From Shelby to Ouiser in nothin’ flat

December 12, 2023


Before she had the Pepto Bismol Pink wedding in Steele Magnolias, no one was named Shelby. Shelby was a car, for crying out loud, but after we watched her story on the big screen, we wanted to be just like her and started naming our daughters after the perfect Southern girl. 

Our 1980s gang thought we were just like the poufy-haired, pink-loving, happy-as-a-lark bride-to-be who was marrying the most wonderful boy in all of Louisiana. We planned to live near our parents, who shot birds from the trees, and to tote our Southern children to the Christmas Festival (yes, the same festival where Nancy Beth Marmillion was dethroned as queen. Who could forget?) 

But then real life came knocking at the door, and we had to get jobs and marry men who may or may not have been a dream boat. We had perfect children, who grew to become not-so-perfect, and in-laws, neighbors, exes, steps, friends, enemies, illnesses, sprained ankles, deaths, split ends, burials, and everything else that life could throw at us. Shelby's life on the big screen ended in sadness, and we got a taste of angst in real life as well.  

But we kept up the tough façade like steel and balanced it with the softness of a magnolia. Actually, magnolias fall apart and turn brown if you touch them, and if you can't put a flower in a wedding bouquet or wear it as a corsage, what good is it? 

We were tender and soft like a baby's sweet, innocent heart (without the innocence). But "steel baby heart" sounds terrible, so let's stick with "Magnolia." No matter; we held it together and popped in a Crest white strip, slapped on lipstick, and smiled through it all. 

Then, one day, we looked in the mirror and couldn't find Shelby anywhere. The big hair, big smile, big personality girl of decades before was gone. But in her place, we had grown into Truvy, the savvy business owner who juggled complicated family issues with a career. Some of us resembled M'Lynn, the doting mother who constantly worried about her family and would do anything for her children, including offering a kidney.  

Thank goodness for those who grew up to become the wise Clairees' of the world. "Too colorful for words," she'd say. These friends keep us focused and care for others while being a sounding board and confidant for many. 

And finally, there are those of us who have somehow slid into replicas of Louisa "Ouiser" Boudreaux, who doesn't give a flip about anything and does as she pleases. 

I was both horrified and delighted when I looked down one day and realized I was working in my garden wearing my best overalls, which have plenty of practical pockets and were purchased at the Waterfront Rescue Mission. They only set me back $5.98, and if I roll the legs up, they fit just fine. My Daddy's hand-me-down straw hat kept the sun off my face, and of course, I was still wearing my pearls from earlier in the day. "I've become Ouiser!" I thought. "Because I'm a Southern woman, and we're supposed to wear funny-looking hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt." Thank goodness I can check that off my list.  

And don't forget those precious souls who grew up to be the Annelles' of the world. Once shy and inhibited, they have overcome adversities and transformed themselves into something wonderful. Sprouting wings, they've found a way to live an amazing life that once seemed impossible.  

The women I've known who have grown more beautiful as they've aged have all taken on different qualities of these Steele Magnolias. We've bounced between falling apart and holding ourselves — and others together. We've explored new careers and taken risks. We've looked both foolish and spectacular and, like Ouiser, don't really care what anyone thinks about it. We've enjoyed life's journey, even with the soul-shaking potholes. 

Those who have blossomed into beautiful magnolias have loved and lost but never lost themselves. We adore our men folk but don't live through their success. We're no longer Shelby with dreams in our eyes of the perfect life in a cottage. Still, we're even better now as nurturing M'Lynn, savvy Clairee, hardworking Truvy, dreamer Annelle, and tell-it-like-it-is Ouiser, who sums it up for all of us, "I'm not as sweet as I used to be."  — But oh, honey, you're far more interesting and beautiful.

This story first appeared in Lagniappe News. Which Steel Magnolia did you grow up to be?

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