My mother’s adopted sister—named Aunt Billie in my memoir, “The Magnolia Code” (Fresco Books, June 2020)—was a wild, irreverent and feisty mentor for me.
In my early teens, she told me in her great Southern drawl:
“It’s not just about belongin’, Joanie—that’s passive behavior—it’s about choosin’. You have to choose where you want to belong.
I love that ol’ saying —and I always mess it up a bit —from Oscar Wilde, ‘might as well be yourself, cuz everyone else is taken.’ That’s it, Joanie, simple as that. Oh, and to be sure, you have to accept the consequences of your choices, which can be somewhat tricky. Now, if you can figure all that out—and it just might take you all your life —well, then I believe you’ll have a happy time.”
When Billie gave me this advice, I was too young to really understand—but something sounded right.
“The Magnolia Code” was a name my sister and I gave to an unwritten book of behavior that my dyed-in-the-wool Southern parents brought with them to New York City at the end of The Depression.
As a Yankee child growing up in the city, I thought the Code was claustrophobic—especially for a young, independent and curious girl like me. I had a sneaking suspicion that my choice would be between safety and identity.
This is a story of my choosing identity over safety, and what a woman gives up in order to opt for independence.
“Now tell me about Bobby, and why he stayed here.”
“Okay, yes, I want to.” I moved toward the kitchen to make his drink. I had rehearsed my speech, but now, as I mixed his scotch and soda, I searched for the words.
Returning to the living room, I handed him his glass and sat on the couch, pushing away the two cats, whose destruction of the inset buttons embarrassed me.
“Bobby’s my friend, and he was leaving the next day, for a year—a long time.”
I paused a moment to feel his reaction. “Bobby wanted to tell me about his work in the Amazon. I’ve been there and he wanted my thoughts. He was anxious, and needed a place to stay for just one night. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
I heard my emphasis on the word wrong and knew I’d said it with a whine.
“Joanie, I want to tell you this. It just doesn’t look right. You can’t have boys staying in your apartment. People will talk about you.” Holding his drink on his knee, he said with a slight plea, “You’re not married. I wish you could understand. And it’s not that I’m mad,” he said. He hesitated and looked down as if to make sure his shoes had held the polish.
That dreaded word.
“Disappointed? In what?” I heard my voice rising. “And who’s going to talk about me, the doorman?” I asked with sarcasm. “Nothing happened.”
Father leaned toward me and answered firmly and quickly.
“The point is not if anything happened. It’s how it looks. I trust you, but you could get a reputation.” He stopped and took a big swallow of his drink. Then, more quietly, he said, “You’ve had, and you have, every opportunity. Don’t open yourself up for people’s judgments by making bad choices.” He jiggled the ice and took another gulp. His face had reddened a bit. “What I’m saying, Joanie, is don’t mess up. I can’t be more plain.”
“What do you mean, mess up?”
Father left my question hanging. He got up and made himself another scotch.
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Unconsciously he let his finger stir the ice in his refreshed drink. “I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t.” He paused and took a sip. “It’s not for a father to say this to his daughter. But I will. I will because it’s important and because I love you. This is what I came here to say: Do what you want in life, but Joanie, don’t get caught. You’re daring, you have a lot of spunk and you could get in trouble. There are rules in life. There’s decorum. Be careful.”
I remained quiet. I didn’t look at him, but I perceived an unease, and perhaps he, too, heard the injustice in his words of male entitlement. “Don’t get caught” was a warning, a thoughtful warning. For a moment I thought he was on my side.
But he broke the rules all the time with his constant flirtations, his other life. Men could “mess up” in my parent’s 1970 world without much consequence. “But he always comes home to me,” Mother often said, appeasing herself with his tossed crumbs.
Her longing for him could be called pitiful—with the Southern-drawl emphasis on the word pitiful.
“Do you believe in the double standard?” I blurted out. “I mean would you be saying this to a son?”
“I would say it differently; boys, men, are different. We work hard, we have a lot to think about in order to provide for a good family life. Men have needs that are different from women’s; that’s just the truth of it. Do you know what I mean?”
“Not really,” I mumbled, wondering how we could cross our father-daughter gap. I doubted we ever could.
“But women, nice women, their lives can be ruined by stepping over the line. ‘Damaged goods,’ someone once said about a young girl I knew in the office.”
I wondered if he had damaged the goods.
“Women should have high standards. Girls are born to do other things, other tasks, important tasks: create a place in society for their family, for themselves, work for the good of others and,” he emphasized, “be respected.”
He looked into his drink. “Look at your mother. She’s a good example of decorum.”
My rising anger made me itch. Scratching my arm, I said sharply, “But Mother’s not a happy person. I mean do you actually think she’s happy? She waits for you. All the time, she’s just. . . .” I could hardly say it. “Waiting.”
Father got up. “I have to go,” he blurted out. “I’m having a drink with a business acquaintance. I’m late.” I of course didn’t ask him who the “business acquaintance” was. I didn’t want to catch him in a lie. He quickly put on his coat and, while stopping at the front door, he turned to me.
“What about that nice man, Edwin Phillips? He wants to marry you. Why not him? He’s upstanding, has a nice job.” Buttoning his coat slowly, he added, “Good looking man, too. You once told me you had fun together. Yes, why not, you should marry Edwin,” he pronounced somewhat lightly. A last thought occurred to him, “And Joanie, he would always be there on Saturday nights.”
It took me a few seconds to register his comment.
“Yes, Edwin’s a nice man and you’re right, he would be there on Saturday nights.” I stared at Father, willing him to really see me. “But I wouldn’t be.”
He didn’t speak, but his eyes narrowed into a penetrating stare. Slowly he shook his head. But after a moment—which seemed an eternity—a smile started on his playful face. With a grin and a slight chuckle, he pulled me toward him and gave me a loving hug. I heard his big laugh as the elevator door closed.