'Fairest Flower of the Southland'

“It’s 5:30. The bar is now open.  It’s time for a drink, ladies,” Colleen playfully declared.  

“I knew that’s why you were fidgety, ” Jane quipped back.  

The hotel lobby was bustling.  The front desk flanked with snowy-haired beauties draped in pearls, Talbot’s knits, and matching yet sensible shoes.  Laughter and hugs began to fill the space as a steady stream of dames descended upon the local Holiday Inn.  With each ding of the elevator, the doors opened to reveal another new yet familiar face to the growing crowd.  Chatter increased and the room was quite a buzz of cheerful reunions:

“You look beautiful, old friend.”
“Thanks. But I got the dadgum cane.”

The excitement was contagious, and I smiled to myself, knowing my Friday evening with the ‘Greatest Generation’ was certain to be more exciting than that of my millennial peers. 

It was the kick- off reception for Winthrop College, Class of 1950, reunion weekend. (presently Winthrop University, the school was formerly Winthrop College, The South Carolina College for Women.)  And as Colleen said, it was 5:30, the bar was open, and dinner would soon be served.  Happy hour and the early bird special? They really are the greatest generation.  I have never been happier to be a ‘plus one’ at a reception.  My only regret? I did not pack my own sensible pair of shoes.   

Dot and I had arrived in Rock Hill earlier in the day.  It was our first grandmother-granddaughter road trip. I consciously lowered the volume on my Taylor Swift playlist as I cruised into her driveway.   Never tardy, Dot was standing at her back steps with her luggage in tow.  I paused, noting her precise and efficient packing job.  My own packing job was a bit of a mess. I always make a very thorough packing list for trips and have high hopes for choosing only the essentials.  Yet, I almost always abandon logic at the final hour and commence fitting the entire contents of my closet in a TSA approved carry on size suitcase.  

You’ll never meet a traveler who, after five trips, brags: ‘Every year I pack heavier.’ The measure of a good traveler is how light he or she travels. --Rick Steves

My grandmother was a good traveler.  Prompt and efficient: the lessons of our generation so desperately needs to learn can often be gleamed from the most ordinary of events.  Punctuality is respectful and it is not necessary to have a shoe collection on a weekend trip that rivals Imelda Marcos.  

After loading my car, we verified our driving directions.  Dot provided her handwritten copy, and I retrieved my printed Map Quest guide.  (At ages 85 and 31, neither of us fully trusted a smart phone or navigation device to get us there.)  Before turning onto Bellview, we commenced our trip as any good trip should begin: with a selfie. 

 Driving up the interstate, we reflected on life lately within our family.  I listened as she offered her perspective and it wove it’s way into the story I have been telling you.  Perhaps it is the intimacy of a car or the sense of freedom I feel when I on the road, but I find some of the best conversations take place when my face is forward and my hands are positioned at ‘10 and 2.’  It was a unique and special dynamic to converse with my grandmother as we cruised northbound on 85.  We munched on our perfectly portioned lunch she had prepared, and before long we were amongst the excitement of the reunion reception.  

I sat in wonder at dinner as each woman shared parts of her life with the group.  As each one stood and begin to speak, it was evident that I was receiving a gift.  They were taking pages from their story and weaving those pages into mine.  Each lady had many accolades to her name.  It was a smart and go-getter group for sure but complete with feistiness and a touch of sass.   Leaving their homes around sixteen and seventeen, they were still grateful today for their opportunity of a higher education.  My own Dot was valedictorian of her class and quickly rose to leadership as class president at Winthrop.  I was surrounded by greatness: a trailblazing female attorney and researcher who still practices today; a former politician who was a pioneer in AIDS awareness following her beloved son’s death in the 1980s; a teacher whose former student created and endowed a collegiate scholarship in her honor, and a primary member of the initiative to prioritize art and music restoration at the university.  Just to name a few.   

With sixty five years post college life under their belts, these women have seen(and done) it all.  But what struck me with awe was less about their accolades and more so with their spirit.  A spirit that flowed out of them so freely and filled up the room.  Whether gushing over their great grandchildren or wiping a tear at the mention of their deceased husband, they all were poised with grace, gratitude, and gumption.  This was a room full of ‘good travelers.’  They had their baggage, yes, but they have come to know what bags to carry and which ones to just put down. 

There was no evidence of fret, worry, or anxiety in the air.  Anxiety is so palpable in the air of conversations between millennials and our baby boomer parents.  We are taught to build our resumes to secure our value in this world but are crushed when they don’t give us real worth.  We tell ourselves we are seeking independence and free thought, but we are often slaves to our own selfishness and desire to control.  All along the way we are so insistent on getting rid of the baggage we believe we had thrust on us as children that we are blind to the excessive and unnecessary ‘bags’ we have chosen to pick up ourselves.  I like that these ladies all instantly got a twinkle in their eye when Dot refrenced the pound cake from The Good Shop, a spot they often frequented as students.  I liked that laced through the accounts of tragedy and painful life circumstances, was a running theme of family, friendships, and love.  Maybe, just maybe, if we looked up, we could glance back then ahead to learn from these women.  These women who choose to keep moving forward, lightening their load along the way, ensuring they are punctual to enjoy the present moment.  

Dot sent me a prayer last week that she prays daily:

“Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what will be.” 

I like that.  A prayer of present acceptance of what is today, but faith and hope in what is to come.  

Our reunion trip ended along a brick walkway on campus called Scholars Walk.  Commemorative bricks showcase distinguished alum, including my grandmother and great grandmother. I pray that my own pathway is solid, and I practice gratitude toward the foundation that was placed below my feet.  I want to look up too, readily seeking guidance and wisdom from those who are ahead.  And today, I want a life that produces evidence of a woman growing into grace. I want to be a woman that is mindful of the past and hopeful of the future, but who is most consumed with blossoming in the present.  Ruth Cupp, the attorney I mentioned earlier, so inspired me when she shared a few pages from her life story.  Earlier that day she had been to the campus library to conduct some research on current work she is pursuing.  (Very fascinating material on South Carolina divorce and annulment laws, in fact.) She spoke with joy on things that excited her currently and proclaimed she just, “can’t quit.” She said what she was doing with her life presently was “intoxicating.”  I love that.  History dubs the girls of Winthrop, “the fairest flowers of the southland.”  And if that flower is a steel magnolia, then I concur.  Their essence was intoxicating and they epitomized true feminine strength.  It was a time I will not forget.  


My grandmother, the orginal Dot.

Pre roadtrip Selfie/Usie.