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The Good Girl

 

momandme“Be a good girl,” she’d call out, as I walked with my date across the stepping stones away from our house, a large corsage pinned at my collarbone, heels aerating the lawn. My mother’s enthusiasm for the swirl surrounding her daughter on a date — complete with bow ties and corsages and gowns — was in stark contrast to my dad’s cool reception, staying in his chair in the den. What did he care as he sipped his Budweiser and read the Atlanta-Journal? Beyond the good girl remark, the whole scene was awkward, with my mother calling out to my dad about how nice my date and I looked, and did he want to come in and say goodbye? And “Ohhhh, Susie, he got you an orchid!” — sure sign of a keeper.

My mother, Susan, clearly had a vision for me, her namesake. As I began to develop during adolescence, I recall trying on a shirt I liked and admiring myself in my full-length mirror, feeling independent and pretty. It was in this moment that my mom caught a glimpse of me and remarked, “I think that’s too sophisticated for you.” Translation: I see cleavage, which means others might too. And that is bad. I suppose she needed to see me forever dressed in buttoned up puffed sleeved shirts, the safe place she wanted me to stay in. I’m not sure in her mind I ever moved away from there.

Later on, during my senior year when I was dating my first boyfriend, my mom would hear us at night drive up in our driveway. After we’d been parked a while doing our extended good night routine and steaming up the windows, she’d flick the outside lights several times, signaling in no uncertain terms, the anti-booty call. Time to come in young lady, and what are you two even doing out there? Are you being a good girl? These thoughts must have run through her head.

The good girl theme I’m now realizing went on for years. My parents had parties and from upstairs where I carried guests’ coats to our beds, I could hear glasses clinking, boisterous laughter and the doorbell ringing as more and more people arrived. The scent of bourbon floated through the rooms downstairs as my sister and I passed trays of hors d’oeuvres. I sometimes wanted to sneak one but was encouraged not to. These were “grown up” nibbles that I probably wouldn’t like and besides, I knew I was to bat last, and could maybe pick over the remnants later.

On weekdays, she routinely asked if I did my homework, and if I gave the right answer, “yes”, which I usually did, the conversation came to a halt. There were few other questions about me or my day, such as what interesting thing might have happened at school. Or, was it even a good day? At the dinner table, I got reminders — put my napkin in my lap and pass the rolls so they’d make the full lap around the table, and I of course complied.

Once I moved out of the house and into a dorm, I noticed I was living among other good girls. I’d return from a two-mile run to get down to the communal laundry room so I could empty my dryer for someone else. Many times when I got there, I’d notice someone had already removed my clothes, folded them and placed them neatly back in my hamper. Naturally we all followed suit for each other, and the chain of politeness went unbroken. I’ve since thought, what if a girl needed to leave to take care of something for herself but out of habit was so compelled to fold someone’s clothes that she stayed late to do it, missing her own deadlines or fun even? If there even was a choice?

After the college years, good girls who became mothers could put their consistent training to use. Infants, toddlers, tweens and teens needed constant attention and meals and clean clothes. And reminders. Mothers are expert in taking care of everyone and predicting their family’s needs, and staying so busy, many if not most, ignore their own.

These traits and habits are simply for exhibiting good manners, I’ve told myself, but now am questioning if that’s altogether true. Perhaps this insistence on being good is a distraction toward an ideal that is not even possible. What effect might this hyper focus on others have on a person in reaching for things they want, but without the implied guilt piled on? In my life, I’ve done far less reaching and a lot more searching for what it is that I want. Sure, I can write thank you notes, choose the right fork at a fancy dinner table, stand up when an adult comes in the room, but when I’m not being good, who am I?

I’m all for being polite, having grown up in the south. But if we raise the bar so high and place such controlling focus on tending to others, we might never find the time to sit back and do something we want to do. Something creative. Something indulgent. Something off script, for a change. Tend to ourselves. It is in ordering off the menu that we grow, not as a good girl but as our own self, for which there is no prescribed path but the one we create.

Hands off, that last roll is mine.

 

 

 

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For Real

Apparently I’m for real. Or so says my dad. Correction, said my dad who died over 25 years ago. (Yes, I’m counting.) We’d have conversations about everything — from his childhood, my grades, our shared insomnia or his crazy tennis serve — pretty much any topic we felt like covering we would. And there were so many. At the end of our conversation, he’d pause a minute, then look up, grinning ear to ear, almost unable to contain himself, and remark proudly, “Susie… you’re for real!”

He said it so often I could fill in the blank each time after I heard my name, and would offer up an “I know, I know, I’m for real.” I hated to disappoint him, but I never had a good response to his revelation, and honestly never knew what he meant. It was so predictable and the attention was embarrassing that I’d send him a teenage eye roll each time to round out our shtick. He didn’t care that I brushed him off. For him, what he said was a high compliment and he wanted me to know.

I understand those words now that I’ve had loads of conversations with others since, some unsatisfying and many good, like we had. This honesty and sharing and communicating completely, coupled with details on all the minutiae, is what fascinates me and fires me up. I think it makes me real.

He died before all this could simmer long enough to make sense, but I’ve thought a lot about who he was and who I am. Doesn’t everything pretty much trace back to our parents? Do they fuck us up or fill us up? The jury is still out, but I think it’s a combination. I suppose our perspectives’ origins come down to a simple multiple choice of a) mom or b) dad, with an evolving blend of nature and nurture folded in.

What is “for real” anyway? I know what it’s not. It’s not disingenuous, fake, closed or self-absorbed. These qualities are exhausting and discouraging to see in people, and I’ve gotten better at spotting and dodging them. Understanding who is for real involves an excavation, a peeling away of layers to get to what is underneath. Think of an artichoke and the heart inside you’re working to get.

In this vein of understanding myself better, I’m reminded of what my 8th grade Bible teacher wrote in my yearbook. My friends couldn’t do it, as he was way too handsome for us to focus in class, much less ask for a yearbook signature after, but I worked up the nerve. As I stood there, yearbook and pen in hand, excited yet nervous about what he was going to say, I had no idea he’d scrawl a message so succinct yet so wise. When I left his class, I opened my yearbook scanning for his remarks only to find scribbled quickly inside, “Settle down, Susan!” I was expecting to read something interesting about me, something good, something special. But this?

As I’ve gotten older I see that my friends share similar qualities. If like begets like, the people and experiences we attract mirror our own. Taking notice of who we choose to spend time with helps us better understand our own preferences, inclinations, outlook and style. I tend to ruminate, hesitate or just not decide about loads of things because I think I still don’t know myself well enough to choose or trust I’ll arrive at the right answer. Slowing down and looking around takes patience and practice, yet I’ve always been eager in the “Are with there yet?” or “How much longer?” thinking of a child. I’ve come to learn I have a ways to go still.

So as I’m trying to settle down and all the while stay for real, I understand that these insightful lessons I’m searching for aren’t going to unfold all at once, but arrive on their own schedule, when it’s time. They might just appear in the form of a compliment like my dad’s did, so I suppose I’ll keep turning the pages every day hoping to learn a thing or two. I’ll admit it is starting to get interesting.

My dad, Edgar Woody was his name, is now gone from my life, but I’m still here, remembering and understanding, learning and looking. I’d like to think he’d want to pull up a chair today so we could continue the discussions. I know I sure do, especially today, August 3rd, as I remember his birthday.