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"White on white," 2018, by Meg Griffiths, from the series "Somewhere within and without." Courtesy the artist

Issue 116, Spring 2022

Miss Betty

Ihave her hands, small, bird-boned, long-fingered. I have her nose, too, which she referred to as “the Gilbert nose,” nothing special, just straight and, she liked to say, for some reason, “English.” But her hands: I was so happy when people said mine were “just like your mama’s,” though mine will never be as accomplished or as strong. During her last weeks, I’d watch her hands as she slept; I held them when she woke. They were as light as a leaf, and even as she lay there dying, still elegant in the way she rested them on the blanket. I’ve seen her hands in white kid gloves and coated in red clay; I’ve seen them stained purple from making dewberry jelly and moving at speed crocheting yet another baby blanket; I’ve seen them soothe a startled horse and behead a cottonmouth with a shovel. Now her hands were so thin her rings were loose, and the metal, she said, was cold.

I have inherited her rings: her engagement diamond, her opal, her 1960s cocktail ring with three colors of gold. I have inherited her china, her silver, her jelly recipes, and her zeal for Christmas centerpieces concocted out of Styrofoam, kumquats, and toothpicks. I find I’ve inherited many of her persuasions and prejudices, too, despite thinking I’m such a feminist, so right-on, so free from the obsessive punctilios and moral deformities of the white South. The dinner knife always goes on the right, blade facing in, the dessert fork and spoon go above the plate, for God’s sake, and, yes, I will notice if your table setting is not correct—not that I will say anything. That would be rude. I’ve caught myself running a finger down a wedding invitation to see if it is engraved, like my mother always did. She would have sworn to you that she was in no way a snob. She merely thought that the formal announcement of an impending marriage was a serious matter requiring an etched copper plate inked and pressed with two tons of weight onto thick card stock.

These are top-drawer white lady folkways, up there with holding your cocktail in your left hand so when you shake someone’s hand with your right, it’s not damp and clammy, never wearing denim to a funeral, and never taking the last petit four. Being a lady, a white lady, was so woven into my mother’s life, she didn’t talk about it. She didn’t need to: she was born into it, lived it, raised on a big farm in segregated Florida, and, when it came to me—her daughter—policed it. She never fully articulated the rules, but there were a lot of them, most of which I discovered when I broke them. When I was a teenager having dinner at my snootiest aunt’s house, I devoured most of my shrimp cocktail before everyone had been served. Mama glared. I’d violated two of the rules: Don’t bolt your food and don’t start eating until the hostess touches her fork. There were many other edicts: Don’t stand to be introduced to a man; do stand with one foot out, kind of like fourth position in ballet, but don’t lock your knees; no low necklines before six p.m.; no ostentatious sparkling stones until after six p.m.; no white shoes after Labor Day (unless it’s your wedding); if there’s a dog or cat present when you’re visiting someone’s home, always ask the animal’s name; same goes for children; never contradict older people; never go somewhere without, at minimum, putting on a little mascara; never ask how much something cost; always find something nice to say, even to people you hate with the heat of one thousand suns.

Being a “lady” is, of course, about class and race. Being a “lady” depends on some women—many women—never gaining admission to the club. The “sacred womanhood” celebrated and fetishized in western culture excluded women of color. As Sojourner Truth said at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” White men raped enslaved women with impunity for more than three hundred years, insisting it didn’t matter. Those “beastly negress beauties,” as one antebellum aristocrat called them, were  “animals” unacquainted with white purity. In contrast, as the satirical novelist and former debutante Frances Newman wrote in 1926, no Georgia lady—no white Georgia lady—“was supposed to know she was a virgin until she had ceased to be one.” While white women were protected by the rule of law and white men’s investment in their wives’ chastity to guarantee legitimate heirs, Black women were considered fair game. Harriet Jacobs, enslaved on a North Carolina plantation and constantly threatened with rape, knew “that which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens degradation of the female slave.” The official end of slavery did not stop the “pure white lady” myth. If anything, it exacerbated it. White men, convinced that Black men wanted nothing more than to “defile” white women, terrorized and killed thousands from Oregon to Florida for crimes spanning from alleged rape to asking a white woman for a drink of water.

