The belles of St. Mary's

A Jewish writer learns about the Old South, and herself, in the most unlikely of places -- at a reunion of former debs and sorority girls.

Published December 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I'm trying to explain to the pretty, slightly tipsy, blue-eyed and blond-haired woman who has been telling me about her school days that, in fact, I myself am not a graduate of the St. Mary's School. I'm telling her, somewhat awkwardly, that I have merely come to the reunion as my friend Sarah's "date," but the minute the word "date" is out of my mouth, I realize that I may have made a semantic boo-boo. Indeed, the woman (Class of '52) blinks rapidly behind her glasses, and then says -- in the broad, flattened vowels and up-and-down cadences of the Old South -- "Well, aren't you girls lucky to have each other then?"

"Yes we are," I say.

We're in the dining room of a lovely old house that typifies New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood with its high ceilings, crown molding and gleaming, wide floorboards and canopy beds. Around me, the St. Mary's girls coo and laugh, their musical voices hanging in the humid air. But this whole deal, frankly, is weird. Why, indeed, had I agreed to schlep all the way from the comfort of my husband and kids in Baton Rouge to New Orleans for this gathering of assorted former debs and sorority girls, none of whom, as far as I can tell, has ever met a Jew (which is what I am)? Not that you can tell a person's religious or ethnic bona fides just by looking, but as I stand there grinning stupidly in an effort to blend in, I find myself hurling back to the fourth grade, when my best friend invited me to join her and her family for an afternoon of upper-crust fun at the then-restricted Chevy Chase Club just outside Washington. Her mother had to get some kind of special permission for me to tag along, so that by the time we were actually there, I felt so self-conscious that I got a stomach ache and had to go lie down, and when at last I felt better, I thought that everyone was looking at me, with my dark brown curly hair and dark brown eyes and "Mediterranean" skin, and thinking: "What's the little kike doing here?"

This time around, to top things off, I'm ravenously hungry, but -- as the sole Jew in South Louisiana who keeps kosher -- I see there isn't much here that I can eat. Fortunately, one of the husbands of one of the St. Mary's girls has already seen to it that I'm well supplied with vodka, so I don't notice it so much when I get that old, queasy, reject feeling in the pit of my stomach, which is making all kinds of loud noises. Plus I'm no longer a kid. I'm about three seconds shy of the age my mother was when she had her midlife crisis, so what do I care if the people gathered here think I'm Sarah's Yankee Jewish lesbian lover? A girl, after all, could do far worse.

"Hello," someone says from behind me. I turn to see another blue-eyed, once-blond former deb. She introduces herself, then says, "Class of '49."

The truth is, when Sarah asked me to accompany her to this gathering of New Orleans-based graduates of the St. Mary's School (an Episcopalian girls school in Raleigh, N.C.), my first thought was: You have got to be kidding me. But what I said was, "Huh?" Sarah went on to explain that St. Mary's is not only where she was educated for the two years after high school because in the '60s the University of North Carolina didn't admit women as freshman, but it was also where her own mother, in whose veins flow generations of blue Virginia blood, had gone. The school was founded in 1842 and for years educated the aristocratic daughters of the really truly Old South, like Jefferson Davis' daughter. I still wasn't convinced, however, that I wanted to go to a reunion of St. Mary's blue-hairs.

But then Sarah pointed out -- speaking in the Southern tones so deep that every time I hear her I can't help but picture white-columned plantation houses serviced by an army of slaves -- that the event would provide me with "deep background" for the novel I'm trying to write, the one that's been ruining my life for the past several decades, but will all be worth it the minute it wins a National Book Award and I get to be interviewed on NPR. I'd told Sarah about my novel, which, like me, is set in Baton Rouge, but, unlike me, revolves around a family of white aristocratic Catholics who live in a big house filled with chintz and French furniture, and a poor black family whose housing accommodations are not nearly so luxe.

"The South is not like the North," Sarah had said on the drive over.

No kidding, I think now, as I explain, for the third or fourth time in 15 minutes, that I myself am not a St. Mary's girl -- as if you can't tell by looking at my frizzy brown hair and definitely non-Episcopalian nose -- but that I'd come as my friend's date.

"Well then," this new lady -- a very close approximation, in my
estimation, of
the last lady -- says after I finish my explanation, "Aren't you two girls lucky
to have each other?"

"Yes we are," I say.

"Of course," she continues, "in my day, St. Mary's was a finishing
school. Mamma just insisted I go -- after all, Grandmother was a St. Mary's
girl -- and in those days we did what we were told to do." She winks, then says
to a bald man hovering near the bar, "Will you be a dear and get me another
one of these?"

"What's finishing school?" I ask Sarah as we give ourselves an
tour of the high-ceilinged, Oriental-carpet-strewn rooms.

