mississippi, Texas seemed like a vast wasteland, a good place to get lost or get dead. The ones who came anyway had to overcome Indians, the weather and the Mexican Army—they did and they stayed. The second wave came from the Deep South. Sherman and his army burned their way to the sea, sewing salt into the fields of these Southern planters as they went. Some men broke; some got up, put what was left in the wagon and came to Texas. There were still Indians, and weather and outlaws, but they, too, stayed and made Texas home.
Your relatives and mine were among those hearty souls who kick-started Texas and have kept it running by farming, oil production, military service, and teaching school. You can be proud of your West Texas ancestors who lived truly hard scrabble youths and went on to be the most learned and cultured adults. Your great-great Aunt Rose (who was, I might note, one of the most beautiful and well-groomed women I have ever known) was born in a dugout cabin—which as they might teach you in seventh grade social studies, was a cabin literally “dug out” of the side of a rise in the land and fronted with whatever material came to hand. When the crops made good and the cattle sold well, her daddy could think about building a real house.
You have had the great fortune to be born in a Southern state, although Tennessee was the last to leave the Union to join the Confederacy, and the first to rejoin the Union. But I digress . . . You are a Southerner and, as such, need to know a few Southern things. To wit:
Southern Ladies are always Ladies—unless they are not. This falls under the heading of “if you are going to sin, sin big.” The Not variety fall into several categories including “Pistols,” “Cowgirls,” and that special group—“Somethings”—as in, “Boy, Howdy, is she Something!” All of these types masquerade as Ladies when necessary, except the Somethings (don’t ask me how I know that). (None of these categories, by the way, have anything to do with looks.)
Southern Ladies keep up with their kinfolk—real or adopted. These are the people who, as President Lyndon Johnson once said, will carry your coffin. This is Southern shorthand for being there through thick and thin, having your back, putting up with your nonsense, and loving you no matter what. Southern folk have long known that family is both those you are related to by birth and those you have chosen to love and incorporate along the way. Relationships are the most important thing—you can move away but you can’t get away. Keeping the ties strong is a responsibility and an act of love.
Despite Feminism (which I am for, in case this sounds otherwise), Southern Ladies still hold on to a few little tricks. These still work. Ending all sentences with a question mark—a rise in the voice as if the sentence was, indeed, a question—gets people to listen because they think more is coming. And because you said it so well (you will, won’t you?) they want to hear the “more.” Back in my own youth, a woman might have looked at a man and said, “I’ll bet you know.” That won’t wash now, thank heaven, but the opposite trick is to look at someone you’re pretty sure doesn’t know and wait for the answer. Boom.
The phrase “Bless his/her heart,” means no such thing. As in: Bless her heart, she just can’t wear blue. Translation: She looks like someone dipped her in water and froze the body. As in: Bless his heart, he looks just like his daddy. Translation: The comb-over isn’t working. Use this phrase wisely.
Your family is a family of readers. Your Grandmother Betsy keeps list of the books she has read—lists that go on for notebook after notebook. One of your great-great aunts even wrote books. Because they love words and stories, they are funny, dynamite game players, do crossword puzzles in ink, and “get” all the references and jokes. The Bechtold/McKinney/Beck clan just bursts with teachers in every generation. They have taught from one-room schoolhouses to universities. They can’t help themselves—they love learning and passing it along. If you wish to fulfill your Gemini destiny to be “multi-talented, a thinker, talkative and social . . . with diverse interests, a person who loves variety and excitement” then start early to follow in their reading/learning footsteps. Like my own grandchildren and your cousins, you may grow up reading on an e-reader, a smart phone, or your watch. You may never learn the love of the smell and feel of books. That is what it is—just as long as you learn the love of words and stories, of people and adventure, of daring-do and imagination, of rhythm and rhyme and things said well.
As I finish typing this, Penelope, you are almost twelve hours old. You’ve hardly begun, and here’s some crazy old lady burdening you with history lessons. (I’m sure you’re asking, “What’s a Texas, a book, a Bechtold?”) Someday your mommy will read you the story of Sleeping Beauty and how the good fairies stood around her crib and gave her gifts and blessings. Those fairies have done their work: you have been born into a wonderful heritage, a family of strong men and women you can look to for examples in almost every situation. All you had to do was show up and, already, there’s a whole crew of people ready to love you totally and unconditionally. So here is my blessing, the blessing of an old crone (you will learn from stories that you have to watch out for old crones)—Appreciate all your blessings, Little One, the fortunes of your birth and ancestors, the examples they have set. Appreciate them—and live up to them.