Riding the Madison Avenue uptown bus recently, I sat next to a man reading W.G. Sebald. I would have liked to be reading W.G. Sebald. Or even M.C. Beaton. Instead, I was making a list of things I had to buy and do: two wedding presents, one baby present, two sympathy notes, a humorous birthday present, a serious birthday present, thank-you notes, a get-well card, an acceptance of a wedding invitation, a refusal of a wedding lunch. That’s the difference between men and women, I angrily (and, yes, whinily) thought: the damn social thing-we can’t live without it, but we’re the ones who have to do it. Initiate, reciprocate, visit, call, sustain, heal, advise, entertain, worry, soothe, repair.
And the wedding invitations were Southern, hence had to be answered in the traditional, formal style: “Mr. and Mrs. [Full name] accept the kind invitation of [full name] for the wedding of [full name] to [full name]” at place, date, etc. On the correct paper (heavy vellum, single sheet) with the correct color ink. None of that cut-to-the-chase Yankee practice of providing invitees with a self-addressed stamped envelope and card, check “yes” or “no.”
Being a Southern female, born not with silver spoon in mouth but with fountain pen in hand, means not only having to say you’re sorry (or happy, or grateful) but having to do so in epistolary form. You’ve heard the joke: Why don’t Southern women like group sex? Too many thank-you notes to write.
Extend the conceit a little further. Why do Southern women (of the “leisure class”) rarely become artists or business executives or activists or writers? Too many thank-you notes to write. Those notes, which exhaust such creative and calligraphic talents as the author might possess, are symbol and baseline expression of the whole strenuous and complicated enterprise of maintaining the kinship web (in which religious and social rites are seamlessly interwoven) that’s essential to the cohesion of the tribe.
It’s no wonder that Southern women of spirit almost relished the Civil War: For four years, there were no thank-you notes to write. Domestic chores, meals, clothes, parties were reduced to a minimum. The women were caught up in the general excitement-not as warriors, but not as ladies in waiting, either. They were no Greek chorus of lamenters, women left behind by husbands, brothers, sons in faraway lands. Their homes were under attack, their men wounded. Parties revolved around politics and war news, and whatever the horrors and tragedies they lived through, for four years they were rescued from triviality and depression.
They were Scarlett O’Haras defending their land, or the real-life Mary Boykin Chesnut, the South Carolinian planter’s wife whose diaries were possibly the most remarkable work of literature to come out of the war. The posthumously Pulitzer Prize–winning Mary Chesnut’s Civil War shows a woman, of acute powers of observation and superb descriptive gifts, not only chronicling events from the social and political center of things, but challenging the cherished values of her time and place by advancing the twin causes of abolition and feminism. It was her visceral firsthand knowledge and resentment of the powerlessness of women in patriarchy that led naturally to an awareness of that other segment of humanity that also endured a life without rights or liberties. “There is no slave, after all, like a wife,” she wrote.
C. Vann Woodward says of Chesnut in his introduction to the Diaries : “She feared and dreaded the war, but she embraced its demands with all the fierce passion of her nature. It meant outlet for many frustrated impulses and energies dammed up within her. It meant being involved, challenged, needed, wholly committed, and totally absorbed. It also opened doors of escape from dullness and boredom and self-absorption.” “My subjective days are over,” Woodward quotes Chesnut as saying, “no more silent eating into my own heart-making my own miseries.”
Whatever happened to men taking over some share of the domestic and social duties? The other night, I sat next to two friends at a lecture. I reminded the husband of the couple that I had an article he wanted and would give it to him when the two of them came over for dinner two weeks hence. “Oh, are we coming to your place for dinner?” he asked with only a touch of shamefacedness. I recognized the syndrome: He’s on a need-to-know basis, like my own husband. It’s safer that way. It may cause for some embarrassing moments when they’re clueless about a momentous event, like a wedding or a death, but it’s preferable to putting them in the picture (they keep forgetting and ask you three times a day) or-more horrific-having them make the arrangements. When entrusted with social responsibilities, my husband has invited someone to the wrong party, accepted two invitations for the same night or, struggling to buy time till I can take over, given a reply so evasive the caller immediately suspects he’s lying.
I don’t know what the evolutionary biologists have to say about this division of labor; no doubt women create and maintain this network of ties to bind the husband to home and hearth, making the abandonment of family and divorce more difficult and consequential. On the other hand, men aren’t as obtuse as they want us to think. They use and need us (also more than they want us to think) to get them off the hook. In a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s mother has died. He’s less upset about her death than the fact that his father didn’t call him in New York (his classic Jewish mother didn’t want him to be disturbed). That evening, back in L.A., Larry tells his wife, Cheryl, to get them out of an upcoming dreaded bat mitzvah. When Cheryl calls and politely begs off because of her mother-in-law’s death, the alternately rude and cringing Larry, having expected the usual social debacle, is amazed at how easily it goes down. He realizes he’s got a new automatic out: the dead-mother excuse, which he will milk for as long as he can get away with it, not only to importuning friends and acquaintances, but, in the last scene, to his sleepy wife, with a tearful plea for sex.
In New York, a parent’s death is good for approximately two weeks; the passing of a spouse or shrink slightly longer. Then it’s back to the social grindstone. Women with children and careers-the freaked-out heroines of the new hen-with-chicks lit-aren’t the only ones torn like taffy in every direction. You don’t have to be in your 30′s to want it all, or simply to be unable to figure out what in your life to get rid of and how.
I thought I came to New York to escape the mind-bending exigencies of the Southern “easy life.” Instead, I found myself with much of that baggage still in place and a whole new set of obligations. Along with the usual weddings, births and funerals, there are all those command performances of my achieving friends I wouldn’t miss for the world: readings, book parties, awards ceremonies, lectures, art-show openings, plays, films. Compared to the high-intensity New York social-professional life, group sex-thank-you notes included-would be a walk in the park.