“Honest criticism is hard to take – particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.”
– Franklin Jones
In this, the periodic season of dart-throwing, wall-to-wall campaigning and downright nastiness toward office holders or those who, by the grace of God or their own egotistical fortitude are trying to take their place, I can’t help but remember what it was like when, on a much more miniscule scale, my short stint as an organization president was handled with similar mis-care.
Until I moved from New England to the South, I had never worn a sundress. But during my first mid-summer heat wave, more for survival than fashion, I went shopping for what I thought the well-dressed, heat-resistant Southern belle would wear. To protect my Yankee propriety, however, I selected shoulder ruffles to minimize the missing sleeves, a solid color to minimize my vanishing figure, and a drawstring neckline I could pull tight enough to minimize any hint of immodesty. I thought I had made a perfect choice.
I might still have the dress if I hadn’t worn it to a women’s meeting where I, the president, was to be the speaker. The speech went well, I thought, and the women gracious in their remarks when it was over – except for one young woman who seemed to have difficulty expressing what she wanted to say. Finally she blustered:
“What a pretty dress. I just love it when women dress younger than they are.”
I could hardly wait to get home and burn the only sundress I have ever owned.
For another speaking engagement, my mother, who represented our ample, family figure even better than I do, accompanied me to a church neither of us had attended before. I was flattered to see so many cars in the parking lot, but surprised to find only two or three women inside.
“Is this where the meeting is going to be held?” I asked the woman in charge.
“Oh, no,” she answered. “You want the large room down the hall.”
My mother and I left the tiny group preparing for some other activity, we assumed, and walked down the hall – directly into a meeting of “Overeaters Anonymous.” The smaller group of mostly smaller women had been the correct room for our meeting after all.
Honors often accompany leadership, such as the time I went on a two-week speaking tour to visit other chapters of our organization. But perhaps to spare me forever from “thinking of myself more highly than I ought to think” (Romans 12:3), I had plenty of reminders that elected officers of any rank are also ordinary human beings. Besides my former fashion consultant, my shapers and movers included:
• The woman who appeared to be taking copious notes as I spoke, but who later apologized for using the time to make out her grocery list;
• The chapter president who whispered, “I thought you might need these,” as she slipped a box of breath mints into my purse;
• The young daughter of my host who said the instant I arrived, “You need a bath!” In the child’s defense, as well as my own, I later learned it was customary for everyone in that family to take a bath every night;
• And the woman who didn’t know I was the mother of two pre-teenagers who asked, “Do you have any children still at home?”
By the time I arrived home following my less-than-stellar string of performances away, my 10-year-old son had joined the critical fray. I should have known better than to make lasagna after he had been cared and cooked for by the capable Italian girl I always left in charge. After a few bites of my obviously inferior cuisine, he said, “I don’t know, Mum. Maybe you could take lessons from Julie.”
I don’t know, maybe the presidential campaigners could take lessons from the politicians of the past, or check in more often with their image consultants or close – sniffingly close – confidantes. I suspect, however, that whether through ignorance, jest, or intent, shooting down those who stand before the public or the media in an election year, is a national pastime that’s not going to go away.
In the absence of my advice-giving 10-year-old, I can only say: Develop a thick skin, and, if you are going to keep opening your mouth, never, ever leave home without your breath mints.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer and author of the book, As Long as the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)