My mama grew up poor. From a good Catholic family, she was the oldest of eight kids, and there probably would've been twenty of them if her daddy hadn't died when she was 12. Yeah, eight kids ranging from two to twelve, being raised by a widowed mom in an 820 square-foot house on a postage stamp of land off Eight Mile in Detroit.
After her daddy died, neighbors came and converted the attic into a bedroom for the four sisters to share, built little dressers for their scant belongings right into the eaves. The girls fought over basics like slips and hair curlers and their shoes never fit right because they'd been worn down and handed down from my grandma to each girl in turn.The four brothers shared a room downstairs, where they hoarded things like bread and cereal in their dresser drawers because there was never quite enough food. Their mom had her own tiny bedroom with a grimy window and a doily-covered makeup table, cracked, round mirror on top. All nine in the house shared one miniscule bathroom.
At the end of their street, a family with a little land and a big arbor grew vines of fat, purple grapes. Out of Christian kindness, they gave my grandmother all that she and her kids could pick. My grandma brought them home to the tiny kitchen with yellowed linoleum to mash and sugar and boil in a huge pot. She made jar after jar of tangy jelly every fall, and 365 days a year the kids were each given one peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich for lunch, at school, at home, no variation, no complaining. To this day, my mom still won't touch grape jelly.
Mama desperately wanted to join the Girl Scouts, but her mother couldn't afford the uniform so she babysat for the spoiled kids of a Protestant family down the street - there were just two children in that house - and she earned the eleven dollars it took to get her green outfit and sash. She loved Girl Scouts, it was her quiet place, the only thing in her life that was all hers. She loved helping at senior homes, selling cookies and playing clapping games with the other girls in the church social hall.
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black.
It was at Girl Scouts that she met a real PanAm stewardess, a gorgeous lady in in a fine suit and heels, with red lipstick and a hair-sprayed chignon. She told the girls stories of first class passengers, sleeping in fancy hotels and traveling the world. She was everything my mama didn't know she could even be.
'This is how I get out of here,' my mother thought, and for the next six years she worked toward her goal of signing on with the airlines and getting the hell out of Michigan.
That was how a poor girl from the wrong end of Detroit ended up in Atlanta, at Delta airline's flight school, surrounded by debutantes, beauty queens and Agnes Scott graduates who'd spent four years focusing on getting their M-R-S degrees. My mom stood out like a sore thumb in the dorms with her Salvation Army pajamas and hand me down luggage.
But she was beautiful and she was smart. God had given her a perfect smile and good skin and even with a midwestern accent she could charm the pilots and passengers. She graduated top of her flight class and was soon living her dream.
She met my daddy, a smooth talker with little education but a lot of business sense and soon they were married. It was the 70's and she had a brick house in the suburbs, a patio with an inground pool and a husband with a pinky ring. All was right in the world.
They made smart choices, lived in better neighborhoods then they could really afford and sold their homes when the market was right. By the time I was 15 years old we were living in a gorgeous place on Lake Lanier with a formal living room and a couple of boats.
No longer a hungry little girl in shoes that didn't fit, my mama's walk-in closet was bursting with fabulous clothes, her jewelery box full of sparkling things. I didn't realize then that it was a defense mechanism, surrounding herself with finery, because inside she still felt the embarrassment of being the poorest kid in class.
One day, not long after we moved in, the Junior League came to call.
I don't know how it is up North but down here, the Junior League women run everything posh. They are THE fanciest matrons in town. Their families have either been here since the dawn of time or they have so much money that where they come from doesn't even matter.
Their daughters are the ones who dance at the Cotilion balls, their sons get references from senators on their college applications. They attend croquet parties at the country club, organize charity food drives for Thanksgiving, have a fundraiser ball every spring benefitting different benevolent organizations and they run the annual fall thrift sale. Every lady has to donate a certain amount of their unwanted fancy stuff to the sale or they get fined!
Suffice it to say they are the uppitiest bunch of snooty Southern bitches on the planet. And somehow, my mama thought they would accept her. Her heart was in the right place, truly, and that's what hurt the most. She had some time on her hands, and some extra money. She thought she could help them do good in our community too.
