"Southern Lady Code: Essays" By: Helen Ellis

Apr 19, 2019

“Southern Lady Code: Essays”

Author: Helen Ellis  

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 203

Price: $22.00 (Hardcover)

Helen Ellis, raised in Tuscaloosa, has been, through two previous volumes, a very funny writer. Her novel "Eating the Cheshire Cat," set on the UA campus, is a delight and her short story collection, "American Housewife" is a treat.

This gathering of 25 short, personal essays presents itself as comic writing, and some essays are just that, but many of the best essays are better described as wry, candid, clever, and occasionally downright moving.

To begin with the title.

The "Southern Lady Code," a leitmotif in these essays, is defined by Ellis this way: "If you don't have something nice to say, you say something not so nice in a nice way." All people who settle in Alabama successfully must learn to crack this code. Whether her fellow New Yorkers ever get it seems problematical to me.

Describing her own clothing style, for example, Ellis writes, "I'm put together, which is Southern Lady Code for ‘You can take me to church or Red Lobster and I'll fit in fine.’"

She even knows the difference between shirts and blouses (shirts are stiff; blouses billow).

“I am sorry you saw something that offended you” means "Get that stick out of your butt, Miss prissy pants."

With books, "vintage" means dog-eared. “Vintage” is a very useful code word, actually, for any worn items.

One of the places coded messages are most needed is in speaking of sexuality. In Ellis' graduating class at Central High, she reports, some of the buys were "shy," “respectful," "artistic" or "sensitive" There were no gay classmates.

1988 now seems a long time ago.

She writes with wonder at the change Marie Kondo’s popular book on tidying up has made in her life. It turns out her “pretty boxes of novel manuscripts that were never published did not spark joy.” Out they went.

Helen Ellis moved to NYC right after college and, in the course of time, became friends with a great many openly gay men. Some of her best writing concerns these friendships. In one she is the only female guest at a gay bachelor party--a dream come true. "To me," she says, "a room full of gay men is like Narnia." She loves it. 

Several of these essays are bravely personal, in different ways.

Obviously, the primary readers for these essays would be women, but sometimes a male reader can get a look into a sphere he otherwise barely knows exists. In “American Housewife” one of the most moving stories is of “The Fitter,” a man with a gift for fitting a woman with exactly the right bra. This, Ellis tells us, can be a life-changing experience.

In “Lady Code” the subject is mammograms. Because Ellis has “dense breasts,” that is, “thickened like congealed New England clam chowder,” frequent mammograms are a good idea. This is too bad because, she says “it hurts so much I curse like a fourth-grade boy on a field trip.”

There’s more, follow-ups, and ultrasounds, but women readers already know all about this business.

Ellis and her husband, happily married, have chosen not to have children. 

"We do what we want, when we want. We do for each other. We do well for ourselves. We enjoy life's little pleasures." 

"If it happens, it happens" is Lady Code for “we don't want children.”

Although assertive about her life choices, one would not call Ellis judgmental.

Mostly.

But the etiquette essays in this book are worth studying.

She gives instruction on how to be a considerate airplane traveler. Check your bulky carry-on. Turn off your phone, for god's sake.

She also has party advice. For party food Ellis favors mail order, spiral-cut ham, and cheese logs, following her grandmother's advice which was: give your guests what they really want.

That is Code for: "There's nothing less fun than caviar on toast points."

Well, to each his own there, I think.

There are also useful instructions on how to be the best dinner party guest.

Arrive on time. Spread compliments. Do what the hostess tells you; go through promptly to the next room. Don't argue with the hostess, offering stubbornly to stay and help with the dishes. Write a thank you note, right away. You will already have laid out your pen and stationery by your bedside.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.