The Story Behind the Book - The Same Sweet GirlsBack in 1962, revolution was brewing across the country, but it would be some time before that spirit drifted down to the Deep South. Still, I had been bitten: At 18, I was an aspiring bohemian and playwright, much to my mother’s dismay. She wanted me to attend a Methodist college close to our family farm in south Alabama; I had my heart set on a liberal-arts college 200 miles away. And, come fall, that’s where I went.
This act was typical of my brand of rebellion—not very daring. Alabama College in Montevallo was an all-girls school, the alma mater of my cousin, my English teacher, and my minister’s wife. And much to my dismay, a bastion of the southern womanhood I had hoped to escape.
There was even a dress code: We had to wear dresses at all times—no slacks, jeans, or shorts on campus, except on Saturdays. I knew I didn’t fit in with the sorority sisters who populated the dorms, yet I had no idea where I did belong. Only my pride kept me from begging my mother to let me transfer.
All that changed one morning at convocation, the weekly mandatory assembly. That Thursday’s speaker was the National Maid of Cotton; I managed to tune her out almost completely. But her final line grabbed me: She assured the student body that although she’d been around the world, had met kings and queens and heads of state, she was still the same sweet girl she’d always been.
It started as a ripple. Much to my amazement, many of the girls around me—the very ones I had dismissed as shining examples of southern womanhood—were, like me, stifling giggles. What, exactly, was so funny? We weren’t laughing at the beauty queen but at the absurd notion that despite all she had accomplished, the thing that mattered most to her was that she was still sweet. In that moment, long before feminism found its way to Alabama, we realized we didn’t have to be girls anymore, that we cared about more than simply being sweet. And it was a powerful moment: We could have shouted or cried; instead, we laughed.
As we looked around the room and noted who among us got the joke, the Same Sweet Girls, always said with tongue firmly planted in cheek, were born. We were 20 strong and stayed friends for the next three years but lost touch after college, as schoolmates often do. It was, sadly, the death of a classmate a few years later that reunited us. Rather than leaving our get-togethers to chance, we decided to set aside a day for an annual gathering. Since many of us were living in or around Atlanta, we began meeting on a Saturday for lunch, followed by an evening of girl talk at a sweet girl’s house.
By then, we had become professors, artists, teachers, executives, librarians, divorce lawyers (which would came in handy). And though our lives were all very different, the new experiences we shared deepened our old bonds.
Over time, the reunions grew into long weekends, moved around (a beach house in Gulf Shores, Alabama, a cabin in the mountains, a hotel in New York City), and became more frequent (three times in 2004). Along the way, these weekends developed their own rhythm. On Friday, we arrive with our signature dishes (chicken salad, pimiento cheese, or Elizabeth’s mother’s famous pound cake), nibble on what everybody’s brought, and pass around pictures of kids, and now grandkids. We always serve a special drink: margaritas, gimlets, rum punch. For a long time, it was Fuzzy Navels. We stay up late talking—well, midnight is late for us.
The next morning, we walk on the beach or go shopping. We reminisce about folks we knew in college, and those we’ve met during past reunions. Like the wealthy guy building a huge house next door to our Gulf Shores getaway. He was like our own Jay Gatsby, and we spied on him all weekend long.
On Saturday night, we get dressed up for a dinner out. The high point comes afterward, with the coronation of that weekend’s “sweetest” girl. This started pretty early on with an offhand remark and a lampshade. The next year, someone showed up with a real tiara, and a corsage with sugar cubes glued on. (The cubes eventually disintegrated, and the corsage got to looking so ratty that we gave up on it.) It’s a silly ritual, but now we campaign for the crown throughout the year.
People ask me what it means to have been friends with these women for so long. A few years ago, I was meeting the SSGs in Atlanta for lunch. I got to the restaurant late and couldn’t spot them. And then I realized I was looking for a bunch of 20-year-olds with big hair. I guess that’s what I still see—and feel—when we get together. It doesn’t matter where we are, how old we are (60, or nearly there), that we’ve moved around, had different jobs, and even different husbands—we’re still a core group of women who once felt different from what society expected us to be. Some of us now have daughters who want to grow up to be Same Sweet Girls. The girls we were in college would applaud that. They would applaud what we’ve become.