She rolls her eyes. "It's where a girl goes to get finished, of

Back in the dining room, I'm once again engaged in conversation,
this time by
one of the husbands, a man who apparently has never heard of the term
"personal space," and keeps leaning in on me in a way that makes me hyper-aware of my person. My legs -- which in an effort to look respectable I'd
squeezed into my one pair of pantyhose -- itch. Normally I don't wear
pantyhose, which were invented by men. They leave red welts on your stomach
and make your crotch feel untidy, and if you, like me, don't shave your legs
every day, or even every week, they rub against your leg-hairs in just such a
way as to cause a little tingle of unpleasant electric shock. And now, as I
inch slowly away from this joker who keeps leaning in on me, I can't help but notice that, in
fact, I'm the only woman in the whole room who is wearing the damn things.

"Excuse me," I say. "I'm going to go get a breath of air."

Meanwhile, our hostess, wearing enormous, brightly colored plastic
Halloween earrings, is bustling back and forth between the kitchen and the
dining room, bringing out platter after platter of all the foods that I don't
eat: sliced Virginia ham on biscuits; shrimp étoufée; crab dip; something else
with little shellfish in it; more crab dip; pigs-in-blankets. Fortunately,
by now I'm on my second drink so I don't really notice how loudly my stomach
is rumbling.

Our hostess, however, does notice. "Won't you have anything to
eat?" she says. And though I truly hadn't meant to make an issue of it or draw attention
to myself in any way, I say, "I'm Jewish and I don't eat that stuff."
Whereupon I immediately experience one of my not-infrequent Woody Allen in
"Annie Hall" moments, and my armpits sprout sweat.

But of course nothing frightening or embarrassing happens because
I'm not in
a movie but at a party in New Orleans, which is, as everyone knows, the
loosiest-goosiest, most accepting, welcoming, rollicking and frolicking place
on the planet, and I know I'm only being paranoid and neurotic, which is, if I
do say so myself, my right as a Yankee Jewish struggling writer with three
small children and air-conditioning that frequently breaks down.

"Well Lord
have mercy, dear," the hostess says. "Why didn't you say so?" And the next
thing I know she's taken me by the hand to the kitchen, where she grabs a
plate of fried chicken and says, "Is this OK?"

Finally, my stomach filled with chicken and my ethnic and religious
established, even I, a poster child for Prozac, begin to relax a little. From
across the room I can hear Sarah telling someone about her two wonderful
college-age daughters, and then I, too, am talking about my kids: my 9-year-old, Sam, who runs like a gazelle; my 5-year-old twins, Rosie and
Scooter, who periodically switch personalities just to confuse me.

The subject of how the various St. Mary's graduates had migrated to
Louisiana from Protestant North Carolina is front-and-center for a while.
This subject then gives way to the "Are you related to?" game, which resembles
Jewish geography except that everyone's last names are Coates and Worthington
and Higginson. Finally, there's this general, well-oiled, room-wide
affirmation about how absolutely wonderfully darling it is that I had agreed
to be Sarah's date for the night, because isn't it just wonderful to have such
a sweet precious friend and aren't we girls lucky to have each other in this
day and age? And the thing is, the St. Mary's girls mean it.

And once again, I'm faced with the realization that people in the
South are
just so damn nice. Here's what I mean: In the North (where I lived until my 36th year), people say, "How ya doin'?" but what they mean is: Where
did you go to college? What do you do for a living? How much money do you
make? Is your house bigger than mine, and if so, how much did you pay for it?
Do you have children? How old are they? Are they smart? Do they attend the
"right" private school?

Because there is this wretched competitive soul-deadening attitude that I could never escape when I lived in Washington
and points north, that is utterly and entirely absent from social discourse in
Louisiana. In Louisiana, people say, "How y'all doin'?" and they mean: I
hope you are having a really, really great life, and would you like a glass of
iced tea or if you're down in the dumps, perhaps something a little stronger?

The South is different from the North.

The blue-eyed former debs and sorority girls are chatting all
around me,
their voices floating through the airy rooms of this lovely old house, and it
occurs to me, well, duh, that the social strictures that I felt as a child and
that my ancestors faced have simply melted away, and my stomach aches and
paranoia have become boring relics. The St. Mary's alums are sweet and warm
and welcoming, and I feel like a sneak and a spy, appearing among them, as I
am, in order to soak up some "deep background" to help me flesh out my novel's
family of rich Louisiana self-styled aristocrats. But as it turns out, it's a
wash, because my rich Louisiana self-styled aristocrats are too fucked-up to
draw life from these sprightly gals with their jangling earrings and milky
blue eyes and life stories that I will never, never in a million years know.

By Jennifer Moses

Jennifer Moses is the author of "Food and Whine: Confessions of an End of the Millennium Mom"(Simon & Schuster.)

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