Augusta Winthrop has her nails done every Friday, never wears white after Labor Day (the only exception, her wedding day), and walks with the confidence of a woman who knows that she’s wearing the perfect pearls with the perfect outfit. She owns seven strings: one the palest pink, one tending towards lavender, another towards yellow, one a sort of taupe, one a dove grey, one white, and, the coup de gras, a strand of oily black.
Today required the grey pearls. Formal but not overly so. A reliable choice for the occasion: visiting Ashleigh, her only child, at her sorority house at the University of Georgia. Everything would be different now. The sourness that had been sneaking into Ashleigh’s personality during those final high school years would be gone. Now that she had had a taste of sorority life, she’d be the old Ashleigh again: sweet, polite, warm, charming. To celebrate this new life, Augusta would give her daughter her own pearl choker; a triple-strand of powder-pink 6-millimeter cultured pearls.
She and Jack (the Jack, proprietor of Jack Sinclair’s of Savannah, Fine Jewelry Custom-Made) had discussed the necklace in detail. Three strands for the three letters of the sorority, for the three members of the Winthrop family, and for the third generation of Alpha Delta Pi. Pink because she was Augusta’s daughter, her only daughter. Pink was the color of ladies who weren’t afraid to be ladies and of girls who blushed the color of pink champagne. It would be appropriate to wear to her first college formal or to her first job interview. A subtle way to display who she was and where she came from.
Augusta flushed, anticipating the moment Ashleigh would open the box, the startled gratitude that would pass over her face, the little “oh” of delight as her warm blue eyes filled with tears. Then she would embrace her mother—the warm genuine hug she always gave as a child but that had disappeared lately. “Mother,” she would say, “it’s beautiful. You shouldn’t have.” And Augusta would say, “it was nothing,” or “I wanted to.” She would call her “my darling,” because she was her darling, her lovely darling daughter, and she always would be.
She pulled into the parking lot. The house was just as she remembered it: a large, square, white building, dripping with cast iron flowers and scrollery. The architecture looked more French Quarter than North Georgia. Stately, feminine, yet solid. Augusta remembered the moment she had entered as a pledge, teetering nervously in new heels. Her mother had impressed upon her, just as Augusta would impress upon Ashleigh, the importance of that moment. She was a legacy, which helped, but that did not mean they had to take her. This was, after all, Alpha Delta Pi.
But they had all made it in. Mother, daughter, grandmother. Three generations. Augusta sighed. That’s what a legacy really was, a tradition, a lifestyle handed down. Mother, daughter, grandmother: proof that Margaret Mitchell was wrong, proof that things were only gone if you let them go—and when you cared, you didn’t do that. You made sure that your most precious gifts were passed on, down the generations.
Augusta opened the door to her old house and smiled to the girl in the hall putting on a short black coat, a tall redhead who looked like she walked off the cover of Marie Claire. “Can I help you?” she said. Her shirt was, perhaps, a little tighter and skirt a little shorter than Augusta would have expected from an ADPi, but times change.
“I’m looking for my daughter.”
Her mother gasped when she saw her. The blonde highlights they’d had done the week before Rush were chopped away; her natural brown, pixie cut, in its place. Ashleigh watched her mother force a smile. “Darling, your hair is so cute.” She oozed the words, all gentility and manners. “So modern. I had no idea you had it cut.”
“Well, how would you know?” Ashleigh promised herself she wouldn’t let her mother get to her this time. She’d meant to keep it light, but already, she could hear the sarcasm edging her words.
Her mother merely straightened the hem of her jacket and said, “Well, I don’t know. You could have told me on the phone.” (A gentle suggestion. A hint. She hated how her mother never said what she meant.)
“My hair style isn’t exactly world news.”
“No. No, certainly not.” Ashleigh sensed her sorority sisters listening to her argue with her mother, watching from the corners. Supermodel Jennifer buttoning her Calvin Klein coat, face bright with amusement.
Augusta smiled again, paused, then said, “So where can I take you to lunch? I’d like to take you somewhere special. Money’s no object today—not for my daughter.”
Ashleigh took a deep breath and wondered why she let her mother get to her this way. She had to let it go, at least for today. “Let’s go to the Grit. It’s not expensive, and the food is good. It’s vegetarian.”
