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Blue Mountain, Georgia
ALTHOUGH WE CALL OURSELVES the Same Sweet Girls, none of us are girls anymore. And I'm not sure that any of us are now, or ever have been, sweet. Nice, maybe, and polite, certainly. All southern girls are raised to be nice and polite, can't be anything but, regardless of how mean-spirited we might be deep down. The illusion of sweetness, that's all that counts. We don't have to be sincerely sweet, but by God we have to be good at faking it. Southern girls will stab you in the back, same as anyone else, but we'll give you a sugary smile while doing it.
The question is, are the Same Sweet Girls sweet? Hardly. But one thing's for sure: We're the same. We are the same complicated, screwy, mixed-up, love-each-other-one-minute and hate-each-other-the-next group of women we were when we met thirty years ago. I guess we were sweeter then, at age eighteen; we were certainly more naive and less sophisticated. I'd like to say virginal, but that wouldn't quite be true. Not of everyone. Okay, I was. Unlike the others, I was fresh off the farm, as wide-eyed and gullible as a newborn calf. But a couple of us were already damaged, innocence long gone. Those of us with a trace of naïveté left at age eighteen were soon to lose it; we just didn't know it then. I can promise you this: Not a single one of the Same Sweet Girls has a smidgen of it left today.
We're the same, but we're also different, if that makes sense. The group--the SSGs, we call ourselves--formed when we were in college together, roommates, suite-mates, tennis or lab partners. We got our name from a silly little incident that we still relate to each other, telling the story over and over as though we haven't heard it a million times already. Finding ourselves away from home for the first time, in the intimate environment of an all-girls' school, we became friends for life. We forged our clique then, our group of six girls, and we became closer than sisters. We scheduled classes together, stayed up half the night gossiping and giggling, went home with each other during weekends and holidays. As close as we were then, however, we were only truly bound together when one of us was lost, three years after graduation. When you're in your early twenties and invincible, death is a life-changing experience, a sobering wake-up call unlike any other.
I clung to the Same Sweet Girls then, loving them as I'd not done before. Before, life was one big party, the whole basis for our friendship; afterward, we were tightly bound, as though knitted together with unseen but indestructible threads. In tears, we stood apart from the crowd of mourners at the grave of one of our own, linked hands, and promised to remain friends, to always be the Same Sweet Girls we were then. Five felt like such an odd, lopsided number that we moved quickly to fill the gap, becoming the magic six again. Too quickly, some of us thought later. But . . . that's another story, for another time.
Today the six of us do not live in the same place; some of us are geographically separated by hundreds of miles. But somehow, we manage to stay as close as we were when living in the same dorm, all those years ago. Some years I've seen the others only at our biannual get-togethers, in early summer and late fall. There have been times when job or family obligations kept us apart. After graduation we started our careers, then we married, had babies, raised families. Things like sick children, school plays or Little League games, proms, funerals, weddings, graduations would keep us from attending our gatherings. Inevitably, when that happened, we grieved our absence from the group as though we'd never see each other again. Now that we're older, for the most part our kids grown and gone, we see each other more often, and we're all more aware of the passing of time, the shocking awareness that one day we'll attend a gathering of the Same Sweet Girls, and it will be our last one.
When I'm describing the Same Sweet Girls to other people, I usually tell them it's helpful to group us in twos. Lanier and I were former roommates, as were Julia and Astor; then there's the odd couple, Byrd and Rosanelle. (Poor Byrd, getting stuck with Rosanelle, but there again, that's another story.) Paired like that, we seem like polar opposites, but we aren't, really. I'm considered the weird one of the group, and I'll admit I've earned that honor. Most people think artists are weird, anyway, but me--I'm a gourd artist. As the other SSGs say, with much eye rolling, how many of those do you know? My former roommate, Lanier Sanders, doesn't do weird, being not only a former jock but also a nurse, which is such a prosaic profession for someone like Lanier. Lanier would have been a doctor--a good one--had she not flunked out of medical school her first year. Not because she's dumb; although she struggled in the humanities, Lanier's plenty smart in math and science. Here's the thing about Lanier--lovable as she is, she will always find a way to screw up her life. Almost fifty years old, and she is still doing it. But I don't have any room to talk, since I've been pretty good at that myself.