Elite white women took for granted that they were entitled to be cherished as well as defended from harm. Working-class white women, however, were often denied those privileges, unless—like Irene Tusken in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920, Mary Ball in Marion, Indiana, in 1930, Norma Padgett in Groveland, Florida, in 1949, and others—they accused Black men of assault. Then they’d become honorary ladies, who must be protected and avenged, often by lynching a Black man, sometimes by killing scores of Black people. In 1923, after a white millwright’s wife in Levy County, Florida, said she was assaulted by a Black man, a white mob destroyed the predominantly Black town of Rosewood. When a rumor raced around white Tulsa about some undefined “incident” between Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, and Dick Rowland, a young Black shoe shiner in 1921, a crowd of armed white men rampaged through the Greenwood District, burning thirty-five square blocks, killing scores and leaving as many as ten thousand homeless. What mattered was that the honor of white womanhood, and the unchallengeable power of white supremacy, be upheld.

Along with white skin, ladyhood can’t be achieved without money, either having it or having had it. My mother, along with the women of her family, held that a diminished bank balance could be a badge of honor. This is inverse snobbery. After the end of the Civil War, the price of cotton crashed and the enslaved people who represented the majority of the ruling class’s wealth finally gained their freedom. The old white landowners lost their money, yet they retained their social capital. In the 1960s and 1970s, certain stalwarts of what passed for Tallahassee “society” lived in large, once-elegant, rundown houses with no “help,” some of them still hanging on to boxes of Confederate bonds, some of them descendants of Thomas Jefferson or one of the officers who attended Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to benefit from these accidents of birth: Money in the past conveys worth even in the impoverished present. Impecuniousness becomes an aristocratic virtue. After my father died, my mother would insist we were poor. We weren’t, not really. We didn’t have cash, we had land, education, and the irreducible power of whiteness.

It all made more sense once I went off to Oxford on a scholarship. Class is a national enthusiasm in England, right up there with cricket, beer, and the National Health Service. The English practice forensic diagnosis to determine where you fit on the spectrum: the working class, the lower middle-class, the middle middle-class, the upper middle-class, the nouveau riche, the middle upper-class, the upper upper-class, and the royal family. At first I took the line that America had no class system, therefore I could not be slotted into any of their categories. My fellow students found this hilarious. They interrogated me at lunch, over coffee, and in the pub after I’d had a couple of gins, wanting to know about my schooling, my parents’ schooling, did I ride horses, did we have “servants.” After my father died we couldn’t afford the kind of “help” we used to have. I wondered if Levi the yard man, who came once a month to pull vines off the pecan trees and chop up fallen limbs, and Julia, who came every two weeks to dust, vacuum, and mop, constituted “servants.” To me the word conjured up images of butlers in tailcoats and housemaids in frilly caps like in Mary Poppins. Oxford college servants didn’t wear frilly caps, but they made up your bed in the morning and served you dinner in hall at night. They were all white: the first time outside the movies I’d ever seen white people waiting on other white people. My Oxford friends and I would have told you that despite spending most of our time reading books and dressing up, we weren’t indifferent to social justice. We wore “Rock Against Racism” badges on our coats; as a gesture of solidarity against apartheid, we refused to drink South African wine or eat South African grapes; and at summer cocktail parties in walled college gardens fragrant with wisteria, we talked approvingly of the protests against racist British police in Brixton and Toxteth.

Eventually my friends arrived at a verdict on where I fit into the British taxonomy of rank: upper middle-class. Edward, a boy from an ancient Catholic family still miffed about the Reformation, laughed at my insistence that as an American, I was free to reinvent myself any way I chose and not be subject to anyone else’s idea of class structure. “Rubbish,” he said.

I protested. My mother drove a crappy old car. Unlike most of my sorority sisters, I couldn’t just go out and buy new clothes whenever I wanted. I had a pony, sure, but it was a pitiful old creature my cousins gave away. Edward smirked: He knew earls with no money. His ancestral manor house didn’t have central heating. I pointed out that the earl with cash-flow issues still got to be an earl, and how many people have an ancestral manor house?

You’ve probably worked out that I was at once naïve and disingenuous. Really, I knew better. I didn’t want to admit it, but the South’s class system is at least as byzantine and possibly more unkind and sneaky than Britain’s. There are people with land, “nice” families (like us), “perfectly nice” families (less educated or cultured than us, but decent), “hard-working” people (who probably didn’t go to college), and Black folks. At the bottom of the social heap live the various gradations of “white trash.” My mother thought this was an offensive term and rarely used it, yet she raised me to recognize the type. Poverty was not their defining characteristic, nor was living in what she called “a house trailer” or even not knowing the difference between a cream-soup spoon and a clear-soup spoon. It was behavior. You could be rich, you could be famous, but if you demonstrated incorrigible vulgarity, you were damned. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mama not only declared Donald Trump “white trash,” she called him “common.” It’s very hard to recover from “common.” It was years before I noticed the cruelty of this language. And the truth is, I was flattered by my Oxford friends’ assessment of me as coming from a clan of distressed gentlefolk, loaded with ancestors and debt. 

