When a Texas debutante bows her forehead to the floor in the famous "Texas dip," society columnists all across the country speculate interminably over what it is that sets Texas women apart. But really, how could they know? Even women born and bred in Texas can't always answer that question.
Prudence Mackintosh comes very close to an answer, though, in this endlessly entertaining book. Writing with both a wry sense of humor and an insider's compassion, she offers us a fascinating look into the world of privileged, educated, well-married, well-connected, and mostly wealthy white Texas women.
What really sets these women apart, Ms. Mackintosh tells us, is the comfortable yet demanding path they follow from their idyllic girlhoods to prominent positions in society. In thirteen essays, some of which originally appeared in Texas Monthly magazine, she charts the way stations that mark this path: summer camps in the Texas Hill Country, exclusive private schools like Dallas' Hockaday, sorority membership, and acceptance into the Junior League.
Prudence Mackintosh has been both an outsider and an insider in this privileged world, and her observations are shot through with wit and real insight. Just As We Were may not be the final word on elite Texas women, but no other book has described their world with greater irony or accuracy.
I had lunch with a young journalist recently who confided that her education, her family background and expectations, her new friends, her old friends, and her own talents and interests were pulling her in five different directions. "Some days," she said, "I feel like a schizophrenic debutante." I could only suggest that she write about it.
The tensions she described have fueled my writing career and wrecked my closet for two decades. For all its frustrations, the opportunity to walk in many different worlds simultaneously is ultimately a gift. I first experienced it in the newspaper office where I grew up. Being the daughter of the town's newspaper editor gave me an insider/ outsider mentality. I often knew the real story behind the headlines. My father's position also granted a measure of social prominence, but it never offered the financial underpinnings that such a position implies. My father's publisher paid our membership dues at the local country club, but I knew I couldn't order hamburgers by the pool. My debutante gown was my sister-in-law's wedding dress with the sleeves removed.
The University of Texas offered delicious anonymity to kids like me from small towns. It also offered the opportunity to add two or three more lives, with their own sets of friends. I had small-town friends I'd met at freshman orientation, with whom I was united by virtue of our Southern Baptist upbringing and our generally poor academic preparation. A favorite table in the Student Union Commons was for intellectual life with my English class cronies and professors. One professor christened me "Prudence, one of the Seven Deadly Virtues." Another life was entrenched in the Greek system—on Mondays we pledged ourselves in secret chapter meetings to pursue the ideals of "the beautiful and the good," and on Fridays we were matched with men (boys?) who escorted us to beer-sloshed basements where we writhed and howled to "Wooly Bully."
Rarely did these disparate lives intersect. If the Kappa pledge trainer had claimed to have seen me riding on the back of a bicycle with an unwashed, serape-clad beatnik en route to the truth-seeking Christian Faith and Life Community Center, I would have flatly denied it. Much to my embarrassment, one of my English professors confided that he once saw me crossing the campus wearing what he took to be a WAC uniform and was very shocked that I was pursuing a military career. Well, that was another life, as the sweetheart sponsor of an ROTC Military Police unit. In the hall between their bedrooms, my sons have a 1963 photo of me in full military regalia standing in front of an ROTC plaque that bears the inscription "Of and For the Troops." They are as puzzled as the English professor was about just what I did in the war.
Friends from all of these varied lives formed what I considered my intimate audience when I began writing for Texas Monthly. By the time I left Austin, I knew people from Borger in the Panhandle to Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley, from Elysian Fields in East Texas to far west El Paso, an indispensable resource if one needs to know what "releathering a well" means or just how early baton twirling starts in Kilgore.
Many of the pieces in this book were originally unrelated magazine assignments. I went to the Hill Country to write about summer camps when I was twenty-nine. At thirty-two, I wrote about UT sororities. At thirty-four, I wrote about the Hockaday School, where I'd been a teacher upon first coming to Dallas. A couple of years later I wrote about my experiences in the Junior League, which prompted a lawyer from Beaumont to ask me if I had tackled a "Seven Ages of Women" series. He asked, "Will you follow the old darlings pottering about in their garden clubs as well?" I missed the garden club experience, but when Texas Monthly celebrated "the ties that bind" in its fifteenth anniversary issue, I did contribute a story about my book club.
In these early articles, I was writing about peculiar institutions that seemed to bind people together in the social fabric of Texas. What I see in rereading the pieces is that I was also writing the story of a young woman with rather strong democratic leanings who was sorting out the pleasures and perils of certain traditions that many of her contemporaries embraced without question.
All of these institutions have changed since I wrote about them, most notably the Junior League, which no longer has secret or exclusive admissions policies. Camps have retained rituals important to their alumni, but many have new owners and shorter sessions. Being assigned to the wrong tribe can still cause heartbreak in families. One woman, a former Tonkawa, told me that she'd requested her prayer group's intercession when she learned that her daughter had drawn "Kiowa" at Camp Mystic. Her sister and all of her aunts were Tonks. Hockaday once again has a strong headmistress. Sororities are still very much with us and seem as likely to disappear as does cheerleading in Texas.
The piece called "Help Wanted" is certainly not politically correct by today's standards, but the relationship between working women and their household employees continues to be intimate and awkward. In the late 1970s when I wrote this article, the term "nanny" was still exclusively British, and day care was Mother's Day Out on Wednesdays at the church. Readers responded with anecdotes that were more bizarre than those I recorded. Language barriers were often a factor. One woman returned from her errands to an acrid odor in the house. She found that the recently arrived Mexican maid was spray-starching the ironing with insect spray. Another San Antonio family reported that their sixteen-year-old son was the only one at home when their Spanish-speaking housekeeper went into labor. He drove her to the hospital emergency room, helped with the admissions procedure, and later discovered that his name appeared on the birth certificate as the baby's father. A Dallas family who displays their longtime housekeeper's studio portrait in the living room with family photos were hard-pressed to come up with worthy Christmas presents for her. One year, she requested piano lessons, which they arranged, allowing her to use their piano for practicing. The next year she said, "I love cleaning your house, but I'm too tired to clean my own." That year the family gave her her very own maid for Christmas.
"The Good Old Girls" had to be written on a very quick deadline, even though it would appear a full month after national weekly and daily publications had thoroughly covered the event. My chauvinistic premise was that the women's movement needed more Texans in charge. Liz Carpenter knew how to include everybody when she said, "I have known the warmth of a baby's laughter and, as a journalist, the satisfaction of a newspaper byline." Barbara Jordan with her biblical cadence touched the entire gathering. Ann Richards' wit, charisma, and common sense made everyone listen up. Obviously, to my ear, these women's efforts at challenge and change had a pleasant Texas accent.
When I first started writing, my husband complained that I should be paid a "writer's depletion allowance" because I was gradually writing up every ounce of life experience I had. He didn't realize that the material never runs out here. I met a woman from far West Texas last year who introduced me to her new husband and added, "He's the greatest guy. He built me a little fence to keep the javelinas out of my pansies." Writers from duller states would kill for a line like that.
November 6, 1995