Sunday, November 15, 2009

Somewhat Important Things My Mother (and Grandmother) Made Sure I Knew

I must add that I have taken significant editorial license-- translate that to greatly expanded upon the truth -- to elaborate upon my "ideal" of the Southern woman in one of her multivarious forms.  

1. The correct way to set a table. Not just the plate, the napkin, the knife, the fork, and the spoon, but the salad fork, the butter knife, the butter plate, the dessert spoon, the dessert plate, the individual salt cellars and the way one must leave the silverware on the plate when one is finished eating. This is something that every Southern girl is taught practically from birth. For example this year at Thanksgiving, the toddler table will not be complete without its own miniature sterling goblets, Bunnykins china, and the Chantilly and Strasbourg youth sets. I mean really.

2. To know the difference between china and China; china is from the Far East (made in China or Japan) and has not been around for at least 100 years. China is usually handed down from mother to daughter or better yet, from grandmother to granddaughter. Any Haviland pattern will do (since it is most certainly French Limoges) but there are a few other exceptions to the rule, and most of these are patterns that are European or British in provenance. Remember to always encourage a bride to select a China pattern, even if she is tempted by price and style to choose one of the other types of china (little c). I nearly made a fatal mistake when I married many years ago because I selected one of the unmentionable brands of china (I am still guilty of not always listening to my mother's sage advice), but my faux pas was redeemed years later when my dear mother bequeathed me one of her prized sets of antique Haviland china.

3. Silver is never out of style. Despite the fact that most women have their flat silver (the proper use of the word flat could require another entry altogether) safely hidden away where thieves cannot break in and destroy and only drag it out (laboriously polishing it until it looks new and shiny) for the most auspicious of occasions, it is indeed an unfortunate woman who does not have at the minimum eight place settings and preferably twelve. There are many acceptable patterns of sterling silver for Southern ladies (among them Chantilly, Strasbourg, Buttercup, Francis the First, Repousse, King Richard the Third), but believe it or not, the Gorham name in flat silver is ranked higher than flat silver from Tiffany's. I know it may seem strange, but it is true. Pacific Cloth is also a word that every Southern woman knows well, and she will likely prize the little drawstring bags for her sterling goblets almost as much as she prizes the goblets themselves.

4. Finger bowls and bone dishes may no longer find their place at most dinner tables but every Southern woman of breeding knows exactly what these dining accoutrements are and where they should be placed and that which should be placed in them should she ever encounter a finger bowl or a bone dish at a State Dinner. At least that is what my grandmother always told me. These days I doubt any of the occupants of the Governor's Houses or even the White House would know a finger bowl or a bone dish from Adam. Again, that is what my grandmother says, and she is nearly always right.

5. Fine linens are another "must have" for any Southern gentlewoman. Monogrammed linens should always bear the woman's initials with the man's handkerchief the sole exception. Nothing should ever be monogrammed with a His or Hers (this is definitely considered tacky) or with combined initials, i.e., monograms that combine the woman's first name, the man's first name and the last name. An acceptable monogram bears the initials of the lady's first name, her maiden name, and her husband's last name. It is also appropriate to use Great Aunt Mattie's monogrammed linens even if her monogram bears no resemblance to yours, because these are "family" linens. It is also imperative that one must know and be able to tell at a glance the difference between a dinner napkin, a luncheon napkin, a tea napkin, and a cocktail napkin. Fine linens should be laundered by hand and the secrets for removing stains from said linens are carefully handed down from generation to generation. I chuckled a few years ago when I found a product entitled, "Grandmother's Antique Linen Cleaning Solution," and discovered it to be a mixture of Ivory soap and lemon juice. Those ingredients plus sunshine were among my family's trade secrets for cleaning fine linen.

6. Good breeding has nothing to do with the contents of one's bank account. Interpretation: you can be rich and not be well bred (a fatal flaw for a Southern woman); however, you can be poor (translation: have fallen on difficult times) and still be well bred. However, the absolute perfidy is to be poor and ill bred -- a condition from which one is likely not to ever recover.

7. It is acceptable for a Southern lady to do her own yard work and despite what one might think, most Southern women who are members of Garden Clubs actually have gardens of their own that they tend. Given the emphasis on keeping up appearances among women of genteel breeding, this might be considered somewhat contradictory, but Southern women have long been known for their extensive rose gardens, the beauty of their camellias and the prolific nature of their daylillies and azaleas. Southern women always arrange their own flowers and consider this not to be an art, but a necessity.

8. Long before Alex Haley made the movie Roots, Southern women made the study of ancestry a full-time occupation. Every young woman knows who her "people" are and from whence they have come and will be expected to answer extensive questions about her beau's "people" if she is to bring him to her home.I can distinctly remember my grandmother asking me with great seriousness about my future husband," Exactly who are his people?" And when I told her that his people were friends of dear friends who had rented my Great Aunt Willy's beach house for a number of years, it was somehow an acceptable explanation of the nature of "his people." A bit crazy and convoluted perhaps, but true.

9. Blood is always thicker than water. I heard this my whole life and did not understand just how deep the feelings for family run among Southern women. Southern women may turn their backs on their husbands but they will "nevah evah" turn their backs on their own flesh and blood (i.e., children or parents or brothers or sisters). Husbands might possibly be dispensable, but blood kin is not.

10. When naming children family names are the only acceptable choice. Southern bred women do not look through baby books for names, they study the family tree. As long as the name appears in a family tree somewhere, it is deemed appropriate. It is most common for girls to be named after the mother's family; while sons will draw their primary name after the father's family (though according to my grandmother, giving a son the mother's maiden name as a middle name is a lovely practice.) When a Southern woman marries, she takes her given name, her maiden name and her husband's name, thereby dropping either her first name or her middle name to keep the name that she is called. She takes her maiden name in deference to her own father and thus ensures that his name will be handed down in the family in some fashion to be taken up by future generations.

A tongue-in-cheek elaboration of all that we Southern women have supposedly learned at the hands of our mothers and grandmothers!

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