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After taking a good, long look at myself, I've realized that I may be a little too outspoken in putting forward my opinions, just a bit too quick to judge others to their detriment, much too inclined to think I know what's best for someone else, and entirely too skeptical of every claim to better my life made by salesmen of all stripes, including politicians. So I've decided to turn over a new leaf, and I intend to do it before I get so set in my ways that I can't turn over anything.
And here's the cold, hard truth: I am in danger of becoming a crabby, sharp-tongued old woman who has allowed her worst attributes to become her defining characteristics.
I have, however, recognized the danger in time to do something about it. I well recall being a student in what was then called a Health class in high school-this was long before those classes were enlivened by the use of vegetables as visual aids. During a period on personal hygiene, the teacher informed us that when we begin to smell ourselves, we have been noticeably reeking to others for four days.
That makes me wonder if the same holds true in different situations. I mean, even though I've only just recognized some unbecoming traits in myself, is it possible that they've been obvious to others for much longer?
One never knows how one is judged, so it behooves each of us to be prepared for the worst assessments and get ourselves ready to deal with them. So for me, that means strengthening my better impulses and diminishing those that are unseemly in a lady, and if that term puts me back into an archaic age, then so be it. Actually, no one seems to think that being a lady is worth anything these days. What is now wanted is to be WOMAN-a status that affords all the perquisites of ladyhood plus the benefits of manhood as well.
But I'm off the subject.
After taking that hard look at myself, I didn't like what I saw. So I have determined to smile more, compliment others more, allow others to have disagreeable opinions without consigning them to idiocy, be more sensitive to the needs of others without wondering why they don't help themselves, and refrain from questioning any and all motives that issue from the mouths of people trying to sell me something I don't want or raise funds for something I've never heard of, or run for office, be it local, state, or federal.
And what brought on this change of heart? You may well ask, and my answer is two-pronged. One occurred when I picked up a book that Sam was reading and a short sentence jumped out at me. It was a sentence attributed to Saint Augustine, who lived a long time ago but who could've been speaking directly to me. "Pride," he said, "lurks even in good deeds." Now, I'm sure that he didn't speak in English, certainly not with a southern accent, so I am relying on an unknown translator as most people of faith have to do anyway. But that sentence went straight to my heart, and I think it was that word, lurks, that had the sharp point. It means to lie in wait, to be concealed-unseen and unsuspected.
Reading that forced me to recognize the pride I took in my opinions-so much better informed than most-and in my actions-so much more appropriate than most. Pride, in fact, had ruled my life and it had done so by lurking, unseen and unsuspected, in every thought and deed.
I'll tell you, that was enough to shake the very foundation of my life, and I have resolved to do something about it.
But the second thing that contributed to my change of heart was witnessing what happened to Mildred Allen, my next-door neighbor and longtime friend.
Mildred is a law unto herself, and she doesn't mind who knows it. In fact, she glories in it. Having been brought up an only child in a privileged household, she had been her father's darling. He had raised her in great wealth and to assume both the freedom and the burden of great wealth when he was gone. He had, in fact, reared her as he would have reared a son-teaching her to read financial reports, to understand stock options, to play the futures market, and to manage the Ed and Eleanor Beasley Foundation that seemed to exist solely to sponsor British television shows on PBS. I could be wrong about that, for I certainly did not know the extent of Mildred's financial interests. All I knew was that her father had taught her well, which put him years ahead of his time in my estimation.
But in the doing, he had also put her in the unrealistic position of expecting an entire life of ease with every desire fulfilled and every problem resolved before reaching her. You may wonder, as I occasionally had, what in the world a woman like that was doing in a small, almost rural, town like Abbotsville. She could've been living among the beautiful people of California or New York-even, for goodness' sakes, of Paris or London. Well, apparently at times in her youth she had, if the occasional offhand reference to her early life was any indication.
Now, though, a yearly shopping trip to New York which included a few Broadway shows was the extent of her travels. By the time of which I'm speaking, she seemed perfectly content to stay home and queen it over our local society, such as it was, and do exactly what she wanted to do-which was next to nothing because she had Ida Lee to take up the slack. Ida Lee was a New York-trained professional housekeeper, personal manager, and hand holder who ran Mildred's household with unfailing competence, while Mildred fiddled with stock portfolios, various charities, and rewriting her will.
I liked Mildred and enjoyed her company, but not every day. Even though we were next-door neighbors, we weren't the constantly visiting kind. We could go for days, even weeks, with no contact at all, yet know that the other was available when needed. We got along well because we were on the same wavelength about most things in spite of her being an Episcopalian, although not a very faithful one. "I can't do all that kneeling anymore, Julia," she'd told me, "and I hate to just sit there while everybody else is bobbing up and down."
Not a very good reason to skip Sunday services, if you ask me, but then, we Presbyterians are known for our upright stance on any number of things. I could understand Mildred's problem, though, for she had over the years put on a good bit of weight. To be frank, she was a large woman who blamed her size on a nonexistent glandular condition. But then, we all find excuses of one kind or another for our lapses, so I accepted hers for being as good as any.
Mildred's other half, who often seemed only a fraction of that, was Horace, a man of few words but of attentive service. I never knew what to think of that marriage since Mildred so obviously ruled the roost, but of course it wasn't up to me to judge. I couldn't help but wonder, though, why Horace put up with having to dance to her tune. Frankly, I thought the less of him for it, but gradually came to realize that he was not only amply compensated, but perfectly suited to the role.
