True South

Fabrics of Life

Marking time with tulle

By Susan S. Kelly

For a lot of people, hearing a particular song instantly reminds them of, and transports them to, a particular time, day, or even a particular time of a particular day. I’m no different. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” — first kiss during an eighth-grade dance; I was wearing pink fishnet stockings. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” — a terrible mixer featuring an inflated parachute at a boys’ boarding school. “Brandy” — freshman year at UNC and the song that blared day and night from the open windows of a frat house across the Granville Towers parking lot. “Toes in the Water”— a family trip to Anguilla one Thanksgiving.

So tunes and lyrics and life’s passages are connected, sure. The same could be said for cars, probably, and slang, and food, and even plants. Remember when spider plants, with their little dangling offspring, were ubiquitous in every dentist’s office?

But the same can be said for me and . . . fabrics. A mere mention of a specific fabric immediately raises a time, place or event. For example, we’ve recently finished the Transitional Dark Cotton phase of every year. This phrase was applied to the proper clothing every early fall when I was growing up, designating post-summer whites but pre-autumn wools. Returning to school required smocked, short-sleeved Transitional Dark Cotton dresses of Black Watch and Royal Stewart plaids. I carried this pounded-in dictate all the way to college, where I’d obediently wear Transitional Dark Cottons to football games in 90-degree heat we combatted with a lot of bourbon poured into a little Coke — the traditional Transitional Dark Drink. I no longer wear the former or drink the latter. But I still know all the words to “Brandy” (see above).

Utter “raw silk,” and I flashback to the late ’60s, when my parents had parties and the de rigueur outfit for women was a floor-length “hostess skirt” made of raw silk — a slubbed, almost rough, stiff textile. You don’t see raw silk much anymore, except on my husband’s tie and cummerbund set, because, of course, it belonged to his father. In the ’60s.

Oilcloth is a horrid name for a fabric; who wants a reference to grease in any name? But oilcloth was what, in Girl Scouts, we stitched together in squares and filled with batting to create “sit-upons,” a primitive cushion we toted to campouts to keep our rear ends dry on wet dirt.

Flannel, of course, was for sleeping bag insides, and Sunday School flannel boards, where donkeys and bulrushes and halos and Jesus himself were rendered in flimsy pieces that the teacher — but never, ever, you yourself — got to arrange and make pictures with. I’m still bitter, yes. But mostly flannel summons up Lanz nightgowns, the yoked, neck-to-toe, beflowered, long-sleeved, anti-sex precursor to snug sacks. But easier to walk in.

Of every fabric out there, only denim demands a bigger claim on my life span than grosgrain. I’d never encountered grosgrain until I went away to boarding school. In my tiny foothills hamlet of Rutherfordton, fake alpaca was about as far up the fabric food chain as one could aspire. But grosgrain ribbons became the first fabric I can remember truly envying someone owning. Striped grosgrain in bright yellows, blues, greens, hot pinks . . . I still go somewhat weak at the knees. I wanted that yardage for bows on ponytails at the nape of the neck, the preppy hair style of the ’70s.

Eventually, I amassed a collection necessitating two coat hangers draped with the limp lengths, not counting the pile on my dresser that I’d iron weekly. And even when I chopped off my hair, there were grosgrain belts and grosgrain pocketbook covers and grosgrain pillows, ridiculous little tufted things covered in grosgrain ribbons woven like children’s potholders. Thankfully, my obsession had waned by then. Madras, another prepster memory textile, had run its course, too, and just as well. Thick, pouchy madras did no favors to guys with a bit extra junk in the trunk.

And then came peau de soie season: weddings. Just as I’d never heard the term “piqué” (graduation white-dress fabric for both eighth grade and high school), peau de soie was a foreign term until you had to have peau de soie pumps that sucked up bridesmaid dress-matching dyes like a sponge. Shame those pretty words have gone by the wayside. Spandex and Lycra can’t hold a candle to the silken sibilant syllables of peau de soie.

So many fabrics on the timeline. Tulle. Eyelet. Calico. Chambray. Cotton batiste. Each with its own indelible hashmark of memory. Surely I’m not alone here. Consider the number of children who can’t part with that soft, worn, torn dreg of a baby blanket. Maybe the spit smell is oddly comforting. Just like hearing “Layla” and remembering that house party on Ocean Drive, where the furniture was bolted to the floor. PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

Girl Gigs

When the going gets tough

By Susan S. Kelly

Like you, I’ve missed a lot of things during the spate of gloom we’ve been living though — truffle fries still sizzling from fry vat grease being at the top of my list. But of all the bust-out activities that we’ve been waiting for, the one I most look forward to is a girl gig. Book clubs, garden clubs, philanthropic lunches, girl gigs all. Meetings that require makeup, a date on a calendar, and lemon squares dusted with powdered sugar and/or marinated asparagus spears sprinkled with lemon zest — lemon is a common denominator in a lot of girl gigs, from iced tea to platter garnish.

But a real-deal girl gig is an out-of-town trip. The only requirement is that you can’t care. About what you eat, what you look like, what you say, when you go to bed, who you share a room with, how much you drink. Females who fit these simple criteria are girl’s girls. Others need not apply.

I have a Yankee friend who was invited on a girl trip to Sea Island. The minute we’d loaded the last cooler and bag into the car into which we were all smushed, she said, “I’m so excited. I’ve never been on a girl’s trip. What do you do on one?” To which my unspoken reply was, Honey, if you got to ask, you got no bizness going. Such an utterance didn’t even warrant a Bless Your Heart.

