Southern Girl Academy: High Holidays

Southerners do many things well. Celebrating tops the list. And nothing gets us more excited than the high holidays, those special dates starred, highlighted and underlined in our agenda books.

But my calendar looks different from that of the girl sitting next to me. And hers has dates that don’t match those on her sister-in-law’s day planner. What unites us? That good old-fashioned camaraderie you’ll only find where the tea is sweet.

It doesn’t matter to us if you celebrate Easter in fabulous white peep-toes or Hanukkah in gorgeous dark leather boots; we’re here to lift you up and mark this day because it’s important to you. And if it’s important to someone we love, it’s sure as hell important to us.

That’s the thing about Southerners: Few experiences please us like being able to make others feel happy, welcome and looked-after. And what better way to do that than to host a throw-down to celebrate that very important date?

Maybe your high holiday is the arrival of your only child. On his first birthday, we’ll show up with an adorable smash cake, a stash of monogrammed bibs and a six-pack to enjoy when you’re cleaning up the mess.

Wait! Did you just say you’re about to be the first person in your family to earn a graduate degree?! How exciting! Give us 20 minutes and we’ll have a room reserved at your favorite restaurant so there’s a delicious dinner after the final melody of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

There are, of course, days that become important to us in ways we never expected. And those are often because of the warmth and graciousness of our Southern sisters.

When my grandfather died in 2004, I could never imagine looking back on the experience – which included multiple flights and four hours of driving to get to tiny Sale City, Ga. (pop. 253) – as a pleasant memory, let alone as one of my own personal high holidays.

But a brigade unlike any seen in that state since Sherman’s march showed up on my grandmother’s doorstep, carrying everything we needed: bottled Cokes, Ziplocks stuffed with steamy boiled peanuts and milk vases brimming with fresh-cut azaleas.

The morning of the funeral, my mother and I were alone in my grandparents’ house, and at 7:30 a.m. discovered a full, creamy banana pudding with perfect meringue peaks. It was left in their refrigerator as a surprise by a chain-smoking culinary genius with a blue-tinted coiffure who was just as adept at refilling your plate as at delivering a well-timed, “Bless your heart!”

Mama and I sat at the table where we’d both learned to eat solid foods and devoured the entire 9×13 pan in about 15 minutes. It is, to this day, one of my all-time favorite memories

In the midst of stress, we laughed a lot that morning, and we still laugh about our pre-funeral indulgence often. That makes March 6 one of my own high holidays, seven years later.

So if there’s something important happening in your life, sidle up to us and please do tell! Southerners know how to throw a heckuva party, and we know how to console you, too. We’ve got all the trappings to help you make your own high holiday.

But before you go on, just give me a moment to mark this on my calendar …

Hilary DeMillo is a Georgia peach through and through. But she still loves living in central Arkansas with her Atlanta-native husband and their mutt Sanford, named for that sacred ground where the Bulldogs play six or seven Saturdays every fall. She also shops a little too much.

Southern Girl Academy: Sororities

Southerners LOVE secrets and the South is certainly full of them; from the trunk of Great Grandfather’s Confederate money that’s still in the basement (because you still never know if you might need it,) to the still your daddy has deep in the woods.  Ladies get in on keeping secrets as well.  We have the secrets to our families’ recipes (Only last week I was given the recipe to my grandmother’s banana bread) and the secrets of our sororities.  Any Southern girl of “breeding” joined at sorority while at college.

The names sororities generally consist of two or three Greek letters, often the initials of a Greek motto, which may be secret.  Each group as her own letters, symbols, crest, passwords and grip.  These are not revealed to you until you go through the secret initiation ceremony.  This usually occurs several after several weeks of “pledging.”  But before you stop reading because you’re now positive that Greek life is portrayed exactly in the movie Animal House, know that it’s a little different for women

Choice of sorority is crucial.  It begins long before college.  For me it began in junior high school – probably before.  My grandmother – the quintessential Southern aristocrat – would drive me along Sorority Row at the University of Alabama and tell me to which houses I was a legacy (all of them).  Legacies are daughters, granddaughters, or sisters of a member of the sorority. Many southern sorority women are part of a longstanding legacy tradition within the sorority.  She wanted me to attend there so badly she could spit (if she ever did such a thing).

