Poppy Done to Death



I paid almost no attention at all to the last conversation I had with my stepsister-in-law, Poppy Queensland. Though I liked Poppy - more or less - my main feeling when she called was one of irritation. I was only five years older than Poppy, but she made me feel like a Victorian grandmother, and when she told me she was going to foul up our plans, I felt very... miffed. Doesn't that sound grumpy?

"Listen," said Poppy. As always, she sounded imperative and excited. Poppy always made her own life sound more important and exciting than anyone else's (mine, for example). "I'm going to be late this morning, so you two just go on. I'll meet you there. Save me a place."

Later, I figured that Poppy called me about 10:30, because I was almost ready to leave my house to get her, and then Melinda. Poppy and Melinda were the wives of my stepbrothers. Since I'd acquired my new family well into my adulthood, we didn't have any shared history, and it was taking us a long time to get comfortable. I generally just introduced Poppy and Melinda as my sisters-in-law, to avoid this complicated explanation. In our small Georgia town, Lawrenceton, most often no explanation was required. Lawrenceton is gradually being swallowed by the Atlanta metroplex, but here we still generally know all our family histories.

With the portable phone clasped to my ear, I peered into my bathroom mirror to see if I'd gotten my cheeks evenly pink. But I was too busy thinking that this change of plans was inexplicable and exasperating. "Everything okay?" I asked, wondering if maybe little Chase was sick, or Poppy's hot-water heater had exploded. Surely only something pretty serious would keep Poppy from this meeting of the Uppity Women, because Poppy was supposed to be inducted into the club this morning. That was a big event in the life of a Lawrenceton woman. Poppy, though not a native, had lived in Lawrenceton since she was a teen, and she surely understood the honor being done her.

Even my mother had never been asked to be an Uppity Woman, though my grandmother had been a member. My mother had always been deemed too focused on her business. (At least that was how my mother explained it.) I was trying awful hard not to be even a little bit smug. It wasn't often I did anything that made my successful and authoritative mother look at me admiringly.

I think my mother had worked so hard to establish herself - in a business dominated by men - that she didn't really see the use in lobbying to join an organization made up mostly of homemaking women. Those were the conditions that had existed when she plunged into the workforce to make a living for her tiny family - me. Things had changed now. But you were tapped to join Uppity Women before you were forty-five, or you didn't join.

What did it take to be an Uppity Woman? The qualifications weren't exactly spelled out. It was more like they were generally understood. You had to have demonstrated strong-mindedness, and a high degree of resilience. You had to be intelligent, or at least shrewd. You had to be willing to speak out, though that was not an absolute requirement. You couldn't have any big attitude about what you were: Jewish, or black, or Presbyterian. You didn't have to have money, but you had to be willing to make an effort to dress appropriately for the meetings. (You would think an organization that encouraged independent women would be really flexible about clothing, but such was not the case.)

You didn't have to be absolutely Nice. The southern standard of niceness was this: You'd never been convicted of anything, you didn't look at other's women's husbands too openly. You wrote your thank-you notes and were polite to your elders. You had to take a keen interest in your children's upbringing. And you made sure your family was fed adequately. There were sideways and byways in this "nice" thing, but those were the general have-tos. Poppy was teetering on the edge of not being "nice" enough for the club, and since there had been an Uppity Woman in the forties who'd been just barely acquitted of murdering her husband, that was really saying something.

I shuddered. It was time to think of the positive.

At least we didn't have to wear hats, as Uppity Women had in the fifties. I would have drawn the line