(This anecdote has nothing to do with aspersions against Yankees. Another Yankee friend comes on a girl trip that eight of us take to Linville every February. She flies in, bringing nothing but a mink coat and four pairs of pajamas. When it’s time for the afternoon segue into cocktails, she takes a shower and changes into a fresh pair of pajamas. She flies back home wearing the same thing she flew down in.)

I’ve been on girl trips of every conceivable stripe: boarding school reunion. Sorority reunion. Enlightenment and educational forays. Hiking trips. Card-playing trips. Et cetera. And plenty where we sit around looking awful, eating things that are terrible for us, and drinking too much. Just like we’ve been doing since March, come to think of it.

A great thing about a girls’ trip is that girls do not have that weird hang-up about sleeping in the same bed together, so you can get a smaller house. What girls do have is food issues, which might be more trouble. Most girl trip meals begin with good intentions (clementines and hard-boiled egg breakfasts, salad lunches, vegetable dinners) and begin instantly deteriorating into daylong noshing on peanut M&Ms, pimento cheese, store-bought guac for hors d’oeuvres mid-afternoon, and whatever-else-is-lying-around-on-the-counter for dinner. This process extends to alcohol as well, though people bring their own chardonnay because chardonnay drinkers are notoriously picky.

It’s helpful to have an IT person along to manage the music and all the people you’re stalking on social media, and because everyone has numerous questions about their computer or cellphone, from font size to getting rid of determined error messages. In one of my girl trip groups, we come from so many different places — Charleston, Atlanta, Greenwich, Charlottesville, Wilmington, Winston-Salem — that the IT person kindly maintains a spreadsheet of what’s happened to whom (child married, grandchild born) so you’re able to consult it and get your facts straight ahead of time.

Usually, the first night of a girl gig means dancing. (During Miley Cyrus’ various shenanigans, my gang went on YouTube for a twerking demo. We’re still working on Bruno Mars moves.) But the real, authentic, non-educational, non-physical girl gig is all about . . . talking. The exchange of vital information and useless trivia, registering of complaints, and confessions ranging from ludicrously hilarious to swear-to-God-secrecy are the soul, the essence, of girl trips.

On one of my annual trips, everyone is tasked with bringing one piece of usable info, which is how you wind up returning home knowing nonessential but conceivably worthwhile minutiae such as smearing baby oil on your legs makes them look shiny, like a model’s, and that Sally Hansen makes a product that makes them look just the opposite: like you’re wearing stockings. You go home with a list of what everyone else is reading and streaming and cooking and buying and where they’re traveling. You find out what internet site to go to order those labels, those shoes, that shower gel, that fan that attaches to your cellphone.

At girl gigs you find out that it’s OK not to know what garam marsala is or understand Brexit. It’s best to stay away from Brett Kavanaugh, but if you need an opinion or help with a decision, there is nothing like a dame. If you want someone to stare at you and say, “No, you cannot use blue sheets instead of white.” Or, in a slipcover conundrum: “I would never use a fabric I can write my name in.” There goes the brushed corduroy you were debating. Or, “The first thing that dates a house is chintz.” “No, it’s your lampshades.” “No, it’s chintz.”

See? Never mind the talking about people, which might elicit gems along the lines of, “She looks like she grew up on a golf course,” or “Anyone over 40 with hair that long is bound to be tough.”

All of which is why girl gigs are empirical evidence of a familiar nugget of wisdom, and possibly the best justification for their continued existence: if five people sit around a table and put all of their dilemmas and distresses, issues and idiosyncrasies, obsessions and obligations in a heap, would you swap yours for anyone else’s?

Nope. Time to go home.  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

March of the Dog Days

Because, well, outside dog

By Susan S. Kelly

You knew that sooner or later, there’d be a column on dogs. March may seem a strange choice, but when it comes to my dog — a black Lab named Babe — it’s appropriate.  March may be unpredictable, freezing one day, frying the next, but there is one thing about Babe that is a constant — she’s always outside, no matter the weather. Listen, you strollers and walkers and joggers and drive-bys: She is an outside dog.

My husband and I had a knockdown drag-out about this years ago, with a different Lab, named Sis; so much so that I called the vet to find out the facts. “A Lab is made for cold weather,” he said. “They can go down to 2 degrees.”

We’ve tried, I promise. We’ve had the wooden doghouse, with the cedar shavings inside. We’ve bought the expensive plastic “Igloo” house, outfitted it with towels and more cedar shavings, pitched bones and peanut butter-coated chew toys inside. We’ve put a fluffy bed inside the tool shed, next to the water heater, and left the door open so she can come and go. We’ve tried dragging her indoors by her collar.

But . . . no dice. Babe has extreme canine FOMO. Babe is like Ariel in The Little Mermaid: She wants to be where the people are. The mailman. The UPS guy. The garbage men. The yard armies. And especially the dog walkers. They know her by name. They bring treats. They let their dogs off leashes so they can rodeo around the front yard with Babe. One dog walker, whose name I’ve never known, moved from the neighborhood but still drives over weekly and brings her French bulldog specifically to hang out with Babe.

Babe has more friends than I do. I have to give them Christmas presents. My husband’s daily walk with her around a six-block radius is so regular, making Babe so familiar, that when he’s out of town, and I’m left with the walking task, people stop and ask me if my husband is sick. Babe doesn’t want to go to the dog Hilton if we go out of town. Besides, a legion of neighborhood kids have depended on Babe’s needs for adolescent income.

