A Lady's Guide to Gentility

Nevertheless, it is not only desirable that you should appear amiable, but unconstrained; that you should feel at ease yourself, and be able to put others at ease around you.   
The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility, by Emily Thornwell, 1856
My mother is, and always has been, her generation's poster child for the genteel.  The product of an Irish-Catholic, working class family from the city of Pittsburgh, she strove to appear as though she was society-born.  Her proud father loved to recall how she'd place herself in a chair like a true lady, her skirt neatly folded beneath her, shoulders back, chin held high and hands folded in her lap.  Mom graduated at the top of her class from a private, all-girls, convent school in Erie, where the most strenuous physical activities demanded of the students, were fencing classes, and the annual dance around the May pole.  

My father was a rough around the edges city boy, through and through.  He played sandlot baseball, and pick-up football, taught himself  how to swim and ice skate, and excelled at bowling.  A born salesman, Dad golfed when he had to, and was able to appear as though he had backwoods experience, whenever called to do so.  I expect, that Dad attained most of his survival training in the military.  To this day, he can pitch a tent, bait a hook, and build a first class bonfire.

It was into this mix, that I was born.  
You will be placed, almost of course, in a variety of situations.  It is important that you should have the habitual self-command that will enable you readily to accommodate yourself to the peculiarities of each; and, at least, to conceal from those around you the secret that you are not perfectly at home.  Possibly this is not essential to your passing in good society, but it certainly is essential to the perfection of good manners.   
The Ladies Guide . . . Thornwell
My mother never learned how to swim, and deeply regretted it throughout her lifetime.  She resolved, that I would never experience the embarrassment and fear that she felt as a young woman, relegated to the beach, while others frolicked in the surf.  I remember a discussion between my parents when I was about seven or eight, in which my mother declared that her daughter would be educated not only in the arts, but in the sports of the gentry as well.  It was her desire, that I should feel able to comfortably move from the bridge table to the riding stable, from book club to tennis club, and so on.  

To this end, I received swim, tennis, golf and horseback riding lessons.  In junior high school, I was exposed to the symphony, read the classics in the Great Books program, and painted at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy.

Like many young girls, I was passionate about horses, and threw myself into the riding lessons.  At a point, I realized that I needed my own horse to be a competitive rider.  When my parents refused to provide one, I quit riding altogether.  I'd inherited enough of my father's natural athleticism to be able to swim and play tennis with ease, but lacked the passion for either to be competitive.  Though I did learn the game, I abhorred golf, and was mostly dragged to the golf course where I put forth a minimum of effort.

When I was about thirteen, mom invited three other mother-daughter couples to the house, with the intention of starting a bridge club.  Though I loved other card games, I resolutely refused to play.  In one afternoon, Mom's dream of my sitting on the veranda of a women's club, genially sipping iced tea, and passing the bid, was dashed.
Avoid every approach to a haughty and overbearing manner.  It is exhibition of pride, which is one of the most hateful of all dispositions . . . If you should be so unhappy as to form an example of it, whatever variety of feeling it might excite among your associates, you may rely on it, they would all agree to despise you.  As you value your character and usefulness, be always courteous and affable. 
The Lady's Guide . . . Thornwell
In spite of my adamant stance against bridge, I entered high school with most of my sharp ends and angles, softened and I found I could do a little bit of everything, but nothing really well.  I wasn't quite a competitive athlete, having never participated in organized sports, and I certainly wasn't a debutante.  I felt I'd wasted my time, dabbling in a little bit of everything, and perfecting nothing.

I can't blame my mother for my failure to become a maiden of high society.  Had I been fully cooperative and not balked at bridge, golf and charm school, I may have made a bid to attend one of the Seven Sisters.  

The '70s were a strange time for women, for boundaries were being broken and standards were changing.  Our generation was clearly caught, between two worlds.  While women were competing on the tennis and golf course, there were still societal taboos.  Though I adored playing baseball as a kid, I hadn't been afforded the opportunity to play in any organized manner in the communities in which we lived.  For a variety of reasons, certain sports were still really considered off-limits to women.

For instance, though my youthful competence in the pool, and tennis court was admired, I was warned repeatedly by my female mentors, that women were not supposed to have muscle.  Muscle definition, I was cautioned, particularly in the arms and legs, was considered manly, and anything that might produce it was discouraged.  I had no reason to doubt this, and was careful not to exercise too much, for fear I might wake one day to find I'd sprouted a beard and chest hair.  

When I reached high school, I was dismayed to find that most of the female athletes were not only feminine and attractive, but looked great in tennis and track shorts.  Their shapely legs, were the envy of the rest of us, especially when short hemlines and bikinis were in order.  I was profoundly disappointed in the information I'd been given. 

At that point, I was savvy enough to realize that a nice figure required more than just watching my diet, and believed I could leg-lift away those pesky saddlebags, and dissolve any tummy bulge with sit-ups.
Exercise is unquestionably one of the best means for the preservation of health; but its real importance is unknown, or too lightly considered by the majority of females.  Were they, however, to be made fully sensible of its extraordinary power in preserving vigor of the body, in augmenting its capability to resist disease, in promoting its symmetrical development, in improving the freshness and brilliancy of the complexion, as well as to its influence in prolonging the charms of beauty to an advanced age, they would shake off the prejudices by which they have been so long enthralled. 
The Lady's Guide . . .  Thornwell, 1856

As the old Virginia Slims cigarette ads of the '70s proclaimed, we've come a long way baby, to get where we got to today.  Contemporary women have finally "shaken off the prejudices" of the past, as far as being physically fit is concerned.  My grandmother, considered a real lady, spent her lifetime trying to conceal the fact that she had heavy legs.  She never wore pants and as a young woman, refused to dance, for fear of calling attention to her physique.  It never occurred to her, to exercise.

Times change, and so do cultural standards, but the hopes and dreams I had for my three girls weren't all that different from those that my mother had for me.  I have come to appreciate the sacrifices my parents made to send me to good schools, to expose me to the arts and to give me the confidence required to pick up a golf club or tennis racket.  Life can be intimidating and it makes sense to believe that the less daunted we are by it, the more we can get out of it.  

Over the years, I've found myself hosting dinner parties for corporate CEOs and their wives, dining in five-star European restaurants and picnicking with movie stars.  In every circumstance I was confident and self-assured in my manner.

In the mid '80s, I finally got that horse and a chance to ride competitively.  In the '90s, I started a softball league in our community for women over thirty.  I've played a few rounds of golf through the years, but it was never something I cared to put too much time into, same with tennis.  We've had several backyard pools and I've always enjoyed them.  I love to read, have toured the great museums of Europe with my girls, and have season tickets to the symphony pops.  

 And yes, I do regret not learning to play bridge!

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