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SOMEBODY IS GOING TO DIE IF LILLY BETH DOESN'T CATCH THAT BOUQUET
By Gayden Metcalfe Charlotte Hayes
HyperionCopyright © 2007 Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere Will Always Be One More Last Delta Wedding
In the mississippi delta, funerals bring out the best in people, while weddings, which are supposed to be happy occasions, bring out the worst. It takes a strong love to survive a Delta wedding. Funerals bring out our genuineness; weddings bring out our pretentiousness. A lady we know is still smarting from the time, several years ago, she was asked in to view a relative's wedding presents. "I'm glad you could come now," said Cousin Snooty, mother of the bride, "because I won't have room for you at the wedding." Actually, this was unusual in the Delta, because we tend to invite everybody we know, plus some. But at least Cousin Snooty made sure everybody had an opportunity to see the gifts (and certainly to give one).
A carpenter had been called in to build a tiered, bleacher-like affair that was draped in white organdy, with bows and swags. The custom of displaying wedding presents in this manner has gone down as the price of silver has gone up. Brides now in their forties are probably the last generation to have observed this tradition.
A Delta wedding is an extravaganza that has been years in the making (for theexception to this rule, please see, "weddings, shotgun," page 155). Weddings in the Delta do not begin with a young man's proposal of holy matrimony-they begin the moment a squirming bride-to-be is presented in swaddling clothes to her mother's arms at the King's Daughters Hospital in Greenville, Mississippi, where the nicer Delta babies are born. A small but choice group, it must be noted, composed of several of the very nicest of Greenville babies, was born in Greenwood, a town with which in ordinary circumstances we are highly competitive. But several Greenville matrons admired a prominent physician so much that, when he took his practice to Greenwood, instead of begging their husbands to shoot him, they followed him. Driving fifty miles to go to the doctor or a party is nothing in the Delta. Because of this distance, however, one baby was almost born on her father's airplane in the doctor's front yard-her mother had waited until the last minute. Being told by his wife that a plane was landing in his yard, Dr. Poindexter reportedly replied, "Adelaide, I told you not to have that last scotch and water."
Peering into her baby's eyes, whether in Greenwood or the King's Daughters, the Delta mother beholds the future: cheerleading, Chi Omega, and that special day when her beautiful daughter will waft up the aisle on the arm of her father (if she is a genuine Delta bride, you will smell her before you actually see her-we are a people of the perfume bottle, and other bottles, too). The Delta wedding is the apotheosis of all the mother's dreams-and, of course, all her social ambitions. A father, whose role, as one local matron put it, is to sit up, to pay up, and to shush up, is expected to behave like a good child: seen but not heard.
Another important extra is a groom. In the Delta, you still can't have a wedding without one. His job is to be presentable at all times and exude ecstasy because a paragon of Southern womanhood has done him the honor of accepting his offer of holy matrimony, even if being united in that blessed state requires a production that would have put Mr. Cecil B. DeMille of Hollywood in Whitfield. (Whitfield is our state mental institution. We affectionately refer to it as "the bin," which is nicer than loony bin.) After being in one of our weddings, you'll feel you've been to the bin, or ought to head there immediately. We have a special name for a Delta wedding that is an unusually elaborate, or famous, or perhaps notorious, or, in some undefined way, a particularly noteworthy occasion-for some reason, which none of us now remember, we always call it "the last Delta wedding." Any wedding of epic proportions is accorded the high accolade of being designated a last Delta wedding; there have been hundreds upon hundreds of last Delta weddings over the years. As long as there is a Delta, there will be one more last Delta wedding.
Before we leave the King's Daughters, there is one more consideration regarding the initial stages of wedding planning: The Southern mother wants her daughter to have a proud old Southern name that conjures up the notion of fine breeding. To this end, we like names redolent of our Virginia or Kentucky pasts, real or imagined. This has created a Delta-wide penchant for last names as first names for girls. For this reason, the Mississippi Delta has the lowest Janet-quotient of any region in the United States. Suitable names for a Delta girl are Dabney, Meriwether, Harper, and Bland (didn't they have a county in Virginia?), though in day-to-day parlance, the bearers of these fine old Southern names will likely go by Baby Doll, Presh (which is actually short for Precious), or Sistuh.