Of course, having an outside dog, especially if the dog is a will-eat-anything Lab, has its problems. Collateral damage, if you will. The French drains, chewed to plastic bits, piled in the monkey grass? Dog. The screen door whose lower half is brown from fur dirt? Dog. The terrace furniture cushions, whose corners are raveled and spilling upholstery guts? Dog. The dirt clods scattered all over the driveway/front walk from a recent dig? Dog. The Pieris japonica shrub in death throes with a hollowed-out cavity at its root base? Dog, seeking shade from the summer sun. The multitude of slobber-encrusted, thread-dangling knotted ropes and bristle-bones and otherwise unrecognizable pet toys in the natural area/driveway/patio? Dog. Never mind the ruined hoses, which look like 20 yards of bubblegum to an outside dog. Because you can have a decent yard, or you can have an outside dog, but not both.

Same applies to packages. A neighbor called to report that the front yard was dotted with scraps of blue fabric and bubble wrap. That was my Rent-the-Runway dress for a black tie party. (Despite a dangling cap sleeve, I wore it anyway.) The teeth marks all over the $2-per-card stationery. The borrowed-and-returned books with no covers left on them — hardback and paperback. I need a delivery drone that aims for chimneys instead of doors. And if you are delivering, watch where you place your feet, because . . . dog. Go, Dog, Go.  And they do. Anywhere. Everywhere.

Through five decades of dogs, I’ve always wanted one that, like Lassie, would put its head on my lap and do that “I love you” whine. I’ve finally got one. Babe is such a people-person dog that I can no longer sit on the (raveled, ruined) terrace furniture with a (coverless, chewed) book because she’s got her head in my lap, doing the “I love you” whine and jiggling my arm, and therefore my glass, and I’ve got a half-dozen wine-stained shirts to prove it. It’s been said before in this column but bears repeating: Be careful what you wish for.

Still, she’s perfectly happy to gobble down all my boiled peanut shells. She’s perfectly happy to gobble ice cubes, for that matter. And I have a yard full of birds who feel perfectly safe raising their young in my pyracantha and wisteria vines because Babe in the yard means no cats or snakes in their nests.

You know those T-shirts that say my parents went to wherever and all I got was this lousy T-shirt? My Master of Fine Arts cost $20,000 and the only thing I really learned or remember is this advice from a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor: No one wants to read about dreams, dogs, or how you lost your virginity.

Well. Two out of three’s not bad.

By the way, did you accidentally drop your white, knitted toboggan in my yard? Here it is, resembling Swiss cheese. Because . . . (outside) dog.  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

All Peopled Out

Introverts of the world unite — separately

By Susan S. Kelly

Not long ago I said to some pals, “Heavens, tell me about Duncan. I heard he had four shunts put in.”

“Where have you been?” someone replied with incredulity.

“You know I don’t go out,” was my lame, weak, but honest answer.

Well, there’s the rub. At the core, I’m an introvert. Pause, for clamor claiming otherwise. But as my children like to say in millennial shorthand: “Truth.”

I do not fit the old-school definition of introvert: retiring, withdrawn, uncomfortable in social situations. “She’s just shy” was the old expression — or, as my mother excuses people, “She’s just insecure.” I am not shy. I veer toward that other old expression: “She’s as strong as train smoke.”

Nowadays, anybody with a penny’s worth of psychiatry or Myers-Briggs familiarity knows that “introvert” means someone who gets their energy from being alone, and that extroverts get their energy from being with other people. The old definition of introvert is no longer relevant, has gone the way of Greta Garbo’s famous utterance, “I vant to be alone.”

Take my sister. She so needs to be with people that she can hardly go to the bathroom by herself. In her 20s, she developed polyps on her vocal cords, and had to communicate with a pad and pencil for weeks. When I join her on the beach, unfold my chair, sit down and take out my book, she says, “Oh no you don’t.” She wants to talk. When her children came home from boarding school, she always said, “Let’s have a cookout!” Meaning, invite people over! Yay! “Let’s have a cookout!” has become an oft used, eyeroll mantra in our households now.

We lived in Larchmont, New York, when I was a small child, and my mother says she could put me in a stroller, go to the city and spend all day — shopping, eating, going to museums — without a peep from me. On the other hand, she claims that she’d put my sister down for a nap, open the door an hour later, and the room looked like a bomb had gone off. This could be attributed to undiagnosed ADHD, but I suspect my sister was just rebelling at being left alone. I guarantee you she has never played a hand of solitaire.

Looking back, my childhood strategy of asking a playmate, “When do you have to go home?” instead of, “When are you going home?” was just another way of getting back to my self-entertaining self. Back to playing with Steiff stuffed animals, alone; back to singing along with musicals, alone. Back to reading, alone. All my early, handwritten stories with plotless plots about someone running away to live in the woods and eat squirrels were another symptom. The introvert indicators were all there — I just hadn’t realized it. (There was that one day when I called three or four people to see if they could come play, and when I called the fourth, I opened with, “Can you come over? I’ve called everyone else.” Could be that the fact that I had to call four people to come play and no one could — or would — was an indication of something, too. Hmm. At any rate, my mother made me call the friend back and apologize.)

During a trip, any trip — Europe, the beach, a long weekend somewhere — I unfailingly have a moment when I’m desperate to go home. “I want to be home,” I’ll say to my sister.

“Yep,” she replies, nonplussed. “Been waiting for that.”

“I want to be home,” I’ll say to my husband, who’s lying in bed, reading a guidebook.

“I know,” he mildly answers, and turns a page.

Once, when all my children were small, my husband asked, “Just how much time do you need alone every day?”

“Two hours,” I said.

“That’s too much,” he said.