Augusta blinked twice, but continued to smile her forced smile. “I don’t know, darling. I don’t think I’m up for vegetarian today. And the Grit? That’s hardly appetizing.” She laughed the quiet chuckle that was supposed to be complicit, conspiratorial. “Let me treat you. Let me take you somewhere nice.”
Ashleigh’s jaw stiffened. “Nice meaning outrageously overpriced?” Her mother ignored the question. Ashleigh ran her hand through her short hair. In the corner, she could sense Bree and Kaylee sniggering. “Fine,” she sighed. “I believe the two most expensive places in town are the Five and Ten and Basil Press. I think either of those would fit the bill.” The bill being the important thing.
Augusta laid her hand on Ashleigh’s shoulder and squeezed it slightly. Ashleigh tried not to flinch. She’s trying to show you she loves you. Be nice. She swallowed.
Augusta said, “Which one’s your favorite?”
A laugh escaped. She hadn’t meant it to sound quite so disdainful. “I’ve never been to either.”
“Well, we’ll just try the first one then, shall we? Do you want to drive, or shall I?”
“Did you drive the Lincoln up here?”
“Yes, of course.” Something in her mother’s voice implied that the question was ridiculous.
Ashleigh sighed. “My car’s in the shop. We’ll have to take yours.”
Jennifer walked out with them. Tall, tan, stately, beautiful Jennifer. She smiled, showing all her straight, whitened teeth.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Winthrop,” she crooned.
Ashleigh looked away while her mother smiled back.
Winthrop, Party of Two
A middle-aged woman and her teen-aged daughter, obviously related. Same face shape, same eyes. The tablecloth stretched like an ocean between them.
“I’m just so proud of you,” her mother said after they had ordered, leaning over and squeezing her daughter’s hand. “I wanted to tell you that.”
Ashleigh didn’t answer. Her mind had slipped to perfect Jennifer. Was that who her mother wanted her to be? She thought of that September night when she was still a new pledge and thought that sorority life was not so bad. At least it introduced you to people. UGA had seemed so big, then, so full of strangers. The house was its own community, and the girls were so friendly. Jennifer, the house vice-president, had taken Ashleigh and the other pledges on tours of campus; Caroline, assigned to be Ashleigh’s big sister, had introduced her to her friends. Ashleigh had thought about what her mother said about it being a support system, and thought that maybe her mother was right.
But somehow, even early on, it always seemed like too much effort, saying the right things in the right tone, wearing a sorority tee-shirt Tuesdays and Thursdays, dressing up on Wednesdays. Then one late fall evening, sitting on the porch, she watched Jennifer and Caroline begin their daily jog down Milledge Avenue, their right feet, then left feet, striding together, ponytails swinging in unison, unconsciously synchronized. They looked like robots, all running the same program. And Ashleigh had realized, all at once, that she couldn’t be that way. She had her own rhythm to move to, or, at least, she wanted to find her own.
The waiter came to take their order, jarring Ashleigh from her thoughts. Her mother looked at her with raised eyebrows. The busboy brought bread and refilled their water glasses. Just before the silence between them could become uncomfortable, Augusta gushed, “I know I’ve probably told you this a hundred times, but your father and I are so proud of you. UGA and Alpha Delta Pi? Your grandmother would be so pleased.”
Ashleigh frowned. “Do you have to drag Gran into this?”
“Into what? I’m just telling you how happy everyone is.”
Neither spoke then. One held her face in a smile, the other in a scowl. The resemblance was striking.
Ashleigh broke the silence. “I’m dropping out of Alpha Delta Pi. It’s not for me.”
Her mother’s smile became a grim line. She was silent for a full minute before saying, “We’ll talk about that later. After lunch.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. It’s done. I’m moving into the dorms next week. It’ll be better for me. I don’t know why I ever joined that stupid sorority in the first place.”
But they both knew.
The smiling waiter brought the tray with lunch. Neither Ashleigh nor Augusta spoke. Ashleigh wondered what her mother was thinking, and knew she had hurt her feelings. Ashleigh wanted to explain. To tell her mother that the sorority was destructive. That she didn’t fit in. That the other girls made her feel small and weird. “Low rent,” she’d overheard one whisper behind her back. That they barely talked to her since she first said she might leave, and that she had stopped wanting them to. Her mother would not understand, so Ashleigh stayed silent.
