Monday, April 10, 2006


In my freshman (and only) year of college, I had a well-respected professor named Dr. Mayo. I'm sure he taught me many things in his English class, but the only thing I really remember is about the word nice. He absolutely detested that word. He thought it didn't say anything worth saying. He considered it bland, empty, void. He said there are thousands of other words which would be more appropriately used in any conversation. I was so intrigued by his vehemence that I made sure I found a birthday card for him with "Have a Nice Birthday" written across the front.

Ever since then, I have had inklings that I was just too nice sometimes. I was taught to be nice when I was a child. In spite of Dr. Mayo's portrayal of nice as without meaning, I think it is very clear. Nice is polite. Nice is to think of others before yourself. Nice is quiet, unassuming, pleasant. Nice does not make waves, and most of all, nice is holding your tongue.

Family members might laugh at the last definition, for in my case, I doubt they realize that I ever hold my tongue. But I do, in situations outside the family. At work, for instance. I realize others are taking advantage of me, and I just continue to do my job (the difficult along with the easy) and just simmer. Sometimes I hear an offensive "joke" and don't speak up. Sometimes I see injustice and sit on my hands rather than complain. That is the "dark" side of nice. It's because I am one of those women they call G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Raised In The South). We're taught to be nice. It's in our genes.

Of course, you have a loophole twice in life - once when you're very young, and once when you're very old. Then you can speak your mind, because everyone expects it. Indeed, they laugh at it. As adults, we're afraid to proclaim, "The emperor has no clothes!" because it's not nice to speak your mind, even when it's just being honest.

This week I thought of two females in my family who were and are in the loophole stage. I got to see my granddaughter, Caroline, along with her 5-month-old sister, Charlotte. Caroline speaks her mind. You never know what will pop out of her mouth.

The situation was Charlotte's dirty diaper. (I heard of a Baby Weede whose dirty diapers were legendary, but this one came pretty close). The mess had traveled, encompassing the area of her belly, her back, even up by her shoulders. It was everything you could wish for in a dirty diaper. Rachel asked for my help. "Hold her hands," she told me, "so I can change the diaper without her touching it." I did as I was told, but even that wasn't enough. She called her husband. "Chris! I need you!" Chris was saying as he came into the room, "What? Two people aren't enough to change a diaper?" He soon found out that we were not dealing with an ordinary dirty diaper. So Chris held Charlotte's legs, I held her arms, and Rachel was trying desperately to do the deed. It was a scene worthy of a picture, but no one had free hands to get the camera.

Apparently when Charlotte has a dirty diaper, Caroline always wants to see it up close and personal. She took the little nursing stool, moved it over to the changing table, stood on it and craned her neck to see over the rail. She said nothing. I asked her if she could see OK, and she nodded. Finally, she got down. At this point, Chris remarked, "This is just too much here for a wipe. I'm going to get a wash cloth." And Caroline popped up, "Don't get one of MINE!" No altruism for her in this case. She knew what that wash cloth was headed for and she didn't want any part of her wash cloth collection involved.

It reminded me of the second female I mentioned, Aunt Bessie. Aunt Bessie could speak her mind because she was country-bred and old. She had two loopholes. Years ago, my family was sitting down to dinner to a plate of strange stuff. My mom was making hamburgers, but when she started, she realized she was out of hamburger buns. Oh, but she had hot dog buns. She just shaped the hamburger meat to look like hot dogs. Then they would fit the buns and everything would be great. I don't think she even realized what a plate of hot-dog shaped ground beef would look like until it was all in a brown pile. The plate was set in the middle of the table. We all stared. No one said anything - except, of course, old Aunt Bessie. She smirked.
"Jean, do you know what that looks like?" she said.
We all could guess what was coming. After all, Bessie was right. It did look like that.
"Yes, Bessie," said Mom, obviously hoping to drop the whole conversation.
"But do you really know what it looks like?" Bessie repeated.
By this time, the rest of us were stifling giggles.
"Yes, Bessie," said Mom, a little impatient. "I know what it looks like."
"Well," said Aunt Bessie, "it looks like...."

If you are hoping that Aunt Bessie's voice just dropped off at that point, sorry. You know better than that. Aunt Bessie said The Word. A word that was never said in our house. Ever.

Did the roof collapse? Did my parents faint? No. After all, Aunt Bessie was old. Everyone expected the unexpected when it came to Aunt Bessie. The meal continued without incident, and we all ate those misshapen burgers without other comment. The story, though, landed in our family collection of Stories Worth Remembering.

So here I am, 51 years old, and I fit neither category of loopholes. I am still nice. I know what's socially appropriate. Now I just have to learn that in some cases, nice will have to fall by the wayside, and the chips will fall where they may. This is not about any one situation; it is a part of my personality that I think needs to be adjusted. I don't like to speak up. I don't like to make waves. I certainly fear that people won't "like" me. Just one more hard thing about middle age. Sometimes life is just full of....

And yes, my last remark will fade into the Internet without being voiced. Even a reformed Girl Raised In The South has her limits.


Anonymous said...

My husband and I were lamenting the "loopholes" just last night. Much as I tried to resist it growing up, I am definitely a GRITS, no two ways about it, and despite my healthy inner aggitator, I often have a very hard time speaking up for myself. I know all about "NICE"! If I had a daughter, I would do all I could to immunize her against being too "nice."

Rock on, Aunt Bessie! ;)


Tif said...

I think "nice" goes along with "can't say no." That's why I'm so exhausted all the time. I have trouble turning down any request someone makes of me. Then I get in over my head with too many things going on--maybe it would be nicer just to say, "No!" the first time.