Still, he knows me well. “What’s the matter?” he’ll ask me of a Sunday morning, “All cuted out?” This is shorthand for my extrovert quota having been depleted. Also, a hangover.

My husband is the reason, as a matter of fact, I know about the Myers-Briggs introvert definition in the first place. When he was senior warden at our church, all the officers and spouses were (gently) required to take the test. Trust me, I’d never have done it on my own. I ventured, once, into a Sunday school class, well aware that we might have to “break into small groups” — an introvert’s nightmare — but nevertheless interested in the topic. The minister caught sight of me (at the back of the room) and called out, “What are you doing here?”

I never went back. This, as opposed to my friend whose wife claims that the main reason he goes to church is that he’s such an extrovert he can’t miss a party.

Existential question: If I post on Instagram, does that negate being an introvert?

Often, introverts are mistaken for aloof snobs. They are not aloof snobs. They’re just all peopled out. I’m an expert at the so-called “Irish exit,” when you leave a gathering without telling anyone you’re going. To all those hosts and hostesses of parties past, I apologize. I had a wonderful time and appreciate having been invited. A friend of my mother’s eventually sold her beach cottage because she couldn’t bear to be away from her yard. Oh, sure. Right. A fellow introvert told me that she hates having her hair cut because she can’t stand all the chatter. So she goes to no-name salons and shows the operator a card she made that reads, “I am a deaf mute. Please take an inch off the bottom.” A friend on the board of Outward Bound offered me an Outward Bound trip at no cost. “You’re the perfect person,” he said. I suggested he find another adventurer for his freebie. Whatever I don’t know about myself by now, I don’t want to know, and I certainly don’t want to find out through shudder-inducing group collaboration and cooperation.

My worst introvert nightmare was the summer Friday I made plans to go see When Harry Met Sally on its opening day. By myself, of course. There, I sit in the quiet darkness, waiting for the movie, eating my popcorn, contentedly alone and anticipating, and . . . three dozen members of the neighborhood swim team troop in. Talking, laughing, jostling, scrabbling to see who sits beside whom . . . nightmare.

On the other hand, as I was all by myself waiting for another movie to begin, a little old lady shuffled in, took a seat, and proceeded to unwrap carrot sticks from a baggie as her movie snack. Was this an omen for a future nightmare? Because it’s common knowledge that whatever you are — punctual, talkative, forgetful — gets more pronounced with age.

I deliberately quit writing novels to go out and be with people again. Because I’m not an irredeemable recluse. Essentially I’m a high-functioning hermit with intermittent FOMO.

Let’s have a cookout!  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

Christmas Stream of Consciousness

It’s a wrap

By Susan S. Kelly

Curse people who send early Christmas cards. Go to attic to find Christmas card basket. Create Christmas card list Excel sheet. Begin Shutterfly Christmas card process with family photo with attendant start-overs. Hit “submit.” Hit “submit.” Hit “submit.” Curse Shutterfly and start emailing people to find out new addresses instead. Wrap a present. Begin debating Christmas Eve dinner. Shrimp and grits? But we have grits at breakfast. Ribs? But getting sauce out of linen napkins is impossible. Switch to red napkins instead of white for Christmas Eve dinner. Debate polishing silver. Reflect upon idiocy of having scheduled various doctor appointments in December. Buy Christmas stamps. Create Christmas gift Excel sheet. Ask sister for the hundredth time what our in-law spending limit is. Ask sister what our spouse spending limit is. Ask sister what our niece and nephew spending limit is. Vow for the hundredth time not to do this next year. Wrap a present. While in Lowe’s, debate buying mace spray for daughters-in-laws’ Christmas stocking. Reject idea. Unfold a dozen tablecloths to try to find the ones that fit card table, table for six, and table for eight. Vow to organize linens in January. Debate polishing silver. Make stack for Christmas cards that need a handwritten note along with printed greeting. Make stack of envelopes you didn’t send cards to that you will if you have any left over. Wrap a present. Check cotton twine for tying tenderloin tail. Check Worcestershire bottle level for seasoning tenderloin. Check bourbon and cognac and rum levels for eggnog. See if mini blowtorch gun has enough ammo to make crème brûlée. Create Christmas food Excel sheet. Begin grocery list. Iron leftover usable ribbons. Wish for the hundredth year you had decent to/from gift tags. Wish for the hundredth time you hadn’t bought the cheap wrapping paper at TJ Maxx. Get out empty boxes. Try, for the 33rd year, to figure out lengths of expensive ribbon so that there’s enough to tie a bow at the top of the box. For the 33rd year, fail. Bring Christmas placemats downstairs. Bring all Christmas china downstairs. Take regular china upstairs, stash under beds, and hope you remember where you put it. Empty sugar into Christmas china sugar bowl. Empty salt and pepper shakers into Christmas salt and pepper shakers. Wrap a present. Debate polishing silver. Hand-address Christmas card envelopes, insert card, stamp with return address, affix postage, lick. Repeat 130 times. Feel unattractively smug and superior for hand-addressing all Christmas cards. Begin pile for Christmas cards from people you hadn’t intended to send one. Search stores for candles with Christmassy scent to disguise ongoing terror of old-person-house smell. Discover Christmassy is a word. My computer recognizes it. Who knew? Take off exercise clothes, put on makeup, and hit the stores. Buy more Red Wine Out spray. Buy ZingZang for bloodies before it sells out. Search four different grocery stores for Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers. While in Bed, Bath & Beyond, debate buying silver polish and Goof Off for daughter-in-laws’ stocking stuffers. Reject idea. Debate other possibly fun but likely worthless stocking stuffers. Hardboiled egg slicer? Do they still like Big League Chew? Scout possible magnolias in public parks to steal for decorations. Realize the gold-and-black Christmas ornament you bought for a Wake Forest fan is actually an Appalachian State Yosef, not a Demon Deacon. Wrap it anyway and decide to fake surprise on Christmas morning. Wrap a present. Reshape wired wreath bow that’s been dangling from a clothes hanger in the attic. Wonder if this will be the year you finally fall down the attic steps and break your neck getting down the decorations. Put “day to get tree” on husband’s calendar. Move furniture upstairs to make room for tree. Find plastic sheet so overfilling tree stand doesn’t ruin carpet. Again. Go to tree lot for wreath and discover it doesn’t open until 10. Return to tree lot later the same day. Wrap a present. Lay fire. Wrap a present. Undertake too many things in one day and realize there’s nothing for supper. Run out of Christmas stamps and do not care that you’re using flags or the self-stick freebies from the Salvation Army for return addresses because the stamp pad gave up the ghost. Blow dust off crystal goblets. Change white soap in powder room to something vaguely green. Wrap a present. Go to four different grocery stores searching for “superfine sugar” for eggnog recipe. Create what-to-wear-to-which-thing-when Excel sheet. Ignore sister’s suggestion to download some app called “Calm.” Drive around and drive around and drive around hunting for this year’s location of pop-up Dewey’s bakery store for Moravian Sugar Cake. Debate polishing silver. Scrounge around looking for bent, folded nameplates for tables from previous years because you worked so hard on the calligraphy. Reflect on irony of having to save all the homemade gift treats for Christmas Eve and day, knowing there will be leftovers just when you’ve decided to try and not gorge anymore. Schedule manicure. Cancel appontment upon realization that manicure will be ruined polishing silver. On December 21, pitch all Excel lists because you don’t care anymore and what’s going to happen is going to happen. Begin New Year’s resolution list with Learn How to Use Excel.Wrap a present. PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