Much to her chagrin and dismay I attended college in Arkansas where no legacies were to be had for me.  After receiving an invitation to join a sisterhood, later, my job became enlightening the new members on the history of our illustrious organization.  Along with the founders, purpose motto and creed, I taught new members about the finer points of pouring your beer in a glass before you drink, and not wearing your sorority letters to a “kegger.”  I always stressed that a lady only makes the paper unless she’s “wed, bred, or dead.”  After about 8 weeks they were initiated and finally knew the secrets of our sisterhood.  Of course many new initiates celebrated this event with copious amounts of alcohol.

Sure there is still the notion of fanatical loyalty, conformity, hazing and browbeating, but that was not my experience.  There was however a fair amount of partying, husband hunting and connection building.   For the guys, you can forget about the topless pillow fights and midnight hot girl on girl experimentation – or can you???  I enjoyed my time as a collegiate in a sorority.  And even today if you ask me the secrets of my group, I wouldn’t tell you!  Secrets are sacred in the South!

Anne Cadle is an alumnae of Zeta Tau Alpha fraternity for women.  Despite a freakish inability to make the most basic of Southern drinks, iced tea, she still considers herself a good girl from the south.  As the daughter of an Army Colonel she can drink you under the table and give you a cussin’ to make a sailor blush.  However, she’s also the daughter of a debutante, so she has the manners and up bringing not to do such a thing.  She blogs about her slice of the South.  You can stop by anytime for some store bought iced tea or her favorite beverage, Chardonnay.

Southern Girl Academy: Cotillion

Students, I’ve been asked to school you in the fine art of the thrilling, torturous Southern tradition of cotillion. The best way I know how to convey to you the importance of this rite of passage for young Southern lads and ladies is to recount my own experiences in Little Rock Junior Cotillion in as vivid detail as I can muster without undoing all those years of counseling it took me to recover.

Little Rock Junior Cotillion was quite a big deal in those years, and it is still going strong today. Mrs. Ellen Butts founded the program in the 1950s as a method of teaching good manners, social graces and dance steps to children in grades 6 – 9.

The thrill of those early days of Cotillion is almost indescribable. The new dresses – fabulously froofy ones with lots of taffeta and ruffles. The new shoes – high heels with open toes. The panty hose – a lovely shade of nude unrolled from a little plastic egg. The white gloves – required by Mrs. Butts and with a pearl button that fastened on the inside of my wrist. Such glamour!

But there also was angst. Though terribly boy crazy myself, I was not in the popular clique and therefore not one of the girls all the boys wanted to dance with. When I close my eyes, I see an awkward middle schooler with a horrible layered 80s haircut in a hand-me-down rabbit’s fur coat trying desperately to impress those around me. I even had to endure several weeks of attending the dances with a cast on my arm, thanks to my severe lack of coordination on the dodgeball court. Such torture!

My earliest cotillion memory is from December 1982, when tornadoes ripped through Little Rock, leaving my house without power. That Saturday night, I was in the middle of a real pre-teen crisis. “How am I going to curl my hair?” I whined to my mother, who was a soothing my nerves in the glow of the Coleman camping lantern. “How am I going to put on my eye shadow?”

Thankfully, my grandparents had power. There, I completed my routine of tightly curling my bangs into a configuration resembling a roll of coins and carefully covering my eyelids in a thick layers of iridescent blue and pink eye shadows. Gorgeous.

Dressed to the nines in our satin and taffeta and bows, my friends and I were all atwitter as we were chauffeured by a parent to the Racquet Club. I still remember the glow of the upper room as we rounded the corner for drop off. The nervous anticipation as we ascended the stairs, pausing to shake Mrs. Butt’s gloved hand before taking our place along the wall. Girls on the left. Boys on the right. A drumbeat announced the start of the Grand March. And then the horror began.

I could see the boys counting, trying to figure out which girl they were going to get as their first partner. They began switching places, shifting around in line to either a) avoid getting a dud, which I assumed was me, or b) ensure they got the girl of their dreams, which I assumed was not me. Finally, we ended up in pairs.

The rule was you had to dance the first set of dances with your first partner before you began plea bargaining with those around you to switch. I do remember several evenings that I ended up with a winning switch, dancing “The Stargazer” in the awkward arms with a boy I actually had a crush on. Mostly I remember my silent prayer that I not be rejected multiple times in one evening.

To Mrs. Butts’ credit, not all the dances were partner dances. We learned such dances as the “Jedi Frog,” which entailed some jumping around and waving your arms over your head – but in cool way. My two favorites were “The Freeze” and “The Military Shuffle.” I can still do both of them with aplomb, even saying the motions out loud in the droning voice of the instructor as I do them. I assure you, I’m not alone. My high school friends and I still routinely break into the shuffle whenever given the chance. It works best to Prince’s “Delirious,” just so you know.