When the dessert tray came, they waved it off but ordered coffee. They took their coffee the same way, cream and sugar. Ashleigh tried to make amends. She said the Bulldogs were having a good football season, and she feigned interest when her mother told her about the new minister at First Presbyterian. Ashleigh asked about her father, his health, how his latest big case was going.
Her mother said again how proud they were, but her eyes no longer shone with pride. Her face seemed heavy with something. Disappointment, Ashleigh realized. Her mother reached into her purse, presented her gift.
A Grain of Sand
That’s how they’d each started. An irritant in the belly of an oyster. Ashleigh wondered if they had felt invaded, those oysters, or if the sand was so much a part of their life that it seemed as natural as family. She stared at the pearls, the three rows of them, and felt a lump growing inside her.
“Mother, I can’t take these.” Ashleigh said, low and quiet.
“Well of course you can,” her mother said, smiling, genuinely pleased. “You deserve them.”
“I’m not being modest, mother. I can’t take them.” She closed the lid. “I won’t.”
Her mother’s forehead flexed in confusion or worry.
“I can’t take them back. I had them custom made. Jack strung them himself.” She paused, seemed to be collecting herself. “I—We, Daddy and I, wanted to give you something special. To let you know how proud we are.”
Ashleigh looked at her mother, learning again all the things she already knew: her mother didn’t understand her, her mother loved her. The money had been spent. The oysters were dead. These were facts she couldn’t change. But she couldn’t take that collar, that appropriately named choker. Cast not pearls before swine, she thought. She was a swine, then, and had chosen to be. She spoke up to say, “I’m sorry, Mother.”
Shock—that was the only word to describe the look on her mother’s face. She hadn’t expected this, hadn’t seen it coming. Ashleigh couldn’t help feeling that she should have; her mother should have known her better, known her—her own flesh and blood—well enough at least to know that this was the wrong gift to give. And suddenly she felt the irritation rising again. She didn’t want to be the bad guy. Not again. Her mother always put her in this position, set her up so that she had no choice but to disappoint.
The Pearls on the Table
All Augusta could do was stare at them as they lay in their box, long after Ashleigh had walked out on her. Augusta thought of oysters, the way they had carried them, built them, polished them, then given them, their gift, their contribution, to an otherwise ugly world. Like her, each had given nothing more and nothing less than one perfect beautiful thing. More than anyone would expect from such a lowly thing as an oyster. A mollusk. A thing that spent its life buried in sand.
Shit sifters, her father had called them, laughing each time at his joke, knowing that his wife would hush him, enjoying provoking her. He had loved oysters, though. He ordered plates of them on the half shell, kept cans of them, smoked, in the larder. Would eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, oyster stew, angels on horseback.
Augusta never ate oysters. It was the pearls she loved, the increments in which wisdom was measured. They fascinated her with their luster. Each was opaque as a secret. She got her first strand at sixteen, a long necklace that she wound four times to shorten adequately. Rodney Hinkley, her first college boyfriend (a Sigma Chi), had broken it three years later when they were making out in his car. The kissing was fine, but he’d grabbed for her breasts and the pearls had scattered everywhere, hiding themselves between the seats and under the floor mats. She slapped him, called him clumsy, shocked that he thought he could touch her that way. He’d called her a fucking cocktease, then drove her back to her house without saying another word. She gathered all the pearls she could find into cupped hands and carried them in. That night, she cried on her sisters’ shoulders, and the next morning, together, they had taken the pearls to the jewelers and had them restrung, a knot between each this time to keep them from ever falling apart again.
What would she do with these pearls, the three strands of them, pale as imagined innocence? She thought of Cleopatra and her bet with Mark Antony. She imagined that ancient pearl, enormous, fizzing in the wine, slowly diminishing. Such a selfish act. One-upsmanship. It didn’t prove anything or help anyone. Dissolving a pearl in wine was a thing only a queen would do, a stuck-up bitch who’d always had everything. A woman who did not appreciate God’s beautiful creations: pearls, her people, anything.