Being a "lady" depends on some women–many women–never gaining admission to the club.

When Betty Gilbert was sixteen, a fancy jewelry store in Dothan, Alabama, gave her a sterling silver teaspoon. At the time, it was common for jewelers to give middle-class white girls whose families shopped there for their eighteenth birthday pearls and graduation watches a sterling silver teaspoon. You’d come into the store with your mama and maybe a couple of your friends, and one of the iron-haired, stiff-bosomed women who ruled from behind the flatware case would show off the Towle, the Gorham, the Stieff, and the Reed & Barton, in patterns called Chantilly and King Richard, Fairfax and Francis I, evoking castles, royalty, plantation gentry, and walled gardens planted with Yolande d’Aragon roses. Your mama would balance a fork in her hand, frowning slightly—surely her  Stieff Repoussé had a little more heft to it—while you and your friends imagined romantic dinners, candlelight caressing that perfectly polished silver laid out on that spotless damask tablecloth. A man would lurk somewhere in this vision, maybe the high school sweetheart, maybe the future husband whose features remained dreamily undefined, but he was mere set dressing. My mother liked to describe the store’s dainty chairs upholstered in pale blue velvet, its carpet thick as custard, and its dreamscape of diamond engagement rings, Irish crystal, and English china so thin you could almost read a newspaper through it. This was, I think, a distilled vision of the gracious, well-decorated life—the life the mothers wanted for their daughters. These girls might not be getting married for another six or seven years, but choosing a silver pattern marked another transition, another step along the magnolia-shaded trail to full-blown white lady fulfillment. Next, you’d choose a college, a sorority, a husband (and receive a lot more silver in your pattern as wedding presents), a color scheme for the new house, a name for the baby, and, if it was a girl, the cycle would start over again.

My mother’s people came from a community they built and named: Gilbert’s Mill in Washington County, Florida, thirty miles from the Alabama state line. The Gilberts arrived sometime in the early 1830s, a few years after Andrew Jackson wrested Florida from the Spanish and the Seminoles who had what Jackson saw as the bad habit of granting freedom to runaway slaves. Jackson made Florida safe for American enslavers to establish plantations between the Choctawhatchee River and the Atlantic coast. The Gilberts were descended from William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, and while they were proud of this, they rarely mentioned it: Boasting about your ancestors was in poor taste. They grew cotton until that wasn’t profitable, then they grew pine trees for lumber and turpentine, and raised Hereford cattle.

My grandfather Bradford Gilbert, bored by farm life, ran off to World War I with the Army Corps of Engineers. He built bridges and field hospitals and romanced French women in Brittany and Normandy. He loved France. He won a motorcycle in a card game and traveled all the way down to Rome and back to Paris, refusing to go home to West Florida until late 1919, more than a year after the Armistice. In 1924, he married my grandmother Selma Henrietta Georg; their only child, my mother Betty, arrived in 1931. Her father adored her but made no secret of wanting a son. He nicknamed her “Boy.” I’m pretty sure she was lonely: She used to say her pony (named Tony), the barn cats, the chickens, and my grandfather’s succession of spaniels were her brothers and sisters. She played with approved children from the First Presbyterian Church and the cousins who lived on neighboring farms. She played with Buster the housekeeper’s son, too, at least until she was ten and he was twelve or so. Then the South’s perverse and vicious fables about how Black boys were a danger to white girls kicked in, and Buster had to keep his distance. Around this time—and not unrelated to her transition from being a kid to that most cherished of persons, a young white lady—my mother acquired her lifelong title: “Miss.” Black people she’d known all her life took to calling her “Miss Betty.” So did the white people who belonged to a lower social stratum. Long after Mama gave up manicures and panty girdles, her ceramics students called her Miss Betty, even when her shirt had porcelain slip dribbles all over it, even as they watched her heft a fifty-pound bag of clay onto her worktable. My friends hit her with the “Miss,” too. “Miss Betty” seemed as natural an honorific as “Lady Baltimore” or “Princess Margaret.”