On a magnolia-scented afternoon they showed up on our doorstep. A woman I babysat for a few times, who lived just up the street from us, knocked on our door. She stood there with another lady, in nearly matching blonde hair helmets and too bright smiles, fat rocks weighing down their ring fingers.
"We ahh from the Juniah League," one announced, all Southern drawl and over-sugared sweet tea.
"We ahh selling tickets to ouh annual Spring Fling!" the other finished, diamond bright, diamond sharp.
My mother looked a bit nervous in the face of so much flash but I could see her winding up for something big.She thought she belonged with these women now. She thought that she too had arrived.
"Well, I'm not really interested in buying a ticket, but I would love to help you with your events. What can I do to get involved in your organization?" she asked, genuinely.
They laughed. Just stood there and laughed on our front porch in tinkly little notes that shattered like glass at my mama's bare feet. They didn't know my mother from Adam's house cat, but in the two minutes they stood there they could tell she was not one of them.
"Oh, no," one admonished her. "You can't just join the Juniah League. You have to be invited." She patted my mother's arm apologetically, as if surely she was a bit simple to think they'd ever take someone like her into their sacred bosom. "But, ahh you certain you don't want to buy a ticket?"
My mother had the grace to say "No, thank you," before walking back inside and gently shutting the door.
I watched for a moment through the glass and when the "Juniah" Leaguers were back in their car I smirked.
"Wow! THAT was unbelievable, mama! What bitches!" I said, laughing in astonishment at their privileged attitude, their obnoxious contempt for us.
My mama was not laughing. In just two minutes, those rotten belles had stolen from her the confidence that she'd built over 20 years of carefully planned outfits, expensive haircuts and interior designer sessions. In just a few words, they'd let her know that anyone with real money, real class, could see she was just a big ole fake.
Mama hid it well, but she never had stopped feeling like a poor little Catholic girl from Detroit. Those Junior Leaguers stripped her bare.
She walked down the hall to our kitchen, her proud back ramrod straight, little sobs shaking her shoulders.
I'll never forgive them for that. Have never looked at those women with anything but derision ever since. Some of my classmates who married well went on to become Junior Leaguers and I feel ashamed of them for partaking in any group that thinks wealth makes them better than anyone else.
Years later, after I got married, had moved to another town, I was involved in a lot of community initiatives because of my job, and living in a lovely Antebellum home just off the historic square. An invitation arrived in my mailbox, in a fine envelope with my name in calligraphy.
I slipped my finger under the flap and pulled a crisp card out of the gilded interior, a gothic column emblem embossed in gold at the top. "You are invited to a Junior League recruitment social..."
"You've got to be fucking kidding me," I murmured.
I turned the card over, wondering if this was some kind of a joke. It wasn't.
I sat on my porch and called my mama who had long since moved on to Florida like all the good snowbirds do.
"You are never going to guess what I got in the mail today" I told her. "Looks like you must have raised me right, because I sure fooled somebody down here!"
"In the South, that's quite an honor to be invited to the Junior League, honey. Are you going to accept?" she asked me.
"Hell no," I cackled."You think I would evah be a Junior Leaguer after what happened to you?"
"You know," she said quietly "that nearly broke my heart, when those women treated me like they did."
It had been a decade but I knew she hadn't forgotten what happened on our porch.
"Those weren't women, mama. Those were bitches. Junior League bitches. And they missed out on a pearl when they turned you down. Who needs 'em?"
"They really were bitches, weren't they?" she giggled. She rarely cussed but this was the moment for it.
"Oooh, mama. You said a bad word!" I chided her. "Now, let me go. I need to go reject some snooty elitists! Vengeance will be ours! Love you!"
Grinning, I dialed the RSVP number on the card.
When a saccharine sweet voice picked up the other line I started in cheerfully.
"Hi! Today I received an invitation to your recruitment social?...Yes...Yes, thank you....Oh, no, I'm definitely not accepting. But thanks for the invitation anyway. Have a lovely afternoon."
So damn satisfying. Mama would have been proud.