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“We’re steel magnolias,” Sondra said.
That, I thought, pretty well summarized the spirit and character of the women around our table.
The girls of summer again, 12 of us met to eat Willy-Whoppers at The Smith House, the same little place where we discovered them when we were teenagers.
We assured each other that we were near unchanged, but even our old-fashioned names – two Judys, Sherry, Hattie, Fannie, Georgia, Lucy, Mary, Sally, Jean, Rita – exposed the years that had passed since we left high school a lifetime ago.
Ours was the last small class to move through the nation’s school system, and no one paid much attention to us. No one had to hire an extra teacher for us or build a larger building.
Born in the final few months of World War II, we were supposedly exempt from any childhood anxieties related to being a kid during the war. And in truth, we were a docile group, demanding little, unlike the noisy Boomers who came nipping at our heels. We did as we were expected to do even if that meant balancing our adult lives on the dizzy high-wire that divided June Cleaver’s world from Gloria Steinem’s.
We graduated from high school in the spring of 1963, perhaps the American girl’s last moment of moonlight and roses. I owned a wardrobe of madras plaid and dyed to match cashmere sweater sets. John F. Kennedy was living in the White House, and his wife Jackie was my role model in all things, down to the pillbox hat I wore to church on Sunday mornings. When I entered college that fall, I was required to wear a dress and high heels at dinner in the dining hall each evening. We had a nightly curfew, too --woe unto the wayward girl who wasn’t inside the dorm when the doors were locked.
We all know how 1963 ended. My classmates and I lost our collective virginity when a rifleman cut loose in Dallas, Texas. The Pill soon made curfews and locked dormitories superfluous. Pants suits and denim replaced cashmere. Fast food overran slow food. Two-lane highways gave way to interstate freeways. Encyclopedias turned into computers that morphed into tiny phones slipped into our purses. Polio was eradicated. AIDS became a household word.
If we were able to master the acrobat’s balancing act between Cleaver and Steinem, we still could not avoid the free-fall that dropped us into the front seat of history’s roller-coaster. From Elvis to rap. From Civil Rights marches to a black president. From Viet Nam to the Taliban in Afghanistan. We rode the big ride, the scary one that can seem out of control and takes the curves fast, but we hung on and survived to tell the tale.
We laughed as we resurrected old anecdotes, even as we quietly tallied those who were no longer with us. We traded small talk about the weather and traffic and current events. Then, after the pie plates had been cleared and there was nothing left to do but go, we stayed, and began to share our stories.
All of us had married. Some are still with the fellows we started out with as girls. A few divorced, some have been widowed. All of us have raised children, biological, adopted or borrowed, and the sound of their names when we talk about them lights up our faces. If there were problems with our kids, now edging into middle-age, we didn’t talk about them over lunch. Mostly, we agreed, we’d sent good people out into the world to carry on. There was no need to remind each other that this has been no small feat in a society changing at warp speed.
A few of us are great-grandparents. One became a grandmother for the first time two weeks ago. Some of our grandchildren have been adopted from places on the other side of the world, places so distant in miles and culture from our rural Kentucky childhoods that we have no map to guide us but the heart.
We’ve earned paychecks, too. We’ve been bankers, teachers, stewardesses, writers, editors, nurses, florists, office workers, bookkeepers, gas and grocery store owners, poets. We’ve gone to far-away places, in this country and the world, places we only read about in books when we were children growing up on Owen County tobacco farms.
We’ve volunteered in our communities in ways too numerous to name, made a difference in ways that cannot be ignored. We’ve voted and been good citizens, taken care of aging parents, ill spouses and siblings, and endured the inevitable decline of our own bodies. We’ve known grief, disappointment, regret, joy, success, and accomplishment.
“Steel magnolias,” Sondra says as we linger over coffee after finishing our stories, reluctant to let go of this fine summer afternoon.
Yes, I nod. We’re resilient and beautiful, we not-quite-Boomers, the last hurrah of the war babies. We have a way of smiling through adversity – our legacy from June Cleaver? – and the determination not to break even if we’re creased – the influence of Steinem?
But today, we are once again only the girls of summer.