In the fall of 1949, she drove off in a smart red Buick, a freshman at Florida State University. She’d left her high school boyfriend, a good-looking but conventional fellow named Buell Sapp (of the Texaco filling station Sapps, as he was fond of saying), back in Washington County. Buell’s mother thought Betty Gilbert was a bit “fast,” and wondered out loud why Bradford Gilbert would waste money sending a girl to college. You didn’t need a degree to keep house and have babies. But both my grandfather and my mother figured there was more to life than the Chipley Texaco and gold star attendance at First Presbyterian. Grandaddy’d seen Paris, Rome, and Monte Carlo—surely his “Boy” deserved to experience a bit of the world, even if it was only Tallahassee, Florida. She jumped in: sorority parties, fraternity formals, trips to the lake, trips to the beach, trips to Gainesville for football dates with University of Florida boys. She had a lot of fun, as her lousy grades suggested. My grandfather didn’t mind fun, but he did mind Cs and Ds. If she didn’t do better, she’d have to come home. That put the fear of God (or a lifetime with Buell Sapp) into her, and she made the dean’s list ever after. When asked her major, she’d say, “Staying off the farm.”

Mrs. Sapp wasn’t entirely wrong about my mother. As a high school senior, Mama’d claim she was going to the pictures in Marianna, a bigger town twenty miles away, with her best friends Priscilla and Suzanne. They’d meet some boys up by the ice plant and drive to the Green Lantern, a juke joint near Cottondale. It was a dry county, but the owner of the Green Lantern had certain connections with moonshiners in Lower Alabama as well as with itinerant chitlin circuit horn players. White kids would go there to dance and drink and experience a frisson of racial transgression.

Like me, Mama must have learned some white lady rules by breaking them. A week or so before I was about to leave for England, she drove me to the FSU library to return some books and showed me the tree outside her dorm room window she used to shimmy down to avoid the evening sign-out/sign-in rituals enforced by the old-maid chaperone who sat every evening in the women’s residence hall parlor. She told us how she and her friends smoked Camels on the roof of the history building. I stared at her. She’d always given my brother and me to understand that if she ever caught us smoking, we’d be grounded until the Second Coming. As I packed my suitcase for the flight to London, she recounted other tales of transgression. In the summers, when she’d visit her Aunt Ruth in New Orleans, her cousins Harold and Don would squire her to Bourbon Street burlesque bars to drink Hurricanes and watch strippers. “Your granddaddy,” she said, “would have shot me.” Mama marveled at this one woman who could twirl her pasties in opposite directions. “Impressive muscle control,” she said.

I wondered what she was trying to tell me, coming out with these stories just as I was about to start what she called “a new life.” Once I got her white lady rules down, I generally followed them. Maybe she decided I ought to rebel. I’d never been a particularly wild teenager. Sure, I used a little weed (which I didn’t like) and drank gas station wine with my friends while we watched Star Trek reruns. But I never got pregnant, I never got arrested, and I never wore white shoes after Labor Day. Maybe I was boring. After a year at Oxford, I’d split with my very nice American boyfriend and taken up with the son of a British spy. I came home dressed entirely in black. My mother looked me up and down and said, “Is that what they’re wearing now?” Then she laughed.

Impressed as I was with Mama’s exploits, I realized she still never flouted the foundational white lady rules: Don’t arrive at a party empty-handed, don’t go to church bare-legged, and don’t let a Black man in the house. When she was a young married woman with two small children, she had what I guess my British friends would call servants: a housekeeper named Dorothy, and Isaac, who weeded the flowerbeds and cut the grass. Dorothy ate inside, with my brother and me. Isaac ate outside. Dorothy would serve him leftover fried chicken or a ham sandwich on a TV tray under the carport. Then she’d wash up the plate, knife, fork, and glass that had been dedicated to him alone and put them away on a separate shelf, as if something of Isaac’s blackness might rub off on our white family’s white dishes. I don’t remember questioning this arrangement. It was simply part of the protocol that governed our lives, the way things were, as inevitable and unquestioned as the air we breathed.

