Ode to a Southern Belle

Summer1944

Summer 1944- Annette’s Engagement Picnic

“Boys only want one thing.” That’s what my mother said. That was the universal first wisdom about being with boys. You were supposed to believe your mother. She’d been there before. Where ever “there” was. She Knew.

I had met some of them, my mother’s “boys”. They were grownups by then. Their still-energetic eyes rode above small pouches on their cheeks. They flicked cigarette lighters with U.S. Army or U.S. Navy insignias on them and grinned warmly. I was little, they were big.

Their car horns tooted from our corner street, just as she had told me they did when she was in high school. My grandfather hadn’t let her go out on school nights for any reason. But a few boys would drive slowly by after school, give a little toot. A hello. “Boys!” My grand father would bark, “They only want one thing.”

We lived with my grandparents. So it was the same tootin’ corner. The same side porch from which she’d wave, smiling. They might have sailed across the world, fought a world war. She had married, had a baby girl and divorced. Back they all were in the early 1950s, never the same, but still circling.

Years later she confided that she’d never been able to see who it was exactly, in the cars, due to her nearsightedness and vanity about wearing glasses. So she memorized which car belonged to which boy – a green ‘39 Chevy? Jack. A blue Ford coupe? Charlie. “ But what if someone was driving a friend’s car?” I asked. She looked surprised. it had never occurred to her. Then she looked relieved. “It didn’t matter.” That’s right. All she did was smile and wave.

My mother was lovely. Beautiful. Everyone said so, both women and men. Over my childhood head, forgetting I was in the room, they would compare her to Elizabeth Taylor. But not stuck up, the women would say. But classy, the men would say.

That’s what the old men – who’d been young men when I was little, who’d been boys in high school – said when I came along to her 50th high school reunion. They didn’t exactly swarm around her. They creaked around her.

And she smiled. They beamed back. Supposedly telling me, but really reminding each other, my mother and Billy or Sam or Joe would rattle off a short memory of a cheerleader horn left in the rain or the senior play disaster. It became clear: none of these guys had ever even dated her. Just the sight of her, still classy, brought ear to ear grins from them all. And if the grins now slept in glasses at night, no matter. She was still not wearing her glasses all the time either.

Whatever the one thing it was that they had wanted, or thought they wanted, or she thought they had wanted, I could see the real thing, alive and well through the last half of the 20th century: a beaming appreciation, a basking warmth of mutual recognition. They enjoyed her friendly beauty. She enjoyed their worship. This was a dance that gave every player pleasure.

And although the proper dance for that Class of ‘42 would be the jitterbug, I saw them moving in a Virginia reel, forever swinging from one partner to the next, Circling and smiling. With a wave, farewell.

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