Like Ashleigh that way. Spoiled. Augusta had done her best to raise her—she and Paul both had. Got her to Wednesday night Bible Study on time each week. Went to all her softball games, stifling in Georgia’s summer mugginess. Augusta had tried to teach her values: right, wrong. How to help her fellow man, and why that was important. We’re all God’s creatures, she’d told her, and she meant it.
And this was how she was repaid: left alone in the restaurant, her pearls rejected. Ashleigh had just walked out, in front of God and everybody.
She slid her charge card into the leather folder the waiter left and sat alone at the white table. Conspicuous.
That’s what a car was, Augusta decided, driving down Milledge. It shielded you, from weather, from eyes. No one cared if you drove alone. They didn’t watch.
She spotted Ashleigh a half a block ahead, walking in that square-hipped, rednecked way that she’d developed. Walking like an angry man, Augusta thought. Walking like my father when he’d had enough, when the only way to stay civil was to walk away for a little while, “get some air,” he’d said.
She pulled up next to her and rolled down the passenger side window. “Get in.”
For once, Ashleigh didn’t argue. She just pulled the door open—flung it open would be more accurate—plopped herself into the seat and slammed the door shut. Slammed it like she meant to break the windows.
“I’ll thank you not to treat my car that way.” Augusta drove to the sorority house and parked. They sat in the car, silently staring forward at the white and black building in front of them, solid and well kept, a structure that could last through this age. When Augusta spoke, her voice was low and level. “I don’t know at what point you decided that civility was too much to ask, but I for one am sick, sick to death, of your rudeness. You, young lady, are no better than anyone else, so stop acting so damned imperious.”
Ashleigh turned to her, eyes narrowed and flashing. “You drive down the street in your stupid Lincoln Town Car, waving your pearls around for everyone to see, and you say I act imperious?” Her voice had started to rise, and she fought to control it again.
Augusta took advantage of her momentary silence. “If I have a few luxuries, it is no more than I’ve earned. You know full well how hard I work, at the church, at the shelter.”
“You and the other society bitches, you mean.”
Augusta fought the impulse to slap her. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt such raw fury. “Society bitches, as you call them, wouldn’t stand behind soup pots pouring out bowls for the hungry. We do. We make sure everyone in that community can get a meal. And they appreciate it, even if you don’t.”
“So you stand there gossiping with your friends, wearing your pearls and brandishing a ladle. What does that prove? You don’t do it because you care, don’t act like you do. You give that time because you know all your lady friends will think better of you, and you can all stand around patting each other on the backs and saying what wonderful people you are, but a bowl of soup doesn’t get those people a job. It doesn’t change anything—it only makes them dependent on you. And you don’t care. None of you do. You don’t even know the names of the people you claim to care about.”
Augusta’s hands were shaking now. It was all she could do to cough out the word “ridiculous.” In her mind, though, she was serving soup to the lines at the kitchen. Bernie was always first in line. His wife had died eighteen years ago, and he’d been drinking pretty hard since then. Somehow he survived all that pain and all that booze. He always flirted with the soup ladies, called them “Sugar” and “Doll Baby,” laughing though his eyes stayed sad. Then there were Lucy and Hannah, the twins from Savannah. Seventy, if a day, and haggard—even the lines on their faces were identical. But smiling, always smiling. You learned strength from people like that. And even from Deaf Ernie, whose scowl was perpetual, but who didn’t give up either, didn’t just lay in a ditch with a bottle and give himself over to the maker on a cold night. He carried a worn New Testament, one of the hand-sized ones with the plastic cover that they give out free on the street corner. It was his job, self-appointed, to find the Biblical reading each night. He’d thumb through it every night, point out a passage to the ladies, and they would read it, loud enough for everyone to hear. He would watch their lips move as they read, nod a single curt nod to show his appreciation when they finished, and accept his Book back with gentle hands that belied the angry eyes. Some folks came every night, some only came when they were desperate, but the ladies always tried to make them welcome, to treat them like guests and like people, people who were just a little down on their luck.
How foolish her daughter was not to understand that, and how could she explain it to her? This punked-out princess who had never seen the inside of a soup kitchen; the little girl that she and her husband had protected from all things dirty or depressing. Augusta had always just assumed that Ashleigh accepted her charity work as what it was, one woman’s way of helping. And she’d assumed that when her daughter got older, settled down, that she’d take her place in this work, the only true work, of trying to help, of being your brother’s keeper when he needed you.
