May 28, 2017

On Being A Lady

To say my first encounters with being a “lady” were horrific is an understatement. They involved learning to sit with my knees closed and my ankles crossed in church and keeping my white crinoline slip dress clean. The former seemed an exercise in futility and the latter practically impossible in the soot laden and  sulphur smelling air of the 20th century active steel mill town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, master them I was forced to do -- first to avoid the fiery switches of a mighty taskmaster, my mother; and second to avoid acquiring the label of being “fast,” code for a “loose woman”. 

I must have been about six years old when the edict was first pronounced. My mother stated before leaving the house for church that I had to keep my freshly vaselined knees together and my bobby socked ankles crossed while sitting on the front bench at church, complete with a demonstration of how it was to look. I didn’t quite understand what she meant when she said I was “becoming a lady.” But I did understand the look she would give my knees when she would turn around on the piano stool during the service to peruse my stance from time to time during the service. I suffered – boy did I suffer – having been blessed with massive thighs that refused to willingly comply and ankles that were numb when the time came to walk around to give the offering.

 Her other demand was that I keep those itchy lace dresses clean between the time I was dressed and the arrival at church. Another seemingly impossible task. No matter what I did, I managed to reach church with some stain, spot or damage to my dresses. As an adult, I realize much of my problem had to do with the sooty air of Pittsburgh back in the day which landed on everything. Nothing in Pittsburgh was clean, not the roads, not the houses, nor my church clothes.The rest of the problem was my clumsiness. Some fresh scab I managed to acquire during the week while playing outside, running, skating, riding my bike, or skating always managed to fall off on Sunday mornings and a trickle of blood would wander down my leg or arm and somehow get on my dress. I was usually doomed before ever arriving at church.

 It’s no wonder I came to despise Sunday morning church services and refused to be baptized until I was nearly 13 -- ancient according to my parents who first cajoled and later demanded that I acquiese to avoid embarrassing them. My dad was the Chair of the Deacon Board and Superintendent of the Sunday School and my mom was the church pianist. My refusal made me appear to be out of control and disobedient. But, I had come to associate church with being wholly uncomfortable and baptism signified my agreeance with it.

 However, I had managed to master the “sitting properly/keeping clean” tasks and get myself baptized by the time the next horror of being a “lady” arrived on my bed one day. A garter belt, a sanitary napkin and a pamphlet about menstruation. “You’re a lady now,” my mother announced as she neatly placed the items on the bedspread and departed the room. “WHAT???!!!” How much more horrible could this process be? Who the hell wanted to be a lady? Certainly not me.

 Of course, there were some pleasantries associated with being a lady. Like the Sunday morning I discovered a pair of seamed Red Fox stockings on my bed. I was the first girl in my crew to wear the coveted treasure and I fastidiously learned how to keep the seam straight. Shortly thereafter, my mom bought a plaid straight skirt and a Peter Pan collared blouse for me. It had been a brutal ride, but I had finally arrived!

 Perhaps girls today are not as horrified as I was with the prospect of learning the social graces. But I’ve noticed becoming a lady is no less painful. As a matter of fact, an extra layer has been added to the process. I notice female newscasters on the morning news shows with their knees together and ankles crossed all while standing on five inch red-bottomed high heel shoes. How painful must that be to master? And, who came up with that idea?

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