Candy Hierarchy

All sweets aren’t born equal

By Susan S. Kelly

Did you come by my house on Halloween? You know, the one with no pumpkin on the stoop, no lights on, and a Grinch upstairs watching Netflix behind the shutters? I loathe Halloween, and with grown children, am now able to confess as much.

I do, however, love candy, and since you’re still picking Nestlé Crunch wrappers from your children’s pockets or out of your dryer lint trap, now seems as good as time as any for a little treatise on the topic.

Blaming a parent for obsessions — never mind neuroses — is always convenient. I grew up in an era when mothers thought nothing of buying six packs of candy bars for dessert, the same way they thought nothing of serving syrupy pineapple slices straight from a Del Monte can. Hence my first true love: Black Cow suckers, which, tragically, are nearly impossible to find these days.

I like Common Candy. By “common,” I mean common to convenience store aisles. Caramel Creams. Tootsie Rolls. Tootsie Roll Pops. Sugar Daddies. BB Bats. Kits. I like the cheap stuff, the fake stuff. And while my preferences are common, they’re not as common as my husband’s, who’ll actually buy and eat those jellied things called Orange Slices. Again, blame the previous generation.

As a child among a dozen first cousins at their lake house, my husband’s grandfather took the passel of them each day to the gas station and let them pick out a piece of candy. If that ain’t cheap entertainment, I don’t know what is, and I plan to do the same thing with my grandchildren as soon as they get enough teeth in their head to rot. One friend has a candy drawer in her kitchen especially for her grandchildren. Now, that falls in the Great Grandparent category, beating Tweetsie Railroad or some old butterfly garden like a drum. Plus, I know where the drawer is.

Like Mikey in the old Life cereal advertisements, my husband will eat anything even slightly candy-like, including peppermints. The only people who consider peppermints candy and not breath mints are children with candy canes at Christmas. I had a boarding school friend who ate Mentos like popcorn. I can still see her putting her thumb in the roll and wedging one out. Mentos are not candy. They were precursors to Tic Tacs. Peppermints are desperation candy in the same way that my sister thinks meatloaf is Depression food. Then again, I absolutely love meatloaf, which means that I keep a bowl of peppermints available for my husband. Each to his own tastes.

Has anyone ever even eaten a Zero bar but me? It’s a personal process. You peel off the waxy white coating with your front teeth, then the fake chocolate nougat, and finally, the peanuts, or almonds or whatever they are, after you dissolve the caramel they’re embedded in. This process may explain why I can’t eat M&Ms. The way I eat M&Ms, after about a dozen, my tongue has started to get raw and cracked, the way it did as a child with Sweet Tarts. Plus, milk chocolate. Eh.

Higher up on my candy food chain: Snickers. Milky Way. Mounds. Rolos. 3 Musketeers. Yup.

Beneath discussion: marshmallow peanuts and Peeps. Easter candy is a bust in general.

Sweet Tarts = not candy. Also not candy: Reese’s cups. Butterfingers. Paydays. Junior Mints. Too much peanut butter, peanuts, and, again, peppermint. Still, in a pinch I’ll eat most of those, the same way you’ll settle for a Fig Newton if there are no real cookies around. Red Hots don’t really qualify as candy either, but they definitely qualify as common. Where else but the place where I get my tires rotated could I find a vending machine that cranks out a handful of Hot Tamales for a quarter? Not a fan of Pixie Stix — why not just buy a packet of Kool-Aid, sprinkle some powder in your palm, and lick it off? — but I’ve always loved those disgusting four-packs of Nik-L-Nips and the oversized wax lips only available at (you guessed it) Halloween.