My son is going into 6th grade next year, and we’ve already sent his application in for cotillion. Why, you may ask, are parents today still subjecting their children to such torture? Hell, it’s good for them! Experience rejection at an early age! Learn to serve your “date” her cold Coca Cola before you enjoy your own! Enjoy the swishing, swooshing of taffeta in preparation for all those bridesmaids dresses!

But really it’s just so I can teach him to treat girls the way I wanted to be treated back then. Be kind to every girl you dance with. Never, ever swap places in line during the Grand March. Smile. Make small talk. Compliment her nude stockings and open toe shoes. And most of all, memorize every move to the Military Shuffle so you can bust a move with your mom at your wedding reception.

Jennifer Cobb Pyron is a wife, mother, daughter, sister, writer, editor, part-time comedian, 80s trivia genius and wannabe rock star. She works at Arkansas Business Publishing Group where she’s Associate Publisher & Editor of Little Rock Family. She will happily teach you cotillion dances at any time … just ask!

Southern Girl Academy: Hurricane Parties

Anyone who says they’re not afraid at the time of a hurricane is either a fool or a liar, or a little bit of both.
— Anderson Cooper

Fair warning here – if you’re here this week thinking you’re gonna get a recipe for the (in)famous New Orleans libation known as the hurricane, you’re better off elsewhere. Visit DrinksMixer.com and pick your favorite.

Admittedly, the concoction of rum, amaretto, and triple sec is uniquely suited to a southern palate – one that prefers sweet tea to tea-colored water and bourbon to vodka. But this post is about much more than the unfortunately named drink.

Hurricane parties don’t revolve around getting drunk in the Quarter. Instead, they focus on families hunkering down against the forces of evil otherwise known as the hurricane. In southern Louisiana, the hurricane party has become an opportunity to gather together, play games, pray, and sometimes drink while you wait out the storm.

Matriarchs have hurricane party planning down to an art, as any good Southern woman would. The first time a weatherman mentions a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico likely headed to the coast, moms call their kids away at college to come home.

Note: Mothers in the northern part of the Gulf South do the same thing. They just want you far away from the storm. They haven’t lived through one, and they don’t want their babies to do so either. Unfortunately, their desire isn’t always fulfilled. Spending time with Cajun college roommates and their families is so much better than visiting your Southern Baptist Mamaw. Trust me… sorry Mom.

As the storm nears, the largest home on a family’s homestead – many extended families live close to one another – becomes hurricane headquarters. Beer, food, cards, pennies, water, buckets, and other necessities are assembled. If you’re really lucky, the rural house with well water will have a swimming pool so that toilets can be flushed even when the electricity is gone.

Family members assemble, and the last piece of the party puzzle is in place. Daddies gather their babies up, and Mamas work to cook something before wind knocks power out. Anticipation builds, and everyone is truly grateful loved ones are near.

But that love doesn’t always run deep throughout the hurricane party experience. When the lights go out, and sometimes the water doesn’t run, the cards and pennies – along with bloodthirsty players – make an appearance. Bourre, a card game like spades in that the players aim to win tricks, is the traditional game for Cajun families, especially when they’re gathered for hurricane safety. Warning: you can lose your shirt quickly in this game and your penny stash might have to last for days. Play smart and don’t ever gloat over a won hand. Your luck will change.

Bourre and other games hold boredom at bay until the all clear is issued. Sometimes, a kite or two is brought out, and the adults will climb on the roof to take advantage of the hurricane-force winds. Folks from further north will probably regard that with skepticism, but the South is composed of “freaks.” The hurricane-party point is not to be wild or dangerous, it’s to pass the time enjoyably.

These gatherings turn a time that could be incredibly scary for everyone involved into a time of bonding. Hurricane parties allow us to learn about the differences and similarities between generations. They force us into close proximity with those we might not like all that much because of past transgressions.

They make us “make up,” and therein lies their value. An extended family – with friends too – becomes closer. And all that togetherness can be attributed to something named Andrew, or Claire, or Hugo.

Come to think of it, hurricane season starts in June. I better start saving pennies now.

Tonya Oaks Smith has spent most of her adult life smoothing frayed edges, herding wet and hungry cats, breaking down silos, and perfecting the #facepalm – all while dancing backwards and in heels with a big smile on her face. She’s a preacher’s granddaughter from Calhoun, Louisiana, so Tonya knows both her Jell-O molds and Jell-O shots.