I started home for Thanksgiving Tuesday afternoon, willingly cutting shorter my half-week of classes to add a full day to my debutante preparations. It hadn’t taken me long to pack and add a few necessary additions to cover every possible situation and temperature that four and a half days in Jackson, Mississippi on a debutante and holiday week could throw at me. I have to be honest, even with all my initial disdain and later reluctance, butterflies had already taken permanent residence in my stomach on the plane ride home, fluttering wildly with each thought about what Friday would bring.
Wednesday and its appointments and preparations went by without a hitch. I even had time to demonstrate my housewifely eligibility by baking an exquisite chocolate pecan pie. Thanksgiving was, well, Thanksgiving, with perhaps slightly less gorging on my part – which doesn’t say much at all. I still ate far more than could be reasonably excused for an NFL linebacker at a typical meal.
Friday morning, and the day had arrived. For the third straight morning, I awoke not to sunlight gently streaming in through the windows across the room from my bed but instead The Dress, suspended like a ghostly apparition, foretelling the night to come, eerily retaining its shape even while hanging from my curtain rods. The Dress refused to let me forget the event to come. Fortunately, the day’s schedule promised to provide some sort of oblivion.
It began with a mid-morning presenter-daughter rehearsal for that night. The second I walked in the door of the Jackson Country Club, after screeching my car into an invented parking spot and throwing on jewelry, a girl I hadn’t seen since middle school wrapped me in a huge hug. Without time to either respond or feel incredibly awkward, we were called into the ballroom, where both the presentation and dance would take place. It was then that it truly hit me: ever since agreeing to take part in this deb (like I’d actually ever had a choice), I had told myself and others that I was at least excited about getting to see the other girls – best friend or mere acquaintance, I have an amazing ability to lose touch with almost everyone I know.
As one hug reminded me, this really would be the perfect way to reconnect with these girls, especially because we “upheld the integrity and honor of the Mississippi Debutante Society, which must be kept in tact so that our daughters too shall have the opportunity to come into society by way of such an esteemed organization…” as we were reminded moments later, standing with our presenters (for the most part, our fathers). Evidently, with a great white dress comes great responsibility. The rehearsal passed uneventfully, conversations ranging from hellos to thoughts on smuggling in pre-presentation alcohol (clearly a move NOT in keeping with the rich and elegant tradition of the Jackson Debutante, but oh-so necessary). I couldn’t help but notice something a bit strange in the midst of the tasteful décor: a small gathering of fairy statues off to one side of the runway and a single fairy just above the archway looking down at our attempt to live up to tradition and expectations. As we awkwardly made our way down that Astroturf runway for the first time, wearing the shoes we’d be in that night, that little incongruous, impish statue made everything much easier.
The remainder of the day passed quickly, filled with girlish activities that I typically avoid out of suspicion. This time, however, something out of the ordinary was entirely necessary, so I agreed to having my hair and makeup done. Finally, the time came to put on The Dress. However, like most things in my life, this couldn’t simply go off without a hitch. Because of a makeup delay (read: the woman putting on my face kept disappearing for ten-minute intervals), I had ten minutes to pull off a twenty minute maneuver and get to the country club in time for the first of hundreds of pictures. This picture was one of many randomly assigned groups of fathers (presenters) and daughters, and, as my mother hysterically reminded me as I ran into the house, I was in the first group.
I flew up to my room and readied myself for The Dress. With its many hooks, straps, and zippers, The Dress could not be put on by its wearer. In fact, getting me in the dress was a process so complex that my mother had written out six-step instructions. Unfortunately, a panic had descended upon the Fenelon house: my mom’s zipper refused to complete its final four inches of closure. Now I know what you’re thinking, but before you start making “Yo Mamma’s so fat” jokes, hear this: my mom is TINY. Seriously. The two sides of the zipper met, but simply refused to zip together. So there I stood, half-naked, awaiting The Dress, as my father sewed my mom into her dress. I’m still not sure how she got it off, but that disaster took away any possibility of making the first picture on time. Fifteen minutes later, all dresses on (and tails on my father—don’t get any ideas!), the three of us jumped in my dad’s truck with my body wrapped in a sheet, leaning somewhat sideways to protect The Dress. I walked in pulling on my long white gloves to see a picturesque display of debs seated before their fathers with one quite conspicuous empty space in the middle and anxious faces all turned my way. Oops.
Post-picture, things became a blur of reapplying lipstick, meaningless nervous chatter, and the loss of two of the pearl beaded buttons on my great-grandmother’s antique gloves. We had little else to do: the women of the Debutante Committee, rulers of the night, had cloistered us in a side hallway, sight-unseen until our exhibition, alone, in the spotlight on the Astroturf. Whenever any girl in white got too close to the end of the hallway near the guests, she was unceremoniously herded back into place. Finally, we were given the signal and scurried into alphabetical order. The sedate piano music began, the Master of Ceremonies thanked all the appropriate folks, and the first name was called. Major butterflies.
I found myself fourth in the lineup – a seriously good thing. Any more time behind the curtains would have sent my nerves over the edge. As it was, I held my flowers in just the right place, didn’t bob as I walked, stood up straight, smiled, and – this is a big deal – didn’t trip! The actual walk flew by, and for most of it, I had my dad’s support. I couldn’t believe it was such a non-event. Neither could my body, which for the ten minutes following my descent from the runway (again, no trip!) refused to stop quivering. Once I’d regained my composure, I settled in to watch the next twenty-six girls. They too got through mostly without a hitch and only one “Dad, you’re on my dress!!” hiss.
A rather tense moment did come when, right before the next deb appeared, a girl in the audience fainted (I mean, really. She’s only watching and she can’t keep it together. Clearly not future deb material!), but the deb paid it no attention, beaming so brightly she pulled all the attention right back to the runway. Following the presentation, my life became one big camera flash; the professional photographer and my grandmother alternated, never giving anyone a second to relax. At least my grandmother didn’t throw out lines like “Say popcorn! Say…money! Say….peanuts!” before every shot. The photographer just never got the hint, even when my ever-enthusiastic mother was the only one responding. The pictures without her in them got somewhat awkward, as we stood silently refusing to give in to her absurd photographic requests.
In one of the last pictures, my mother, grandmother, and I posed together: three generations of Jackson, Mississippi Debutantes. The commotion around us seemed to pause – or at least allowed us to do so in its midst – as I realized just how much tradition, love, community, and heartfelt pride rode on this night, this seemingly silly and antiquated event that in actuality meant a great deal. Besides, as soon as the pictures were completed and I’d trod all over my patient father and reluctant brother’s feet in the first two traditional dances, that night was a party. Jackson outdoes itself for this event, and my shoes, several hours and many dances later, completely outdid my feet. They’ll recover eventually, but I’ll never forget that night, and can’t wait for the party season to come over the holidays.
Oh, and The Dress? Let’s just say it was a huge hit. The kind of dress that people turn and stare at and that gets one unofficially named “best dressed” by the other debs. So worth it.