Seeing a pattern here? Clearly, I favor candy with taffy, teeth-pulling textures. Caramels, nougats, taffy itself, fudgy chocolate like a Tootsie Roll, Laffy Taffy. Milk Duds. Bit-O-Honey. Starburst in a pinch. For one birthday, a friend gave me a 12-pack of Sugar Daddys — vastly preferable to Sugar Babies — which I take to the movies. That (literal) sucker lasts the whole movie, especially if you eat the paper stick too, as I do. Nothing better than a spit-and-sugar soaked stick.

I totally do not get Skittles, but I’ll buy a Costco jar the size of those things pink pickled eggs are usually found in if it’s filled with Jelly Bellys.

But Jolly Ranchers? I’m not much on hard candy. Hard candy is for colonoscopy prep.

Fancy-pants products from “chocolatiers” are trying too hard. Just keep your Toblerone and Godiva. Riesens are as upscale as I get. Nor have I ever understood Necco wafers, Pez, or Valentine hearts. Why not just eat chalk? Same thing for those elastic band necklaces strung with pastel candy discs that you eat while wearing it, though I admire the concept.

You know that friend with the candy drawer? She keeps all her Halloween candy corn that’s gone rock hard for me. I love the stuff, and candy just doesn’t get any more common. So don’t think poorly of my October 31 antipathy. My attitude concerns the costumes, not the candy. Besides, I just love All Saints Day on November 1. Almost as much as I love Cow Tales. PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

The Child Files

Kids say, well, whatever pops into their blessedly sweet heads

By Susan S. Kelly

Whenever “the world is too much with us,” as William Wordsworth so prettily put it, or current events and crises and confusion threaten to crumple me, I first read Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” taped to my computer monitor. Then I pull up YouTube, and Hugh Grant’s voiceover opening lines of Love, Actually. “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport . . .”

Then, naturally, I head for my Child Files.

Next to my Miscellaneous File (because where else do you stash something like “Mules and mushrooms have no gender,” and “New wallpaper smells like Band-Aids”?), my Child File is the thickest. Sure, I dutifully listed all minutiae in their baby albums — first word, first tooth, first haircut — but the Child File contains far more pertinent information. It’s a kind of record, repository, evidence of, the skills my children came by, created, and/or appropriated for survival as adults. Darwin’s theories had nothing on my three kiddoes (and what you told me about yours).

On avoidance: When I lecture my oldest, he clips a pen to his leg hair.

On socialization: “If you miss lunch, you miss everything,” my daughter complained if I scheduled her doctor’s appointment late morning. She also whined if the carpool came too early, thus denying her another op for elementary school drama. In addition, the all-day sulk because she’d forgotten it was a dress-down day and she’d worn dress code to school.

On negotiation/the art of the deal: My son receives a $10 gift certificate at Harris Teeter for a tip, and then tries to sell it to me for $9. Why nine and not 10? I ask. “I’m trying to sweeten the deal,” he says.

My 16-year-old is cleaning out his collection of . . . liquor bottles. His 8-year-old sister wants the cool Absolut vodka bottle, for which he makes her pay him $2 and smell his feet. The amazing aspect to this sibling transaction is that it takes place without my ever being aware. No one pleads; no one fights. Both think they got a good deal. Later, my daughter shows me the newly acquired bottle with pride, and tells me how she came to possess it. With no trace of humiliation.

On growing up: My son and his post-college roommates bickering in a Costco aisle, then resorting to rock-paper-scissors to determine what they’ll buy. As far as I can tell, rock-paper-scissors informed 90% of his decisions at that age.

Other son eating pancake batter because it was the only thing he could afford at that age.

Daughter asking, “How do you know when you’re grown up?” Oldest child immediately answers, “When no one writes your name in your clothes anymore.”

Nephew who composed an outline before he wrote the thank-you note to his girlfriend’s mother.

On higher education: My son’s announcement that his teacher told the class that every Emily Dickinson poem can be sung to the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

Other son’s announcement that he has dropped Statistics 11 for the History of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Son’s wholly serious question the night before second grade begins: “Mom, do I have to take math this year?”

Nephew’s entire essay content on What I Like About People: I like their houses and toys and that’s about it.

On ownership rights: The handwritten note left in the dried-up, sugar-stiffened, flake-crusted Krispy Kreme box containing a lone doughnut: DO NOT EAT THIS IT IS MINE.

On illness: “I blew my nose so hard that air came out of my eyes,” my son informed me.

On coping with ennui, from my daughter: “When I get bored, I either like to organize things or try on clothes.”

From my son, who is tired of me reading all the time: “Watch. I can predict what Mom is reading right now, I’m psychic. She’s reading ‘the.’”

Same son, leaning over lawn mower and breathing in the gasoline fumes: “Watch, Mom. I’m getting dumber.”

The 9-year-old daughter and her friend are playing a game called Make Me Laugh, which involves putting on some music and dancing. How nice, I think; how cute. When I come downstairs, the Make Me Laugh laughter abruptly ceases. Slow dawning of humiliation: The pair are dancing and laughing to my music, finding it all just too, too hilarious.

Older, non-eyeglass-wearing brother to younger brother, who’s finally, gleefully, getting contact lenses: “The first thing the doctor does when they measure you for contacts is give you a shot in your eyeball.”

(Actually, that entry might go hand-in-hand with the sibling argument it interrupted, wherein the two combatants were arguing over who had peed last and therefore had to go back upstairs and flush the toilet.)

