Becoming a Lady, Part 7
But what was life like beyond Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia? At age 18 I ached to start seeing the rest of the world. My freshman year I took two train trips; the first one to Atlanta to meet relatives I had never met, Fred Patterson and his wife Ida.
Train trips are romantic and I took in everything like a starved person desperate for food: the way the all-white passengers relaxed into the easy- going clickity-click rhythm; the black conductor moving from seat to seat punching tickets, his melodic voice calling out the names of cities as if he were singing a song as we made our way south . . . “Fayaaaaaaatteville.” When we pulled into Atlanta, it was easy to spot my uncle because he looked just like my father.
The first thing Uncle Fred did was to take me on a tour of his funeral home at Spring Hill at Tenth, something I was certainly not wild about visiting. It’s difficult for an 18-year-old to feel excitement over coffins and urns. But Uncle Fred was proud of his success in the funeral business so I had to muster up as much enthusiasm as possible. I can’t imagine what I thought to say, perhaps “Wow (in those days Ohioans said “Wow” to almost anything) this is a really nice coffin!”; or “This one has such a nice shade of blue satin lining,” or whatever. But as I passed the rows and rows of coffins with Uncle Fred beaming approval at my side, a cold shiver passed through me. My teen-age brain had never considered that I actually might die one day, but others seem to be dying, and judging by his opulent lifestyle, Uncle Fred must have been selling his coffins at a fairly fast rate. I tried to imagine death and my actually lying in a coffin one day, but that was a leap far beyond my 18-year-old capacity.
The next morning I awoke late and found my relatives had already left the house. A black, white-haired gentleman butler dressed in a tuxedo served me a sumptuous breakfast on silver service. As I sat by myself at the long dining room table I could see myself reflected in the highly-polished wood surface, being treated as royalty, and I suddenly felt acutely embarrassed. It occurred to me I should have been serving the old man. I had come from a family in Ohio that had always served themselves, and I felt out of place, like a lone buckeye found unceremoniously in the pocket of a lovely silk dress.
My relatives threw an elegant dinner party for me, inviting a few Randolph-Macon classmates and college students from the area. Afterwards we went to the country club and danced and drank like adults. I saw that I had sudden new prestige with my classmates because of my one southern connection.
My second trip was to New York City. Father sent me $7 each week, which I saved up to finance the trip. I caught the train north, arrived at busy Grand Central Station, and caught an uptown bus to 82nd Street to the apartment of a classmate, dragging my heavy suitcase all the way. That night we went to a nightclub with friends. In those days women could sit at a table in a bar, but never at the bar. I tested the law and a bouncer immediately escorted me back to my table.
I had a blind date at a West Point dance, which was very much like going to a dance at VMI. I felt sorry for my date, who wore his uniform and looked so uncomfortable. He sat, walked and danced with perfect posture, a marked change from the way men dressed at Hampden-Sydney, UVa and Washington & Lee, where posture was the last consideration of the day.
Before leaving, I took a commuter train to New Haven to visit cousin Fred Wakefield, at Yale. He took me on a tour of the dark New England stone campus, which was stark contrast to the red brick-white columned colleges in Virginia. We discussed our mutual discomfort attending colleges so far away from our home state, but decided exposure to new ways of doing things must be good for us.
“Mother most wants me to become a lady,” I told my cousin. I was beginning to see the humor in the situation. “Am I a lady yet, Fred?” I asked.
He looked at me. “Not quite yet, Mays,” and we both burst out laughing. What a quaint idea Mother, from her sheltered and protected life in yesterday’s world, held for her daughter! Mother’s plan of my becoming a lady, as excruciatingly painful as it had been for me at times, was a highly entertaining adventure. Perhaps one day, I thought, I would even write a comedy about the experience.
(Continued next week.)