By the time a Delta girl is eight years old, she knows more about wedding etiquette than a Yankee bridal consultant. By the time she is ten, she has given serious thought to selecting a silver pattern-preferably Rich Aunt Bess's, to facilitate inheritance. We like to say we are born this way, that we Delta girls inherit an etiquette gene. In reality, it's a mixture of nature and nurture. We were toddling up aisles in flower girl outfits in real weddings or participating in Tom Thumb weddings at St. James' Episcopal Church, an especially nice place to get married, as soon as we could put one foot in front of the other. Still, very young children sometimes make a faux pas, even in the Delta. When Dexter and Davenport, the Jenkins twins, were ring bearer and flower girl respectively in a big wedding in Hollandale, Mississippi, they got up the aisle just fine. Then they plopped unceremoniously down on the steps leading to the sanctuary. When the door opened to admit the bride, a fire truck with sirens blaring passed by; hearing this clarion call, the children fled and had chased the fire truck halfway down the block before somebody caught them and brought them back to church.
We are also particular about what the children wear. One of the most important rules: Do not dress your ring bearer up like a miniature man. This rule cannot be sufficiently stressed. There is nothing cute about a four-year-old boy in a tiny suit or a tux. The proper ring bearer wears an Eton suit, which has short pants and a circular collar-we may pronounce it E-ton, and while some of us don't know that the name comes from a school in England that is even older than Ole Miss, we know that little boys look sweet in an E-ton suit. We're still talking bad about the tacky bride whose ring bearer wore itty-bitty tails, with a white tie, just like the grown-ups. Even in the Delta, there are people who Don't Know.
Alice Hunt McAllister, who lives in New York City, shudders every time she tells her sad story about a little boy who tried to sit by her in church. When Alice Hunt realized that he was wearing a clip-on bowtie and long pants, she moved to another pew quicker than if he'd had cholera. "I didn't want a homunculus sitting in my lap," she harrumphed. A homunculus is what alchemists called a teeny-tiny little man that hasn't been born yet, and they are ugly as sin.
The Southern girl knows before she is accepted into the Dirt Daubers Garden Club that it is wrong to bring a wedding present to the reception (it has been sent previously-you have one year to write a thank-you note, but the Southern bride will write a gushing note almost before you get home from mailing the gift). While still in her high chair, the Southern girl has heard her mother utter an all-important dictum. "Reply in kind." That means that a formal invitation requires a formal reply (in black ink-and not ink from a ballpoint pen) in the same form as the invitation: "Miss Dabney Harper Jones accepts the kind invitation of ..." Dabney Harper Jones will reply like this if the invitation is from her cousin next door. A less formal invitation calls for a less formal reply. Hence Mama's reply-in-kind rubric. The Southern girl at a very early age is conversant with the proper role of the usher: The mother takes the usher's arm, while her husband and children follow her up the aisle. The late Margaret Reynolds, a revered member of our community whose job it was to prepare the wedding party, laid down a rule for ushers during the rehearsal: "Keep your sword arm free," Mrs. Reynolds always ordered. She was oblivious to the effect this injunction had on visitors from the North, whose eyes always bulged with fear, but it is a good mnemonic device to prevent an usher from offering a lady the wrong arm. The sword arm, the right one, is kept free for the exclusive use of the young lady, to whom it is presented on the way up and down the aisle.
Alice Hunt McAllister, who seems to do nothing but run into pitiful etiquette mishaps up north, also had a very unfortunate experience with regard to proper ushering. This time she was attending a wedding in Washington, D.C. It seems that Alice Hunt took the usher's arm, expecting to sail up the aisle. Halfway up, she realized she was dragging the poor man. "That poor little leprechaun left skid marks on the floor," Alice Hunt has recalled many, many times. Alice Hunt seriously considered throwing the book-the Amy Vanderbilt book, which otherwise was hidden at the bottom of her closet for emergency consultation only-at somebody. (It is okay to peek at an etiquette book, but if you rely too heavily on it, people will think that you are not fully acquainted with what is right and wrong and could fall into the unattractive category of People Who Don't Know.)
We expect Southern girls to have digested all these etiquette rules and to go out of their way to behave, at weddings and elsewhere. Southern mothers have a dictum: "Even if it kills you, be nice." If you e'vuh do anything bad, the mother always adds, somebody who knows your parents, or your grandparents, will be present and we will hear about it. That is why it is never safe to be rude in the Mississippi Delta. There are no secrets here, which is fun unless you're the one provoking the juicy gossip.
Southerners have been told from infancy that they must always go around the room and speak to the older ladies and gentlemen at any party. "Did you speak to the chaperones?" Olivia Morgan Gilliam once asked a daughter who was hugging the commode for dear life and barely able to speak to Olivia Morgan at that point. We will speak to the older ladies and gentlemen even if we are so blind drunk that we barely know our own names, much less theirs. It's considered all right to get drunk as long as it doesn't impede doing the right thing. For example, we know one Memphis father of whom it was said that, no matter how drunk his daughters got Saturday night, he always made sure to get them up and go to Second Presbyterian Sunday morning. One of the most courtly Southern gentlemen we know is Bo Crittenden, who just happens to be a direct descendent of a famous general in The War (by which we mean the late unpleasantness with our friends to the north), who was always so inebriated that an aide de camp had to tell him whether they had won or lost the battle.
