Among the most popular and widely circulated myths in the South is the “Southern belle” – beautiful, elegant, demure – and the narratives that surround this untouchable ideal have long been omnipresent. This essay, which was written as a performance piece, dives head-first into one writer’s personal experiences with that myth, growing up as a girl in Mississippi in the 1970s and ’80s.
Miss Fish: A Pageant Tale
by Susie Paul
I want you all to know that my mother is alive and well, stressed out over whether or not she can find a grandmother-of-the-bride dress with a jacket and whether or not she will die before her trip to Dublin in July, thereby losing her deposit.
My mother would like you folks to know that she has advised me how my stories about her are too long. This comes from her own recent experience, as she has now completed her autobiography in twenty-nine pages. She is almost 85. You do the math. According to my mother’s page-to-lifetime-experience ratio, my story should be told in two sentences. I’ll take two pages— well, three . . . but double-spaced.
I’m not one to speak ill of my elders, but when you get right down to it, my mother just did not generate the necessary aquatic world karma for my sister to win what we have come to call in our family Miss Fish, that is Miss Mississippi Gulf Coast Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo Queen of sometime in the ’80s. This despite my mother stoking – all our young lifetimes and into the present – the fire of her disappointment that neither of her daughters was beauty queen material.
Even though we had moved to the Coast, settling in a town populated by commercial fishermen in the early ’70s, my mother continued to feed us frozen flounder thawed from long skinny paper boxes, purchased at the local grocery store and soaked in a sink full of water until the filets could be pried apart, rolled in corn meal, and fried up in a skillet full of vegetable shortening—like okra.
All the while, the mullet were leaping out of the bay and into boats; the flounder were lazing around on their sides right off the beach by the scores, looking up beseechingly through the murky water with those two eyes on one side of their heads; the blue crabs were battling each other to climb into the nets cast right off the seawall: all those sea creatures just begging to become seafood.
Yet for fish variety at the Paul house, we ate fish sticks with ketchup and the occasional salmon croquette. My mother, Helen, was from Tennessee. And this is my gripe: perhaps if she’d thrown herself a bit more into the local culture and boiled a shrimp or two, stuffed some crabs, cooked a redfish in a paper bag, or sucked a few raw oysters out of the half shell, my sister would have presented a more authentic Coast persona and had a better shot at the only beauty pageant title to which she ever aspired.
My mother still airs her regrets that neither of her daughters had even the faintest chance at becoming Miss America. I was really, really cute as a kid and her hopes ran high, but I got less attractive as I grew older, due mostly to, according to my father, my lack of a neck. The ideal of female beauty does not include one’s head sitting directly upon one’s shoulders. Also, I got kicked out of ballet lessons at age six for a crippling problem with the business of left and right; so nix the talent competition, though I sang a mean “Catch A Falling Star” with hand motions.
When my sister Beth was born, my mother’s hopes flamed anew. She did seem to possess the requisite swanlike neck, but she also had what we call in our family “the Paul wattle,” and which comes on in our youth, soon took up the extra neck in front where it counts. Still, my mother enrolled her piano lessons because Beth, and I quote, “had long graceful fingers,” but, mostly, she did not want to risk the whole dancing thing again.
Now, lined up on the cedar chest in my mother’s bedroom are large photos of each of our progeny. “Have you ever seen such beautiful grandchildren?” she likes to opine: i.e. “I was a beauty, Miss Future Farmers of America Queen of Collinwood High School, they are all beautiful; why did the good looks skip a generation?” What she says out loud is, “Your dad was so handsome.” Objectively speaking, they are a striking group. And one of these children did become Hattiesburg, Mississippi’s Junior Miss and a runner up in the state competition. Another was crowned Miss Sweet Tart.
It probably didn’t help either that my sister had to wear my wedding dress – ninety-nine bucks from Gayfer’s department store – as her formal in the Miss Fish event. It was a columnar ivory polyester double knit number that still hangs in somebody’s closet, indestructible, unlike my marriage. God knows what her bathing suit was, but her local costume – as in a costume evocative of our shrimping and fishing culture – was cutoffs, a red-and-white checked shirt, and a straw hat—a la “Heehaw.” Unfortunately, she also carried across the stage, at our mother’s suggestion, a cane pole, the final and fatal flaw. Because catfish and bream don’t swim in the Gulf now, do they? They swim in ponds and rivers in Tennessee.
In the end, I’m thinking it was all Helen’s very own fault my sister didn’t even place. She might as well have hung a fish stick from my sister’s pole, maybe a can of tuna.
Still, like all past-pageant participants, especially the losers, my sister is graciously grateful for the opportunities afforded her by the Gulf Coast Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo Pageant experience: being photographed with very large fish, the genus and species of which she had no idea; that whirlwind tour of Mississippi by Greyhound bus where the beauties traveled all the way to Jackson to meet the governor at the time, that sleaze bag Cliff Fish— no, Finch, a guy so corrupt he couldn’t even get elected in Louisiana; sped down to Mendenhall just off Highway 49 to eat at the world-famous Round Table Restaurant; finally appearing on WLOX-TV in Biloxi wearing a tiara, which should have provided some solace for Mama.
Thus, another of our strange family legacies: we are all scarred by the failure of this first step in the direction of what turned out to be my mother’s delusion: I don’t eat fish, my sister doesn’t catch fish, and our brother, at 60, is still obsessed with the Miss Mississippi pageant, venturing into dirty-old-man territory, if you ask me, and an embarrassment to us all, including our mama.
And just to set the record straight, in case I’ve gone on too long here, one of the reasons my mama’s autobiography is so compact is that she left us three kids out of it, except our being born and, to quote her, “a few other little things here and there.” Expressing our surprise and dismay that we were not the center of her life’s narrative, she responded, “You kids can write your own damned stories.”