Friday, November 18, 2011

Being A Lady

Man, I'm on a nostalgic kick lately. This post is also going back to that fateful day when I first visited Notre Dame, and that car ride home.

Dad was playing music from his ipod, and I remember one song in particular that came on: Bat out of Hell by an artist with the dubious name of Meatloaf.

Doesn't that just sound like the kind of song that's well suited to contemplation?

There was a lull in the conversation and I found myself paying attention to the lyrics. Meatloaf was singing something to a lady friend.

"Oh baby, you're the only thing in this whole world
That's pure and good and right.
And wherever you are and wherever you go
There's always gonna be some light."

Wow, I thought. That's beautiful. And right then and there, I decided I wanted to be that kind of woman; someone who stands for something, and whose life points the way to a higher reality.

Isn't that funny? Bat out of Hell, giving me a new purpose in life. Who woulda thought?

This story goes back to a theme that sort of obsessed me for the latter part of high school:  being a lady.

When I was 16, I read Gone with the Wind. Most girls who read that book, it seems, have a real thing for Scarlett. My mom told me that she was fascinated by her.

But not me. I couldn't get enough of Melanie. What an odd person to be obsessed with! Plain, quiet, shy, humble little Melanie. But that was exactly why I adored her. She was "as simple as earth, as good as bread, as transparent as spring water." And above all, she was a Lady.

I will never forget the description of Melanie as a hostess:

"The little house was always full of company. Melanie had been a favorite even as a child and the town flocked to welcome her home again. Everyone brought presents for the house, bric-a-brac, pictures, a silver spoon or two, linen pillow cases, napkins, rag rugs, small articles which they had saved from Sherman and treasured but which they now swore were of no earthly use to them. Old men who had campaigned in Mexico with her father came to see her, bringing visitors to meet 'old Colonel Hamilton's sweet daughter.' Her mother's old friends clustered about her, for Melanie had a respectful deference to her elders that was very soothing to dowagers in these wild days when young people seemed to have forgotten all their manners. Her contemporaries, the young wives, mothers and widows, loved her because she had suffered what they had suffered, had not become embittered and always lent them a sympathetic ear. The young people came, as young people always come, simply because they had a good time at her home and met there the friends they wanted to meet. Around Melanie's tactful and self-effacing person, there rapidly grew up a clique of young and old who represented what was left of the best of Atlanta's ante-bellum society, all poor in purse, all proud in family, die-hards of the stoutest variety. It was as if Atlanta society, scattered and wrecked by war, depleted by death, bewildered by change, had found in her an unyielding nucleus about which it could re-form. Melanie was young but she had in her all the qualities this embattled remnant prized, poverty and pride in poverty, uncomplaining courage, gaiety, hospitality, kindness and, above all, loyalty to all the old traditions. Melanie refused to change, refused even to admit that there was any reason to change in a changing world. Under her roof the old days seemed to come back again and people took heart... When they looked into her young face and saw there the inflexible loyalty to the old days, they could forget, for a moment, the traitors within their own class who were causing fury, fear and heartbreak... It never occurred to Melanie that she was becoming the leader of a new society. She only thought the people were nice to come to see her and to want her in their little sewing circles, cotillion clubs and musical societies."

Even now, reading that, my heart beats a little faster. Melanie was such a beautiful human being. When she dies at the end of the book, Rhett says that she was "a great lady," and one of the few real ladies he had ever known. I decided, at impetuous 16, that I wanted to have the words "A Great Lady" on my grave. More than that, I wanted to really be one.

Now, I know that the concept of being a lady really bothers some people, including my beloved Auntie Seraphic. Even one of my dearest friends scolded me when I brought up the topic. "In the words of my ever knowledgeable little sister," she told me over gchat, "when somebody told her to be a lady, 'well... it doesn't sound like very much fun.'"

I think that the term "lady" has been very ill-treated for it to be getting such bad press.

I don't know what people told you a lady is supposed to be, but here's what I think it means: putting others at their ease. Seeing the good in everyone and taking care not to mention the bad. Having a sense of humor that is kind and never hurts others. Making the best out of unfortunate situations. Making sure everyone else has a piece of pie before you take one yourself. Being on time. Being gracious and welcoming, no matter how tired or cold or grumpy you are. Being patient. Keeping your temper. Treating every person you meet, from the homeless man on the street to the president of the United States, with the respect and reverence owed to them as a human creature. Doing all of these things because you want to, and not because any one else has told you to.

In other words, just about everything I have a ridiculously hard time doing for even a minute.

Does that sound like fun? No, of course not. Being a lady isn't supposed to be fun, I think. You don't do it because it's fun but because it's the right thing to do.

And oh boy, is it harder to do than I ever thought at 16. After I read Gone With The Wind, I decided that I wanted to be a great lady... by my 17th birthday (which I chose because Melanie was 17 at the start of Gone with the Wind) (I was really obsessed). That gave me almost 10 months. Plenty of time, right?

Ha. Six years later, I feel as far from that ideal as I was at 16. Being a Lady is harder than I ever imagined, and I think it will take me several decades, if not the rest of my life, to even start to achieve it.

That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying.


  1. Aha! But the important thing is, you have defined for yourself what it means to be a lady, and you are following your own dictates. Meanwhile, your definition--which is very much about putting people at their ease and making them happy and peaceful by your very presence--is sound, with one itsy bitsy dark nuance, which is exclusivity.

    Rhett Butler, no moral giant (and fictional), mentions that he has known only a few real ladies in his life. Is it not odd that we accept him at his word? Who is Rhett Butler to define a lady? Scarlett was, socially speaking, a lady, and yet he asked her to be his mistress--a dire insult. And when Scarlett answers him honestly (what would she get out of that except a passel o' brats) instead of with the vapours (as Southern mores might suggest a better response), he laughs at her.

    Given the nature of female competition, and a privileging of the male sex over the female, many women long to be the woman who stands out among all the other women, to be thought of as exceptional, and simply better than the others. The one woman in a group of men sometimes panics when another woman is allowed in, and tries to push her out, etc.

    If I remember this correctly, Melanie was not conscious that she was "a lady" in an exclusive way, beyond--of course--her training in Southern pre-bellum customs and beliefs about "how a lady is." She would have intuited that Belle the Madam was not, of course, a lady, but she wouldn't have thought Scarlett wasn't.

    It's an interesting question. Meanwhile, the point of my post was not that one shouldn't be an attractive, kindly, woman, but that one should be aware of the limitations of others' expectations around the word.

    The word "lady" is often used to control the behaviour of very nice women who are eager to please the people in their lives, and it's definition is based in nothing more than a fantasy of a young man about what a woman should be.

    So as long as YOU--and not some junior edition Rhett Butler wannabe--are defining what "lady" you want to be, and it is not a way of marginalizing other women, I don't have a problem with the word "lady".

  2. Wow, Auntie Seraphic, I think that getting a comment from you is just about the highest honor I could receive as a blogger! Thank you for writing, and especially for such a well-thought-out response. I completely agree with you that for "lady" to be a positive term, a woman has to be defining it for herself and not allowing a guy to put her in a box with it. I think part of the reason I have such a positive reaction to the ladylike ideal is that I've never had anyone else try to define it for me, other than maybe my mom telling me at some point to "act ladylike" in a general way. Certainly if my experience had been anything like the one you described in your post, I would not have such a positive impression. Thanks again for commenting!

  3. You're welcome! I didn't know you had a new blog, but now I do!