Bo was once invited to a strict, hard-shelled Baptist wedding of a prominent Midwestern family. No alcohol. The groomsmen, all gentlemen of the Southland, promptly devised a new drink: Café Jacques Danielle; it consisted of an ennsy-beensy dab of black coffee in a brimming cup of Jack Daniel's. The bride's mother called Bo over, and he thought he was done for. He just about ma'am-ed her to death. If you could be mauled with ma'ams, this lady would have had to go to the hospital. She was impressed. But she spoke her mind: "I worry about you young men-you drink too much coffee," she sighed. The moral is that with good manners and sufficient libations, you can have a Southern wedding in Idaho. His mama had taught him to be a gentleman.
Southerners never needed etiquette books in the past because all Southern towns had socially connected matrons who ruled the roost with an iron hand. In Greenville, one of these matrons was the late Louise Eskridge Crump, who worked-but it was okay because her job was being society editor at the Democrat. Another Greenville doyenne was Louise B. Mayhall, who was the society stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Although we pretend that we don't like publicity and that nice people are only in the newspaper when they are born and die, go off to camp, have a tea dance, get into the garden club, attend a meeting of the book club, or win a prize for the best pigs in the county at the 4-H club, we actually care a great deal about it, especially wedding write-ups. The local paper in the Crump era had four large spaces for pictures on the front of Sunday society pages, and Mrs. Crump dictated who got them. The best-connected bride got the upper left-hand corner on the Sunday front page. Anyplace on the page was considered good. We know a Memphis bride-to-be who got married, the first time, at least, during the hippie era. She nearly killed her poor mama by refusing to have a write-up in the Sunday paper. She relented, possibly because she did not want to go through life with the stigma of matricide attached to her name. By then all the good spots had been taken. Her big sister, a famous Memphis beauty and prominent matron, had to debase herself by calling the society editor. "Is she top-drawer?" the editor asked. "She's my sister," the matron replied. Hippie sister, of course, got the upper left-hand corner, and mama could hold up her head at the bridge club. Write-ups in the golden era of Mesdames Crump and Mayhall were decorous affairs: Initials were eschewed in favor of full names, and no chatty details, such as how the couple met at the Qwik Tyme car wash, were included; on the other hand, important pieces of information, such as the bride's direct line descent from Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen, were.
While weddings in the Delta have always been major social events, in recent years some have taken on the patina of a pageant. Some are even more elaborate than the baton twirling at Mississippi State University, the kingpin twirling school. While Ole Miss is our premiere institution of higher learning, Mississippi State University, which inspires so much loyalty that one daughter moved to Europe so she wouldn't have to listen to her father talk about how NASA sends broken space shuttle doors to MSU to be repaired, has emerged as a very popular motif in Delta weddings. One groom's loyalty to his alma mater was reflected in a groom's cake baked in the shape of the MSU mascot, a bulldog. Grooms' cakes are a recent innovation with which we are not entirely comfortable-our rule of thumb is that anything that was not done in the past needn't to be done now. We are especially against a groom's cake that features a fishing tackle or golfing theme, or a replica of the groom's beloved Labrador retriever in a sleeping pose. Absolutely beyond the pale was the groom's cake surrounded with sugar-spun frogs, which, the write-up informed us, stood for "fully rely on God." We do fully rely on God, but we feel certain that He doesn't like bad taste any better than we do. One couple departed their reception at the country club in a golf cart to the accompaniment of MSU cowbells; cowbell favors were given to all the guests, who were encouraged to ring them in lieu of throwing rice (more on the rice issue later), but the big cowbell was rung by the groom's father. It was his own personal cowbell, a family keepsake, a gift from his father before him, which he had rung at numerous football games in the halcyon days when he studied animal husbandry at that fabled institution of higher learning. Cowbells have deep significance at State, but we ask: Is there such a thing as going too far?
As we peruse the eagerly awaited bride's issue of Mississippi Magazine-it features full-page color spreads on weddings and receptions-those of us who were blessed to be born in a better day sometimes find ourselves wondering: What would Mrs. Crump think? What, for example, might she make of the wedding write-up that put the name of the wedding planner in the second sentence, before naming the parents, the officiating clergyman, or the soloist who not only sang the Mississippi State University Fight Song, but also gave a beautiful reading of Philippians 2:9-11?
Excerpted from SOMEBODY IS GOING TO DIE IF LILLY BETH DOESN'T CATCH THAT BOUQUET by Gayden Metcalfe Charlotte Hayes Copyright © 2007 by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Excerpted by permission.
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