“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, high 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, 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 where I’d stay. I’m not sure if in her mind I ever moved away from there.
Later on, during my senior year when I was dating my first boyfriend, we’d return from a date and park in our driveway for our extended good night routine, 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 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 was living among other good girls. Returning from a two-mile run, I’d go to the communal laundry room to empty my dryer for someone else. Many times someone had already removed my clothes, folded them and neatly placed them 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? Was there even a choice?
After college, good girls who became mothers put their training to use. Infants, toddlers, tweens and teens needed constant attention and meals and clean clothes. And reminders. Expert in taking care of everyone and predicting their family’s needs, many if not most mothers, 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 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 I want. 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 even. Proceeding off the menu is how 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.