For seven and a half years of my young adult life, I was an Air Force Officer's Wife. It wasn't by choice. I had no illusions of playing out a Debra Winger/Richard Gere An Officer and a Gentleman fantasy. No, I met my husband in college, and when we married, I was finishing my bachelor's degree, he his master's and we were well on our way to corporate bliss in the city, followed by suburban bliss in a planned neighborhood with a few kids. Maybe even a gated neighborhood if we played our cards right.
I got my gated neighborhood, only there were young men in fatigues with M-16s at the gate. The story of how we ended up as a military family is a long one, and one that will not be told today. That will take some red wine and an evening holed up in my office to relay, but by the end of the month I will. Today I will share with you a story of when we were stationed in the deep south. It was lovely, it was terrible, and it was one of the most memorable places we have ever lived. We sucked the juice out of that experience, and hopefully I have some left to go with the pith....
The south was a captivating place for me. It wasn't just all that catfish, or sultry, lightnin’ bug infused nights. It wasn't the novelty of looking at a place through Yankee-colored glasses and learning that the Civil War is still high on the minds of many Americans. It was many things, heightened by the fact that while in the south we lived in Officer housing on a large Air Force base.
It was also the parties.
If you live on an Air Force base, I don't care if you're stationed in Guam or Minot, North Dakota, you will be invited to a Stampin’ UP!, Pampered Chef, or Creative Memories party within about 4.7 seconds of your arrival. Before we PCS'd (that means "moved" in military-ese) to the south, we had lived at another base in Idaho where I had assiduously avoided all parties. I was above those, you know. And I also failed miserably at assimilating into Air Force culture because of my reticence in becoming a military spouse (yet another story, my failure to be a good Officer's Wife). So, after a few too many episodes of Dr. Phil and his incessant asking, "how's that working for you?" I decided to throw myself full throttle into Air Force life. And that included attending the parties.
It started one hot August morning. We had just arrived at the base, we still had moving boxes lining our halls and we still got lost on the way to the commissary or the BX. Then my pale pink invitation to the “Premiere Designs, Inc” party arrived in the mail. It was to be hosted by a nearby Colonel's wife and the instructions were clear: “Wear solid colors, NO JEWELRY and a smile!”
I gritted my teeth. I was going to be a good officer's wife, dammit, so I RSVP'd yes.
I will wow them all with my fresh, Western approach to life and fashion, I thought. I’ll dress in some cute khaki shorts, a Nike T-shirt and those great Teva sandals I picked up in Seattle. So my toes had three different colors of chipped polish. Big deal. They would instantly see my devotion to my daughters, who clearly have a creative streak (my youngest tried to paint a cat on my big toenail, and so what if it only looks like a bad case of fungus? They’ll only see what an accommodating mom I am). I’ll bring a bottle of champagne and some orange juice and my new friends and I will have mimosas! And we’ll buy jewelry! And they’ll tell me how cute my western accent sounds! And even if they don’t, I’ll be without my children for at least two hours. The sounds of “Born Free” drift through my head, as I imagine using my hostess’ bathroom without a toddler velcro’d to my leg. I can’t wait!
The day of the party, I ring the doorbell to my neighbor’s home, and Laura Bush answers the door. Or her cousin. Her perfectly lacquered hair doesn’t move as she takes me in, her lipsticked-smile wavering only the smallest bit as she eyes the bottle of champagne.
“Hahhh,” she croons, in a soft drawl. “Come on in. Let me just put that in the kitchen for you,” she takes the champagne and holds it close to her sweater-set, that I would soon understand was ubiquitous in the field-grade officer's wives set, regardless of days with more humidity than a Russian steam bath. "Most of the ladies here would only use this for mouthwash,” she whispered as she set it behind a group photo of really well-dressed women under a banner reading “Daughters of the American Revolution Annual Rummage Sale.”
I’m led to a floral upholstered chair with lace doilies on the arms and given a glass of sweet tea as the party begins.
The Jewelry Consultant arrives and stands at the head of the room. She is wearing a simple navy sheath, hose, pumps and matching earrings, necklace, bracelet and brooch. Her hair is perfect. It doesn't move. I am still mesmerized by her hair and the fact that women still cover their legs and wear broaches when she claps her hands. The room is silent, save for the slight chattering of my teeth from the sweetness of my tea.
“Hello Ladies! Let’s get started! Now, we all have jewelry, do we not? (polite tittering and sounds of agreement). But does anyone here know the Cardinal Rule of Jewelry?”
There’s a cardinal rule? I’m sitting there trying to think of something like “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s big-ass diamond ring” when I notice one of the party guests has her arm raised. She’s sitting on the edge of her seat in the “Me! Pick Me!” position, back ram-rod straight as she reaches her arm up even higher.
The Jewelry Consultant gives her a nod and the woman recites, “Always wear earrings.”
With a patient smile, the Jewelry Consultant says encouragingly, “Close! Anyone else? No? It’s “Nevah leave your home without your earrings on.’”
There is a collective “Ohhhh” in the room. Confucius has spoken.
“In fact, Ah have a wonderful story to illustrate the importance of this rule! The other day, Ah was driving my daughter to school, when (let me just interrupt here to tell you that everyone is listening with rapt attention; you could hear a pin drop) Ah. Had. No. Earrings. On!” There is an audible hush. The women look horrified. Had I missed something? She continues, a conspiratorial smile on her face, as if she is about to share the most hilarious, knee-slapping tidbit EVER with us.
“Well, ladies. Ah had NO earrings in mah purse – you can bet Ah do now – so do y’all know what Ah did?” She’s almost squealing at this point. Even I’m on edge, so intense is her build-up.
“What?!” I yell.
“Ah took the earrings off of mah own daughter’s ears and put them on mine!” She finishes by covering her mouth with her hands, as if she had just said something screamingly naughty like, “And then Ah flashed the police officer mah titties, just to get out of the ticket.”
I’m crushed. But the rest of the room almost explodes.
“You did NOT!”
“Your own daughter!”
“Yes! And y’all can bet that will NEVAH happen to me again! Ah now have earrings in mah car, in mah purse…” she continues, but I’ve started to drift.
I’m snapped out of it when I notice the silence in the room and all eyes on me.
I’m then asked to stand in the middle of the living room so that the the Jewelry Consultant can use me to illustrate Cardinal Rule of Jewelry Number Two: Earrings Make Your Face Appear Thinner. I have one earring on, and I’m being strong-armed from side to side as the Jewelry Consultant chimes, “See? Thinner. Bigger. Thinner. Bigger.” I decide I want to go home, when I’m refreshed by the glimpse of coffee cake as I’m swiveled toward the dining room. I’m released to my seat where we have to go around the room, tell our names and what kind of jewelry we like.
“Hah! I’m Angie, and I like to wear white gold and silver!”
“Hey, I’m Tammy Jo and I like yella gold.”
“Hi. I’m Jennifer. I like jewelry my husband can’t afford.” This elicits no comments on my accent or refreshing western honesty. Nothing. I take another sip of sweet tea.
I left with an earring, necklace, and bracelet set for $123.45 and my next invitation to a Home Interiors party.
“’Bye y’all!” I chirped as I left, rummaging through the cobwebs of my brain for an appropriate southern colloquialism.
“It’s all y’all…” I heard as the door shut behind me.