He often wore an ascot and occasionally spent a week or so at a gentlemen's spa somewhere in Arizona, getting high colonics and a suntan. In spite of Mildred's easy-come, easy-go attitude about most things, she kept him on a fairly tight leash.
And even more so since he'd recently suffered a heart attack which, according to Mildred, had left his memory slightly impaired. He had no recall of the days spent in intensive care or the weeks in a physical rehabilitation facility. By now, though, he seemed his old self with no concern about the gap in his memory. The only symptom that something was slightly off was his obsession with his little red Boxster car which he was no longer allowed to drive, but which he visited every day out in the garage. Other than that, he was his same pleasant self, impeccably dressed and ready to be of service when Mildred snapped her fingers.
As far as I knew, the marriage worked and, insulated by Horace and Ida Lee, nothing had ever disturbed Mildred's self-absorbed life. Nothing, that is, until her son, Tony, left Abbotsville for New York and came back the result of surgeries and hormone injections a changed man.
That happened a few years ago and, after several days of gasping and chest patting, the town gossips absorbed the news as part of the cultural shifts we were living through and thought little more of it.
It affected Mildred and Horace, of course, much more than any of us. Mildred took to her bed for a week or so and Horace flew to Palm Beach. I think he had viewed having a son as proof of something, maybe of his own manhood. He had certainly been of no help to Mildred in her hour of need because he took one look at his child in a pink Chanel suit and called Delta for a reservation.
When I heard the news, I didn't know whether to send a condolence card or show up with an almond pound cake. Amy Vanderbilt had not covered this particular contingency, but I certainly didn't run over and offer a shoulder to cry on. Mildred wasn't the kind of friend who shared her feelings, and I wasn't all that eager to know the details.
So, after the first numbing shock of seeing the results of Tony's life-changing surgeries, as well as accepting the fact that he was now Tonya, Mildred showed her true mettle. She got out of bed and began smoothly-to all outward appearances-to accommodate the idea of having produced a daughter instead of a son.
A few years have now passed since Tonya made her first stunning appearance in Abbotsville, although she continued to make the occasional brief visit now and then. But Mildred, who loved any excuse to host a tea, a soiree, a dinner party, or even a backyard barbeque, was always strangely silent during those visits. Although most everybody was dying to meet Tonya face-to-face, no phone calls were received and no invitations were forthcoming.
Having been in a similar situation at one time, I understood Mildred's reluctance to put the new member of her family on display. When I learned of my first husband's perfidy-after his demise when nothing could be done-I had often wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. Being the focus of every gossip in town is nobody's idea of fun, but I had chosen the opposite tactic from the one Mildred was taking. I had welcomed Wesley Lloyd Springer's kept woman into my home, along with their illegitimate son, then flaunted them both in church and at every social occasion, and ended up blackmailing those aloof, holier-than-thou souls who happened to owe money to the Springer estate. After that, Hazel Marie and Lloyd were quickly accepted at face value, and no one has dared say a word against them or me ever since. What they might've had to say about Wesley Lloyd is another matter and of no concern to me.
Several days after the most recent of Tonya's short visits, Mildred asked me over for tea one afternoon in the early fall. Seated on chintz-covered cushions in white wicker chairs in her sunroom, we could see through the windows the glorious golden mass of color of Mildred's prized ginkgo tree.
Since we rarely met just to visit, I knew she had something specific on her mind and that her outward equanimity was perhaps not so deep after all. I vaguely wondered if I should ask after Tonya's well-being in a neighborly sort of way, as I would normally have done when she was Tony, or just leave well enough alone. Mildred made the decision for me.
"Julia," she began, setting her cup in its saucer with a clink, "I have got to talk to somebody, and I've decided that you are the most likely to understand and the least likely to spread it around town. I am driving myself crazy by keeping it all inside and pretending that I don't care one way or the other. But I do care. I've tried to talk with Horace to no avail. But of course he hasn't fully recovered from his heart attack and I don't want to burden him with more problems. The fact of the matter is that Tonya seems to have cut us, well, me, out of her life, and it is tearing me up. So I am going to impose on our friendship and discuss it with you even though I'm not in the habit of revealing personal problems."
"I know you're not," I said as warmly as I could, "and I appreciate your trust in me. You can rest assured that it will go no further, but it often helps simply to talk about whatever is troubling you."
Mildred picked up her napkin, gave it a shake, then laid it across her lap again. Then she said, "Horace refuses to talk about it or even to listen to me. He gets green around the gills whenever I bring up the subject. And Ida Lee, well, you know how she is-professional to the core. She just agrees with me and never says what she really thinks. But you, I know you'll be honest with me and tell me exactly what you think."
My first thought was that she was giving me too much credit. Like any socially oriented woman, I could lie with the best of them-it's called good manners. How often have I complimented someone on a dress that looked like a flour sack? Or told someone wracked by a recent illness how well she looked? Or exclaimed with admiration over a newly but tackily decorated room? Or accepted with pleasure an invitation that I didn't want, or with great and piteously expressed regret refused one that conflicted with nothing more than that I'd rather watch reruns on television than accept?
My second thought was that here was a chance to practice my newly determined intention to hold my tongue since no one-regardless of what they claimed-really wanted to hear the truth as I saw it.
"I appreciate that, Mildred," I said, knowing I had to say something, "and I'll do the best I can, but you might do better to discuss your feelings with your priest."