Yet in Tallahassee, my mother passed for a racial progressive. She and my father liked to attend football games at Florida A&M, the historically Black college down the road. Mama, herself an archer at FSU and a golfer, admired the athleticism of Robert Lee “Bullet Bob” Hayes, the brilliant track star and wide receiver who’d go on to win two Olympic gold medals and a Super Bowl ring. “Nobody could catch the ball with such grace,” Mama’d say. “He was beautiful.” My father subscribed to the view that Black people were great at exactly two things: music and sports, though he gave head coach Jake Gaither, winner of eight national Black college championships, credit for being “a pretty smart colored man.” When my parents or any other white folks went to a Rattlers game, they’d be escorted to fifty-yard-line seats. My father embraced this as the natural order of things. My mother was a bit embarrassed, maybe not at first, but later on when she thought about it. Why should she and my father, along with their football-mad white friends, get treated with such deference when the other spectators, the players, and the coaches couldn’t walk into a downtown restaurant for a hamburger? She quietly supported the handful of Garden Club ladies collecting money to bail out students thrown in jail during Tallahassee’s lunch counter sit-ins. She picked a fight with my father, saying she agreed with Martin Luther King Jr. that segregation must end. She didn’t mean tomorrow, though; the South would need to ease into that new world. In the meantime, I started kindergarten at the more or less integrated Florida State University lab school. There were the children of postdocs from India and Ethiopia and the children of lawyers from Venezuela and Panama who’d come to spend a year working on a state Senate committee. There were also FAMU professors’ children. The Garden Club ladies called them “well-mannered” and “well-spoken.” Of course, there was no question of any of their daughters going to the prom with one of those boys, even if his daddy was a dean.

Like me, Mama must have learned some white lady rules by breaking them.

For their tenth anniversary in 1964, my father gave my mother a pair of gold earrings and a gun. In Miami for a civil engineers’ conference, he paid sixty dollars for a pearl-handled Ruger .22 revolver. A “lady’s gun.” He traveled a lot and worried about her out in the country alone—if you can call it that, with a daily maid, two children, two dogs, and a mess of cats. Daddy fretted that anything could happen, and by “anything,” I imagine he meant Black men. A century after the end of slavery, white men still assumed Black men lurked in the shadows, waiting for a chance to violate virtuous white women. In Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith calls this “as phony a moral cause as the Anglo-American world has ever witnessed.” Between 1940 and 1964, twenty-nine Black men were executed for raping white women in Florida, many convicted on little or no evidence. No white men were executed for raping Black women.

White men’s obsession with Black men having sex with white women, America’s old psychosis, hung in the air like a sour fog. By the 1960s, most white Southern politicians weren’t as crude in promising violence to “the Negro” as, say, Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina, who in 1900 thundered, “We will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” The white supremacists who beat back the attempt at actual democracy during Reconstruction spread their toxic lies not just in the South but across the nation, convincing white Americans that Black men were inherently criminal and that segregation was necessary to keep white women safe from them. Thomas Dixon Jr., whose bestselling Ku Klux Klan novels inspired the film The Birth of a Nation, gave us a still-powerful vocabulary for racial hysteria, writing of drunken ex-slaves and “ape-like” rapists preying on Ole Massa’s virgin daughters.

In 1877, when federal troops withdrew from the South, ex-slaves were disenfranchised once more and the federal government abandoned attempts at equality. White people called this “Redemption.” The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery but, otherwise, this marked a restoration of the pre-1861 order of things. We still live in a nation haunted by the wreck of Reconstruction. Consciously or not, white women know that if they accuse a Black man, police will believe them—at least at first; that white woman in Central Park who called the cops on the birder who asked her to leash her dog, saying, “There’s an African-American man threatening my life,” assumed law enforcement would take her side. Both the white woman who claimed a nine-year-old Black boy assaulted her (his backpack grazed her fanny in a cramped deli) and the white St. Louis woman who tried to block a Black man from entering his own apartment building because she didn’t believe he lived there knew that American culture saw them as innocent, valuable bodies to be protected. The Black men and boys they accused would be seen as predators and thugs.

My mother spent decades talking herself out of the white South’s visceral fear of Black men. Mostly. By the late 1970s, she was taking pottery classes at FAMU with Black artists such as a potter she remembered was named Amos White; she voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Democratic presidential primary, and, later, loudly supported Barack Obama. By the time I was in college, she’d often say she simply didn’t “understand how we treated people that way,” making Black people sit in the back of the bus or attend underfunded schools that were separate but not remotely equal. She talked of her mystification at the Christian Church’s long failure to combat American racism. “I don’t think the Bible supports the hatefulness of white people,” she’d say, “Does it?” She confessed to being ashamed of making Isaac the yard man eat under the carport. She invited Amos White to her Christmas Eve party, but he didn’t show up.

“Iused to do everything,” said my mother. “Now you have to do everything.” It was two weeks before Christmas and I was up on a ladder in her living room, trying to hang a red cedar wreath over the mantel.