Bless the child, then, unwitting antidote for adult existential angst. PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

Climbing the Ladder

Summer jobs are the bottom rung

By Susan S. Kelly

It’s August. How’s that summer job going for your prodigal son and daughter? You know, the fancy-pants NYC internship that you’re heavily subsidizing. Or are your offspring going to one day say accusingly, as mine have, “Why didn’t you make me get an internship?”

The short answer is that we were clueless, and, more accurately, didn’t know anyone higher up the career-boosting food chain. Your father and I just figured everyone had the same kind of summer jobs we did, i.e., menial. Because the true purpose of summer jobs is to show you what you don’t want to be when you grow up. My husband: delivering Cokes from a flatbed truck all over Fayetteville in 100-degree heat; me, hustling quahog jewelry and fake scrimshaw in a tourist joint on Nantucket, where I was hired solely on the basis of my built-in “pleases” and “ma’ams.”

Ergo, my children had glam jobs as caddies, counselors, ground trash collectors at apartment complexes (think candy wrappers and condoms; they came home with bloody knuckles from working the parking lot), and as stockroom employees packaging bolts of fabric in a warehouse for UPS pickup. Still, everyone should have to work in what’s known as the “service industry” at some time in their life: retail clerk, waitress, lifeguard, etc. If you know an adult who’s a jerk, I bet he/she never had to wait tables or take orders as a teenager.

And if you have a college grad on the professional prowl, whatever you do, guide him or her away from the three jobs that nobody, nobody in their sane mind, wants: minister, head of a private school, and the manager of a country club. Constituents — congregations, parents and members — of those occupations believe themselves entitled. In other words, they own you. And I have proof, with the following true-to-life examples.


My aunt and uncle’s son, William, went away to boarding school. Before Thanksgiving had even arrived, the headmaster called my aunt to say that William just wasn’t going to cut it. He couldn’t conform to the rules, couldn’t toe the various lines, and William was just going to have to come home. My aunt wasn’t fazed. “Oh no, he is not,” she informed the headmaster. “I sent a perfectly good child to you in September. Whatever’s happened since then is your fault, and you’re going to keep him.”

Country Club Manager

Frank was an incorrigible charmer who basically lived at the country club. In the dining room, on the golf course, in the card room, but mostly in the bar. Your classic handsome bad boy, who was also drunk, demanding, misbehaving and embarrassing. One morning when the club manager found Frank sleeping under a table in the bar, glasses and cigarettes strewn around him, he called Frank’s mother. “Mrs. Simpson,” he said politely, “your son has become a real problem. I’m going to have to ask you to do something about his behavior at the club.” There was a pause over the line. “And you, sir,” Mrs. Simpson replied, “serve very ordinary chicken salad.”


My great-uncle Bill in Walnut Cove had a dog he loved better than life, named John G. But John G kept getting into Lou Petrie’s garden. Lou told Bill that if John G got into his garden one more time, he was going to shoot him. Bill paid no attention. One Sunday in church, where my grandmother played the organ, word got ‘round the congregation that John G had gotten into the garden again and Lou Petrie had flat-out shot him. Church stopped then and there, and everyone went to the Petries’ where, sure enough, John G was lying dead between the tomato vines. The minister’s wife dropped to her knees beside the lifeless animal. “Do not worry,” she said. “I’ll bring John G back to life,” and praying loudly, began massaging his bloody body. My grandmother looked on, horrified, then headed straight for the house, and the telephone. She dialed the operator and put in a long-distance call to the bishop of the North Carolina Diocese of the Episcopal Church on a Sunday morning. “Bishop,” she said, “you have a minister’s wife down here trying to raise a dog from the dead. What are you going to do about it?”

My advice? Steer clear of a career that involves dues, tuition or tithing.  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South


A milestone birthday

By Susan S. Kelly

This is the month that I turn 65. I suspect I’ll have a breakdown.

I don’t put much store by birthdays typically. As a child, a July birthday meant that my friends were away on family vacations, so no one was around for a party. A summer birthday meant no cupcakes in elementary school, or care packages from Hickory Farms — the standard-but-thrilling gift — at boarding school. As an adult, I seem often to be at the beach, where my mother annually suggests that we have a “nice piece of fish” to celebrate my birthday — a roll-eye refrain the entire family now uses whenever we’re referring to celebrations of any kind.

My sister has a breakdown every time we leave the beach, crying and honking the car horn until she’s out of sight. She’s worried that by the next time we’re all together again, someone will have died, divorced or been irreparably altered in some way.  Cheerful, no? I made her a Breakdown CD full of mournful songs from James Taylor, Pachelbel’s Canon, the themes from To Kill A Mockingbird and The Thorn Birds, so she’ll have background music to wail with during the four-hour drive home.

The last time I had a breakdown birthday was 3 1/2 decades ago, when I turned 30. I was waiting at a stoplight and was suddenly just  . . .  overcome. I bowed my heard and laid my forehead against the hard, ridged, steering wheel and wept. I did not want to be 30 with children and a mortgage and a yard. I wanted to be a sorority girl wearing Topsiders and drinking beer at The Shack with my hair pulled back in a grosgrain ribbon on a Thursday afternoon. There was nothing for my despair but for my husband to take me to Chapel Hill for the weekend. But The Shack was a parking lot. Beers at the gleaming wood bar in Spanky’s didn’t cut it.

The good part about A Big Birthday year means that my friends are turning 65 too.  Bridge buddies, hiking homies, college pals, boarding school classmates — all of us. Meaning that every day brings a veritable blizzard of emails filled with dates, pleas, opinions, rebuttals, suggestions, complaints, reminders, asides, and the occasional joke, all in the service of organizing what I term Girl Gigs. Girl Gigs deserve a column of their own, but I’ll give you a teaser: One friend, for a Girl Gig in the mountains every January, flies in from Greenwich, Connecticut, and brings nothing but a mink coat and 3 pairs of pajamas. Stay tuned.