Like Lanier and me, Julia and Astor were college roommates. The school we attended, the Methodist College for Women in Brierfield,
Alabama (nicknamed The W), paired you up; you didn't get to choose like you do in most schools, the Methodists preferring to mix their poor scholarship students in with the more privileged ones. If it hadn't been for the incident our freshman year that made us the Same Sweet Girls, I'd never have gotten to know Julia Dupont or Astor Deveaux, either one. Unlike me, a shy little art major, both Julia and Astor were hot stuff on campus. Classically beautiful in a Grace Kelly sort of way, Julia Dupont was from a wealthy old family in Mobile. Her mother had gone to some fancy boarding school with the dean of women, which was how Julia ended up at The W. It was a year after we became friends before we discovered the real reason Julia was there. Thirty years later, it still surprises me.
What to say about Astor Deveaux? How about, she and I have a rather complicated relationship. I'm not sure what kind of weird chemistry there is between us, but it's been going on since the first day we met, in an Interpretative Dance class. Lanier accuses me of not even liking Astor, but that's not quite true. I don't trust her, I'll admit, and we've had numerous clashes. But like everyone else, I'm fascinated by her. From Lake Charles, Louisiana, Astor Deveaux came to The W on a dance scholarship and intrigued everyone on campus. None of us Alabama hicks had ever seen anyone like her; we'd certainly never seen anyone so talented. Astor went on to dance on Broadway, until she got too old to get good parts. Then she moved back to Alabama, unfortunately. See?--that's what I mean. I'm always making cracks like that about Astor, and I'm not even sure why. But one thing I do know--I've got better sense than to turn my back on her.
I group Byrd and Rosanelle together because they're the most normal ones of the Same Sweet Girls (which isn't saying a whole lot, believe me). Byrd McCain is plain and simple and unpretentious. We've nicknamed her Mama Byrd, a role she fits to a tee. She certainly plays it well, and if on occasion Byrd plays it too well, giving out advice, being uptight or disapproving . . . we always forgive her. She's that lovable. Rosanelle Tilley is another story, but she's not really one of us. She's who we inherited after Byrd's roommate, one of the original six, was killed in a car wreck, and we felt the need to fill the gap. Rosanelle's also the one who unintentionally gave us our name, the Same Sweet Girls. This will tell you everything you need to know about Rosanelle--she's flattered that we named our group after something she once said, not realizing that, as usual, we were being ironic and facetious. Thirty years have gone by, and she still doesn't get it.
It all sounds so serious, telling it like this, but it's anything but. Over the years, we've developed a lot of silly rituals that I'm embarrassed to tell other people about, especially now that we're almost fifty years old. We crown a queen and have royal edicts and all sorts of stuff like that. Each year the crown goes to the one who can prove that she's the most deserving. And what does she have to do to land the coveted crown? Why, be the sweetest one of all, of course. She campaigns all year for the crown, then has to convince the rest of us that she's done enough sugary deeds to earn the coveted title. The highlight of our summer weekend is when each of us summarizes our campaign for the crown during a ten-minute presentation. Like the pope, the queen is elected by secret ballot. Naturally, the first year everyone voted for herself, so we had to change the rules. It's not considered a sweet thing to do, to vote for yourself, and if you do so, you're disqualified.
Even more embarrassing, we have our own coded language that we call Girl Talk. It's been going on for so many years that it's hard to remember where most of it originated. The punch lines of popular jokes make the rounds, but we tire of them and they fall by the wayside, due to our overuse. Our most enduring Girl Talk comes from stories we repeat ad nauseam, year after year. Lanier provided one of the lines we use most often by telling us the story of the elderly woman who was a patient of hers. When Lanier took her vital signs and asked her how she was feeling, the lady said, "Terrible, just terrible. My rheumatism's worse than ever; I can't lift my arms; my back's killing me; and I can't walk without hurting. But it's being so cheerful that keeps me going." The other two most popular Girl Talk lines were provided by Astor, years ago. When she lived in New York, her best friend was a gay dancer named Ron. Astor would take Ron shopping with her because if she picked out the wrong thing, Ron would shake his head sadly and say, "Oh, honey, no." On the occasions Ron didn't go with her and she showed up wearing one of her mistakes, Ron would sigh, roll his eyes, and say, "Girl, what were you thinking?"
With the Girl Talk, the crowning of the queen, the royal salute, the procession, and the edicts, our get-togethers have become ritualized to the point that they're pure theater, and anyone peeking in a window at us would swear we're all crazy as loons. Which we are. One of these days, we'll stop being the Same Sweet Girls and start calling ourselves the Same Crazy Fools, I suppose. Some would say that day is fast approaching. But in the meantime, we'll be the Same Sweet Girls, who aren't girls anymore, and who aren't sweet and never have been. We'll keep crowning our queen and going through our rituals and loving each other and sometimes hating each other, because we've done it so long it's become a part of us. It's a big part of who we are and how we got to be that way. It's where we are today and how we got from there to here. It's our story.