THE GRANDE DAME
I’d been in Richmond for eight months when one bright, sunny Sunday morning, my very timid and truly
lovely Southern girlfriend, Joanie, and I were strolling arm-in-arm, down Monument Avenue. We were softly,
sweetly, deeply, purely in love and it had just turned Spring. The birds were chirping in the newly flowering
trees, the sky above was blue, there was a gentle breeze; it could not have been more idyllic.
Monument Avenue was exquisite! It was a perfect little neighborhood, strictly reserved for some of
Richmond’s oldest and most highly respected (and by that I mean richest) families. As you travel along that
boulevard of white stone mansions, huge bronze equestrian statues rise up on islands at the end of every
block; noble Confederate Generals on proudly prancing horse—each, sword drawn, eyes ablaze with
assured victory, all defiance, spurs, and indefatigable determination--gallant bronze heroes of the most
highly esteemed purest Southern order.
Joanie and I were like two puppies just emerged, after huddling together in our own little basket, to explore
the wonders of the big world beyond, with wide and eager eyes. Whatever I may be now, whatever I may
have become, back then I was a perfect match for this lovely little mouse of a girl. One could hardly find two
more harmless people. She was more timid than I and, honestly, I hadn’t looked anyone in the eye since
childhood and rarely spoke in public above a stammering whisper.
Joanie was purity itself; she was like a doe in the woods, she was like a lamb. If there is a creature more
gentle, more timid, more graceful, I have never heard of it. I’ll tell you how nice she was: she was kinder and
lovelier than anything I’d ever seen. It’s too heavy-handed to say that she was pretty and quiet and shy.
She was painfully, horribly, excruciatingly shy. And, she was crushingly beautiful. She was truly something
very much like an angel. Angels could learn a thing or two from her about sweetness and composure.
Properly cast, angels would have looked very much like her. Her skin was the palest pale. She had large
trusting eyes, a full, joyful, giving mouth, and tons of cascading tumultuous chestnut hair. She was
femininity itself; soft-spoken, light of foot, always a lady. God would do better to make more like her.
Me, though nothing like that, timid and unsure, I was her champion nonetheless. So there we were, two
innocents, strolling along, in love, in the Spring, surrounded by trees and heroic statues and large, stately
mansions with perfectly manicured lawns.
On the sidewalk ahead, tottering slowly toward us, is a tiny (tiny) ancient (ancient) gentlewoman. She has
on her white kid gloves because it is Sunday; because it is Spring, her broad brimmed flower bestrewn
chapeau; because she is an aristocrat, a nice dress with lace at the collar and sleeves. Her suit is of a pink
nubby material that we’ve all seen before on the cover of Vogue. She is unquestionably, immediately
recognizable as precisely what she is: venerable, old Richmond, First Family Virginia, nobility. She’s on her
way home, fresh from church. As we get close, Joanie—a true Southern belle herself, and brought up
properly--bows to this Grande dame and says sweetly, "Why, good morning, Ma’am." Joanie’s voice is
overflowing with genuine Southern courtesy; her words ooze a syrupy Southern charm.
This tiny, rheumy-eyed, frail old creature stops in front of us, smiles broadly at Joanie; there is a twinkle in
her eye. She reaches out with one little nicely gloved hand and touches Joanie's wrist. In a kindly old voice
with a slight quaver to it she says, "Why, good morning to you dear. How are you?" It’s as if they have
known each other for years. These two Southern belles, though they’ve never met, share gentility.
Joanie says, “It’s a lovely day, Ma’am.”
“Yes, dear,” says the gentlewoman, “it most certainly IS a lovely day.” She looks around to admire the day
that the Lord has given us.
I’m smiling during this exchange, because I’m an idiot and I’m in love and I’m watching something I’ve never
witnessed before: two Southern ladies meet on the boulevard; they smile and exchange bubbly greetings.
This doesn’t even seem real to me. I’ve only seen such exemplary courtesy before in old movies. Where I
come from two women passing each other on the sidewalk seldom exchange words; they may grunt;
occasionally one of them will spit—a sign at once of recognition and utter disregard. Southern charm is all
new to me.
Then the old woman turns to me. I’m smiling down at her, this minuscule, fragile, gentle, distinguished old
lady. She looks up at me. She begins to quiver; she points a shaking gloved finger directly at my face, dead
center, and says, "I can remember a time when we didn't allow NIGGERS to walk on this street, let alone
people like YOU!"
It is difficult for me to convey the viciousness behind that statement, but, that is precisely, word for word,
what the grand old lady, remnant of the great and glorious South, said to me on that lovely Spring day. She
shook with rage as she said it. Yes, there I am, the epitome of all things vile, the physical embodiment or
Evil itself. In the eyes of the respectable South, I am despicable.
Here’s the strange part: throughout all of this she’s still got Joanie by the hand. As she leans forward,
snapping and snarling and sputtering and throwing off saliva in all directions, she’s leaning on Joanie,
counting on her for support. She’s standing there, shaking with an uncontrollable fury, clinging to my
girlfriend. Her watery old yellowed eyes are locked in on mine; the frail old bat is challenging me. She’s got
her chin up, her jaw set, while she awaits my response. I’m an eighteen year old, six foot tall, 160 pound
man. After staring at me with revulsion long enough for me to get the point, she shakes her blue-grey head
in disgust, pushes her way between us, and totters off, down Monument Avenue. (I’d like to say that she
spit on the sidewalk but she didn’t. I’m pretty sure she could have though. That would have been a nice
touch…for my purposes here.)
When she approached us, I smiled nicely and bowed a goofy little kind of bow. And while these two fine
Southern ladies exchanged greetings I stood in silence with my hands folded neatly in front of me—
gloating, a fixed grin plastered idiot-like on my amiable, pale, pock-marked face; just as nice as can be.
While these two fine examples of Southern pulchritude and code-encrusted social order exchanged niceties
on that particular beautiful sunny Sunday morning I was, in short, the perfect gentleman.
As a child I was taught a special deference toward females and exceptional consideration for old ladies. In
fact, let me put this forward here--throughout my entire life, if any little old lady (ANY little old lady), even
one whom I’d never met before, had approached me and asked me to haul her piano up thirty-two flights of
stairs while wearing roller skates, I’d have given it a shot. That’s just the way I was brought up. I’d have
given it my all. And when it was all over, I would have smiled nicely, and thanked her for the nickel. At no
time did anyone tell me such creatures could be vicious. So the fear that this particular old woman planted
in my heart that day was catastrophic.
None of my up-bringing had prepared me for meeting this tiny spuming Southern aristocrat on the sidewalk,
on Monument Avenue, in Richmond, Virginia, on a Sunday, in the Spring. Nothing in her time here on earth
had prepared our grande dame for running into anything as shameful, as disgraceful, as foul and
disgusting as me. She just wasn’t ready for it; Sunday morning wasn’t ready for it; Monument Avenue wasn’t
ready for it; Richmond wasn’t ready for it. It must have only irritated her more to see that I had a lovely little
Southern girl clinging lovingly to my arm. (Many French people feel that same way about me these days,
because of my loving French wife…most notably, I think, her father.)