The phrase “steel magnolia” has been bandied about a lot, both in Hollywood and by those who wish to indicate that a Southern lady has a firm will and a definite opinion and can state it in a charming way. She is depicted as equal to any situation and is always sweetly courteous, no matter what category of hurricane is blowing about her. However, it has been used as a portmanteau description for all kinds of Southern women and this is a mistake, I feel. There are plenty of Southern women, both living and not, who have had firm wills and definite opinions and have been perfectly clear about them without being the least bit charming or sweet.
There are some prime examples of the steely non-magnolia type in my own family tree. The lady about whom I have been musing this morning is Cousin Jo. I can’t quite recall where she fits on the family tree, exactly. But she was in residence in Safety Harbor when my father and uncles were boys racketing about the hammocks and creeks of Tampa Bay in the 30’s. My grandparents were away and she was given the unenviable task of watching over the three boys, tweens and teens, who all had their own firearms on a dull summer afternoon. The pop of small arms fire was not anything to take note of until my oldest uncle came racing into the house shouting, “Cousin Jo, Cousin Jo, Dickie shot Francis!”
Expected answers to a statement like this from your standard issue steel magnolia might be, “Gracious, is he all right?” or possibly, “Heavens, where is the poor child? Shall we call for the doctor?” However, poor Cousin Jo was forced to make do with the demand, “Well, is he dead?”
I am persuaded that she asked this, not from a lack of proper human feeling, but because it was hot enough that there was no way that she was running anywhere in high button boots and a whalebone corset if there was no point to hurrying any more. However, my father, Francis, was not dead, merely winged in the wrist and left buttock, so off she went to examine the victim.
I am told by both my uncles and my father that she then delivered herself of her opinion on their behavior and its subsequent results in clear, well-enunciated and chosen epithets that left all three of them with the sensation of having been slightly mauled and then dipped in carbolic acid.
There has never been consensus amongst the three of them as to how my father got shot, by the way. The scar on his wrist is unimpeachable evidence and they all agree that there was a bullet involved but there any similarity between their stories ends. I can only assume that, whatever the real story was, it is actually much worse and much stupider than the unconvincing narratives they each offered during one family reunion in the late 80’s.