I don’t care a whit about getting old, or dying (proved by my Funeral File, a topic addressed earlier in these pages). I’ll admit to a fear of my house smelling like old people, and wondering whether it’s time to go ahead and lock into what one friend calls a “terminal hairdo,” the one you wear to the grave. And I drive a Mini Cooper, which seems to be the universally acknowledged car for females of a certain age. But otherwise, nope. No fear, no dread, no anxiety.

I also have zero regrets about those things in the past that I’ve done or left undone, or shoulda, woulda, coulda. Furthering my career? More me time? Taken that trip, accepted that offer? No, no, and no. Do-overs don’t interest me.

Wherefore the melancholy, then?  Just this: 1,277 photographs — give or take a couple dozen travel pictures — on a digital frame. A New Year’s resolution labor of love with a scanner that rotates continuously all day, every day, showing me 1,277 times what I cannot have back. That summer twilight evening of my oldest in his tacky polyester pajamas blowing dime-store bubbles in the driveway before bedtime. That child wearing a mask while he watches television, oblivious that he’s even wearing a mask. That child blowing out candles on what is surely the most hideous homemade birthday cake ever, shaped and iced like a sharpened pencil. The grin the day the braces came off. A husband mowing the lawn with a toddler draped around his neck like a pashmina.

What was I doing during these ordinary, everyday moments?  What was I saying, thinking, hoping, cooking, even?  I don’t want to time travel, to swallow a magic youth pill, to go back and re-live. What stops and saddens me is the simple yet incontrovertible fact that, no matter what, I cannot get that Tuesday morning in that picture, where the child with the trike, or the new backpack for the first day of school, or that Sunday afternoon when a young husband tosses free throws at the driveway basketball goal — long since vanished — back. Not a single, commonplace, inconsequential second of them. Nothing I can do will return them to me. No begging. No money. No who-you-know. No good deeds. No nothing.

Thornton Wilder knew the kind of grief I’m talking about, and in his play, Our Town, has Emily Webb, who’s dead, ask the Stage Manager, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it . . . every, every minute?”

“No,” the Stage Manager replies. “Saints and poets maybe . . . they do some.”

And I’m neither.

So, this July, if you see someone pulled over with her head against the steering wheel, it’s just me, in my Mini, in the breakdown lane.  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

True South

Only in the South

When layaway simply won’t do

By Susan S. Kelly

Admit it: There are scenes and situations that could only happen in the South. I’m not talking about moonshine, magnolias, accents or tobacco. Collards, however, are involved.

Exhibit A:

One bitter-cold, sleeting January, my mother was hosting her luncheon bridge club gathering at her house (it’s worth noting, and also probably apropos to Only in the South, that my mother had lived in a different town for 18 years, and her bridge club had never replaced her; they’d used substitutes. For 18 years).

Never mind that these were the ’70s, they were still — again, Only in the South — the days of linen tablecloths, sterling silver, crystal goblets, and what I term girl food: lemon bars, asparagus spears, and a chicken casserole concocted with Campbell’s mushroom soup. Somewhere between the shuffling and the cleaning, the disposal backed up, the dishwasher broke down, and water from ice-damming in the gutters began running down the walls. The luncheon was not a success.

The minute the last guest left, my mother drove straight to Montaldo’s and bought herself a mink coat. (Also worth noting: All through my childhood, when I watched game shows on TV, and fur coats were the ultimate prize, my mother was very firm in her belief that no one under 50 should own a fur coat. She’d reached the required age, but only just.) However, she had to put the mink coat on layaway. That night, she told her mother, my grandmother, who lived in the ultra-sophisticated burg of Walnut Cove in Stokes County, what her day had been like.

The next morning, my grandmother drove straight to Montaldo’s, bought the mink coat herself, and delivered it to my mother. Not so much because she felt sorry for my mother — which she no doubt did — but because there was just no way that a daughter of hers was going to have anything on layaway at Montaldo’s.

Exhibit B:

A friend of my mother’s — we’ll call her Joan — was having a meeting at her house, necessitating finery, flowers, decorum, and girl food (see above). Minutes before the meeting, Joan smelled something awful. The maid had elected that particular morning to cook up a mess of collards (not girl food).

Joan panicked. “You can’t cook collards now, Myrna!” she scolded, revolted by the stench, and that a dozen grande dames were about to descend into her stinking living room. (Did I mention the meeting involved debutantes? Also Only in the South.) “You’ve got to get rid of those collards!” So, Myrna did what she was told. She took the big pot of greens off the stove and emptied the whole malodorous mess down the toilet. Which promptly stopped up and overflowed. And no embroidered hand towels in a powder room, or asparagus spears with hollandaise, can overcome a clogged commode, collards, and matrons clad in ultrasuede.

Exhibit C:

My friend Betty grew up with an irascible, alcoholic mother. A real character, who I loved, but was, nevertheless, a drunk. Years later, at a party, Betty was talking to a friend who was married to another adult child of an alcoholic, in a family that might have had even more dysfunction and irregularities than Betty’s. Still, the son — we’ll call him James — had survived and thrived. Thinking she was delivering a compliment, Betty said, “Look at James. He’s successful. Normal. Happy. With all that was going on in his house, how in the world did he turn out so well?”

The friend didn’t miss a beat. “Just like you did, Betty. Good help.”

Debutantes, collards, Montaldo’s, and good help. Only in the South.  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.