Her Hand on the Car Door
Augusta watched it, watched the fingers for that moment when they would flex, open the door, and her daughter would be gone. She dreaded that moment. She didn’t want her to leave yet, not understanding; Augusta wasn’t finished yet. She searched for something to cling to, something to say to bring her back around.
“Darling, you know I love you. Always have and always will.”
Ashleigh was silent for a moment, then said, quietly, “I know.”
Augusta sighed. “I’ve never tried to force you into this or that.” Ashleigh’s head snapped up, poised to interrupt, so Augusta hastened. “When you said, ‘no more pageants,’ we stopped doing pageants. When you said ‘no more ballet,’ we stopped ballet. We’ve always let you tell us what you wanted and what you needed.”
Ashleigh didn’t say anything, though Augusta suspected she wanted to.
“When I suggested you join the sorority, it wasn’t because I wanted you to be something you weren’t. It’s just that Alpha Delta Pi was so important to me. It helped me learn how to become the person I wanted to be. I thought it might help you, too.”
Ashleigh’s voice was low and angry. “You did more than just ‘suggest,’ mother. Alpha Delta Pi has been a refrain since I was a baby. You said from the start how wonderful it would be, how grandmother would love it if I made it in. It was never negotiable. I never had an option.”
“We always said we wanted you to try it, yes. But we never forced you into anything.” She looked her daughter in the eye. This spoiled girl who always had everything handed to her on a silver platter. “Alpha Delta Pi made me who I am.” Ashleigh tried to interrupt her, but Augusta ignored her. “It taught me the value of philanthropy and how to act on my Christian beliefs in a way that would benefit my community. That’s what being a lady, a Southern lady, is all about.”
“Yeah, well, I never wanted to be a Southern lady.”
Augusta was suddenly aware of how faint Ashleigh’s accent had become, that she’d been erasing it since coming to school.
“And just what is wrong with being a Southern lady?” She fingered her pearls.
“It stifles you, it constrains you, it allows people—men—to walk all over you.”
Augusta’s hand dropped into her lap. “No one, and I mean no one, has ever walked over me. I am exactly the person I want to be.”
Ashleigh glared at her own reflection in the passenger side window, muttered, “Manners and smiles.”
“Haven’t you ever heard that honey traps more flies than vinegar?”
“So you admit you have to manipulate people to get what you want. You’re not able to just demand what you want and to get it.”
“Who is?” Augusta stared. It was truly amazing how little her daughter knew about surviving in the world.
“That may be the old way, mother. But that’s not how it is now.”
Augusta let her have the last word on the subject. It was best that way, letting her feel like she’d won the argument. But Augusta had had her say and her daughter would have to think about it.
Finally, she said, “listen, darling. Your father and I won’t make you stay in Alpha Delta Pi. Of course, we won’t. But I have to tell you, I think you’re making a mistake. That’s my job as your mother. And, whether you believe it or not, mothers do usually know best.” Again, Ashleigh started to interrupt, and again, Augusta spoke over her. “All I’m saying is, think about it. Don’t do anything rash. There is a lot you can learn here, if you just approach it with the right attitude.”
Ashleigh just said, “Things have changed.” Then, “Listen, mom, I’ve got to get going.”
Augusta sighed, then smiled. “You won’t take the pearls?”
“Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with them if you won’t take them. But, I’m proud of you nonetheless.” She forced a smile. “And you should know that. And I love you.”
“I know.” Ashleigh paused. “I love you, too.” The words came out in a rush, and with that, she pulled the handle of the door and was gone.
In the mirror, her reflection seemed so cold, so distant. It was hard to believe there were thoughts at all going on behind the well-applied make-up. The crow’s feet gathering around her eyes were becoming deeper every year, the price for her smiles. How on Earth did she ever become so old?
She took the pearls out of their box and laid them on the dashboard, letting them roll as she drove. She liked the sound they made, like a wave washing the sand, moving each grain a little further down the shore, wearing the edges away. Things changed that way: incrementally. Or should. They didn’t surprise you with new haircuts and hostility. They didn’t change personalities over night.
Augusta swallowed the lump growing in her throat, tightened her fingers on the steering wheel, tried to focus on nothing but the sound of sliding pearls as they traveled down the dashboard, then back again.