She started saying this around the time she turned eighty, always sounding both a bit wistful and a bit pissed off. It was true: She used to do everything. When my father died of kidney failure at the age of thirty-seven, she locked herself in their bedroom for twenty-four hours, leaving my grandmother to take care of things. Then she emerged, dry-eyed, dressed in black. She hugged my five-year-old brother and my nine-year-old self, saying that our job, the three of us, was “to keep going.” We never saw her cry. A week after Daddy’s funeral, when the flowers were all dead or dying, she went to the cemetery and collected the wreath stands, the Styrofoam crosses, and all the little water tubes that kept the blooms fresh. We still have a lot of them. She refused financial help from my uncles; she rejected their advice that she sell the land and the house she and Daddy built, saying that it would be “too much” for her to take care of. She went to work running an arts center and raising us to care about beauty, making us go to concerts at the FSU College of Music, press-ganging us into piano lessons and drawing classes. She wanted us to grow up with unfettered imaginations. I read a book a day and wrote stories; my brother, a junior archeologist, dug a trench in our backyard, searching for (and finding) arrowheads and pottery sherds. Mama opened her own ceramics studio, teaching her tribe of upper middle-class Tallahassee ladies to make their own salad bowls and bud vases, Nativity scenes and planters. She eased out of the Garden Club in the mid-1970s; in 1989, she stopped wearing dresses. She told me that if I insisted, she’d put on what she took to calling a “lady-suit” for certain special occasions. While she still adhered to many of the old rules, white ladyhood became a kind of drag show. The last time I recall her wearing a dress was for my doctoral graduation at Oxford. The three-hour ceremony, conducted entirely in Latin, called for men to bow and women to curtsey to the university vice-chancellor. As an undistinguished alumna of the Mildred Fleming School of Dance, bad at ballet, awkward at tap, I could nevertheless perform a righteous court curtsey. Mama was strangely pleased, though she remarked that next time I might keep my back straighter.

Now she wasn’t allowed on a ladder; she wasn’t able to go down to the back pasture with her bow saw to cut pine for Christmas decorations; she struggled to lift a ten-pound bag of sugar; she had stopped driving. She still baked pound cakes, made blackberry jam, put up summer vegetables, and crocheted relentlessly: afghans, baby blankets, large multi-colored squares she called “cat pads,” which would supposedly save your favorite chair from a thick weave of fur. And she went to funerals. That was a rule. “You have to go to funerals,” she said. “Funerals are more important than weddings or christenings.”

Most of her closest cousins had died. We drove west to Gilbert’s Mill to see them buried in the Oakie Ridge churchyard where five generations of Gilberts slept under the thick grass. The cousin who now owned the family farm had a stroke and, for some reason, kept trying to give Mama one of his donkeys. She missed those cousins, Donald and Howard, Elizabeth and Fred, and Reggie, who was like a sister to her. Her old friends and former ceramics students also kept dying, so she gathered a group of what she called her “young friends”: my friends, people in their fifties and sixties, many of whom called her teasingly (but not unseriously) their “rented mother.”

For her eightieth birthday we threw a big party with cake and champagne and cheese straws and punch and her homemade Vidalia onion jelly. The printed (not engraved, alas) invitations featured a photo of her at FSU, standing, chin up, eyes right, drawing back the string of her English longbow. I don’t know what she’s aiming at: it’s beyond the frame. Doesn’t matter anyway, she almost certainly hit it, nailed a bullseye, split an arrow, this dark-haired, long-legged girl of twenty, this Deep South Diana in shorts. It was taken in 1951, three years before she married my father, eight years before she had me, long before the flood of sorrows.

Of all the pictures we have of her—as a lanky kid, a bride, in a knock-off Chanel suit and jazzy hat, in baggy jeans digging clay out of a West Florida riverbank—this one with the dark red lipstick, the spotless white socks, the arrow ready to fly, is my favorite. Obviously, I didn’t know her then, but this is now how I think of her: laughing and strong. I asked her once why she took up archery. Seems archery and golf were the two sports her daddy thought suitable. After all, Queen Victoria practiced archery when she was young, he said. You didn’t get sweaty; you didn’t mess up your hair; you didn’t, like my grandfather said, “race around like a damned puppy.” If you betrayed any athleticism at all, it was graceful and deliberate. You hit the ball; you hit the target. Very ladylike.

 





Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts’s most recent book is Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee and is currently at work on a series of essays on white women.