I don't recall how I learned this subtle lesson -- my mother is one of the sweetest women imaginable and her affection generally gravitates toward others like her. But somewhere in my psyche a seed has been planted that warns me against being sweet, that raises a red flag in the presence of raw sweetness. Somewhere I was taught to distinguish goodness from sweetness, remembering that sweetness can camouflage a world of sins -- weakness, dishonesty, cowardice.
Sweet women get stepped on. This message I learned firsthand watching my father bulldoze through my mother's life, demanding service, domestic and otherwise, and returning the favor with neglect and disrespect.
Scanning the years of elementary school, junior high and high school, it's the tough girls I remember, not the sweet ones. A girlfriend we nicknamed Jolly (her name was Jolynn) would have rather cut her wrists than roll over and be sweet to the girls in bobby socks and pleated cheerleader skirts -- the sweetest girls in the school, the ones we simultaneously envied and hated. Jolly roared over them, leaving them in a cloud of contemptuous dust.
Sweetness paid off in short-term popularity, but it wasn't something you could sink your teeth into. Sweetness, once dispersed, dissolved into thin air.
On the flip side of mistrusting sweetness, beyond any rationale, is the tendency to honor meanness -- something I think we all tend to do, at least in memory, confusing it with strength. Think about it: Who do you remember more clearly, the sweetest teacher of your youth or the bitch from hell who made your life in seventh grade miserable? What about neighbors? Among the ones who existed on the periphery of your family's life -- ones you saw from time to time but who probably never came through your front door -- which ones gathered rumor and legend around them, the sweet ones or the mean ones?
I come from a large extended family -- my mother was one of 10 children born to Lottie, a sweet woman I never knew. She died shortly after giving birth to her last child, my mother's younger sister. All I have ever known of her is the legend of her sweetness, her good temper, her quiet ways. My mother remembers her singing. The image I have conjured of her is vague, soft, ethereal.
Lottie's mother, on the other hand, a woman who also died long before I was born, stands as solid in my imagination as a house. My great-grandmother, Etta Hallie Booth, was referred to formally and with no amount of affection, by my mother and all her siblings, as Grandmother Booth. She was, my mother tells me, as mean as they came.
She is remembered as the mother of nine children, all fathered by a man she never married, known simply as Pappy Ed. She wore stiff, men's shoes and was a big woman with a gruff voice who tolerated no nonsense from her pack of grandchildren. She ran the family's farm operation, though Pappy Ed and others provided the labor.
My mother's clearest memory of Grandmother Booth -- aside from her shoes -- is that she made Pappy Ed take dinner on the back porch. She treated this man, well liked in the community and roundly acknowledged as sweet, worse than a hired hand.
Grandmother Booth, as far as I know, had no redeeming qualities that would make a great-granddaughter want to know more about her, but the few tales of her meanness I have gleaned from her grandchildren have elevated her to the status of legend in my imagination. I picture her with a bun, pulled back severely from her face, gathered at the back of her stiff neck. I see her in black. I imagine her swiftly setting the table in the kitchen, and throwing a plate out the back screen door for poor old Pappy Ed who takes his dinner quietly, with no complaints.
Grandmother Booth is my Scarlett, my Wicked Witch of the West, my own personal repository of meanness, born largely of rumor and fear. She is like a sharp pitchfork that prods me now and then to examine my sweet genes and rail against them.
"Be sweet," I tell my own children, knowing that sweetness will get them through the day with little trouble. "Be sweet," I admonish myself when I'm getting testy.
Then I look out and see a mean old world where the sweet might get trampled. Better to be good, I think, than sweet, ready to pull on the cloak of meanness when push comes to shove.
This piece first appeared in October 2002.