On Becoming a Lady, Conclusion
Buck Harris, an alumna of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (RMWC) and director of the Girl Scout camp in Suffolk, called that spring in 1960 to offer me a summer job. For the enticing salary of $200 I agreed to teach sailing for eight weeks at the Girl Scout camp that summer. I did the math and my salary worked out to 7 cents an hour, which was about all I was worth. I had never taught anybody anything in my life.
The summer passed pleasantly enough with my dating Chip Buxton of Newport News and my happy discovery that I loved teaching children, but I was soon back in Lynchburg facing my sophomore year in college. After such a splendid summer, I was suddenly in the grip of extreme unhappiness that had settled over me somewhat like a black cloud covers the sun. The year would prove to be disastrous for me, but the pain and confusion I would face would lead to growing up. There were two life-changing events for me:
In 1961, two seniors at Randolph Macon Woman’s College, two students from Lynchburg College and two students from Virginia Theological Seminary joined with black Americans for a sit-in at the lunch counter, which was reserved for whites only, at Patterson’s Drug Store in downtown Lynchburg. They were immediately arrested and subsequently convicted of violating the trespassing law of the Commonwealth of Virginia and sentenced to 30 days in jail. (One of the RMWC seniors arrested was Mary Edith Benchley from Saluda.)
The next day the college saw a front page photo in the local newspaper of their two students in a Lynchburg jail. I gazed at the picture and felt goose bumps run up and down my arms. Was breaking the law and going to jail over one’s principles a part of becoming a lady? I was sure Mother would not have agreed.
Yet, I saw that a young woman could change the world. She could stand for principles she believed in, no matter what. She could even go to jail. This may have been the most important lesson I ever learned in college. It was Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” but set in 1961. I knew that I would always respect and obey the laws (and also the police whose job it is to enforce laws), yet I understood for the first time that I must follow my own principles in life, even if it meant not conforming with peers, and that I must use my pen and take a public stand when necessary.
Such thoughts did not lift my spirits and I soon sank even more into feelings of despair. Like most women, I wanted to be popular, pretty and have fun, but I felt that I didn’t fit into the world and I feared that I never would. By May I was so unhappy I began to feel desperate. No one is very happy at age 19, but one day I awoke to yet another day of classes and realized I could withstand my life no more.
Then it happened, a sudden and simple act of self-destruction neither my parents nor I could ever understand at the time. Perhaps I was badly depressed and seeking an escape, had spring fever, or perhaps it was simply that I was sick of my pampered life. I really don’t know why I did such an irrational thing but, like a bolt of summer lightning striking the far horizon, I eloped one Saturday night with my date, an inappropriate man, thereafter suffering the ensuing and inevitable divorce. I was not the first young woman on earth that had married in the hopes of escaping a life she did not want to lead.
Today, elopement and divorce are not remarkable, but in 1960 they were serious offenses for a 19-year-old girl of my peer group. My behavior brought an immediate end to my education at RMWC and, after taking final exams, I moved back to Ohio with Mother despairing that “our Mays is ruined.” I was soon in Cleveland looking for a job to support myself and to face the consequences of my actions.
I found a job as a sales representative for Air Canada (Trans Canada Airlines) and, after one frightful year working night shifts on the reservation desk which entailed riding city buses late at night on dangerous city streets (which kept Mother up with worry), I was promoted to daytime work. I could therefore earn my way out of the downward spiral I had begun and finally take charge of my life, living the way I wished to live. Although I would later graduate from several colleges, it was work that provided me maturity, independence and happiness.
The story has a happy ending. In 1963 I married a fine Virginia gentleman, Chip Buxton, from Newport News. Mother was delirious for surely now I would finally become a lady; Father was glad the family was expanding south; Chip was delighted he had married an interesting woman; and I was relieved not to be ruined. The good news is there are many paths to becoming a lady. (Conclusion.)