As a teenager, I was leaving my purely Southern mother’s house one day with a salutation of “See you later.”
“Okay,” she replied. “Be sweet.”
“Be sweet.” It’s the mandate of mothers across the South when sending their daughters off on a trip or social engagement. Not “be careful,” mind you, but “be sweet.” That’s because to Southern mothers, being sweet is more important than avoiding an accident.
“You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Southern matriarchs warn repeatedly. And being the dutiful daughters of the South that we are, we practice mightily that command.
Because they’re right.
Numerous are the men and adversaries who have found themselves stuck-fast in Southern women honey. Our syrupy sweet ways, on the other hand, often make escape impossible.
Once, Mama was fuming over a repairman who had promised repeatedly to show up but had not.
“I’ve had it!” she stormed. “I’m gonna call him and give him a piece of my mind.”
I smiled and winked. “Be sweet now.”
The brilliance of my advice dawned across her face. She grinned. “Right,” she agreed, nodding. She picked up the phone and used so much sugar that he was on her doorstep within a couple of hours after not showing up for two weeks. It was rewarding to see her practice effectively what she preached for my entire lifetime.
Years ago, I got to thinking about the immense importance of sweetness to Southern women after I appeared at a book event with two other sweet Southern women (yes, “other” because I consider myself to be real sweet, too. Mostly. I practice it routinely except when crossed one too many times or someone has been ugly to a loved one of mine or made fun of the way I talk. On those occasions, I become anything but sweet).
Best-selling authors Dottie Benton Frank and Cassandra King were both enveloped by passion, determination and the sweetness that Southerners demand of their women. We started out in the publishing business at the same time, which bonded us.
In many of her beloved beach books, Dottie often threw my name into her acknowledgements because she was loyal. Her unexpected death was a loss to her readers, her friends and a society which needs all the sweetness it can get.
Cassandra King is the pen name of Sandra Conroy, who was called “the nicest woman on earth” by husband, Pat Conroy, who, too, has left us. She wrote a delightful book — “Same Sweet Girls” — which is a tribute to the sweetness of our feminine Southern ways. She, too, agrees that the art of being sweet was necessary in her mother’s eyes and, therefore, a critical part of her Alabama upbringing.
“My mother was the quintessential Southern lady and I was pretty much a disappointment to her,” Sandra admits. “I was a tomboy as a kid then a wannabe Bohemian as a teen and college student. But at least I was sweet.”
Mama was so good at “sly” sweetness that she could slip a criticism in between multiple compliments and it would take you two days to figure out what she said. This is the mark of correction perfected by Southern women: Load ‘em down with compliments then slip in the critical comment and slide quickly into more flattery.
My friend, Mary Ellen, discovered this when Mama, a dressmaker, was taking her measurements for a bridesmaid dress.
“You have the most beautiful bustline I’ve ever seen,” Mama commented. “I know women who would kill for your bustline.”
Mary Ellen smiled.
“And the tiniest waist I ever saw,” Mama continued.
Mary Ellen’s smile broadened.
Mama measured her hips and sighed woefully. “It’s your butt that’s so big.” Slight pause. “Of course, it just looks bigger because your waist is so small.”
That was my mama for you. Wasn’t she sweet?
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).”]