When I was a little girl and we visited my grandmother in Lampasas, Texas, a moment always arrived, early in our visit, when we would trot obediently over to my grandmother’s next-door neighbor’s house. Mrs. Porter seemed like she was about a thousand and three years old to me, and she was older than my grandmother, which probably means Mrs. Porter was in her seventies. In any case, I remember her as a gentle, welcoming woman, and even though I’d be willing to bet that the conversations I had with her were stilted and shy, I enjoyed visiting Mrs. Porter. Visiting people who had heard about me from my grandparents always made me feel important.
My mother, however, always viewed Mrs. Porter in another light. From the time my mother was small, Mrs. Porter was wielded as one of the weapons in my grandmother’s arsenal as she attempted to tame my mother’s wild ways. It should be noted that by “wild ways,” I mean my mother’s sense of independence. In the 50′s, as far as my grandmother was concerned, I think that translated mostly into my mother not brushing her hair out of her face or keeping her shoes tied. When she had reached the end of her patience with her daughter, my grandmother resorted to this question: “What would Mrs. Porter think?”
Once, my mother, as exasperated as was my grandmother, stood in the backyard and yelled, “I DON’T CARE WHAT MRS. PORTER THINKS!”
It’s unclear to me whether Mrs. Porter had ever expressed any outrage at my mother’s behavior or appearance, or at anything about my mother’s family at all. I’m not sure if my grandmother held Mrs. Porter’s opinion in particularly high esteem, or if any old neighbor would have served equally well as an implication that townspeople regularly sized up my mother’s behavior.
In any case, I think that for women of my grandmother’s generation, the idea that fellow members of society might find you lacking provided sufficient motivation to pull back from certain behaviors, and maybe even certain opinions. Society, for the most part much more homogeneous in small-town Texas in the 1950′s, offered fewer acceptable options for personal expression than it does now. Certainly the world’s reach into Lampasas, Texas was far less extensive then. No Internet; not many people who spoke a foreign language, much less who had a different skin color; fewer immigrants, and no assumption that those immigrants could compete for professional jobs in town; fewer imported products; no chain restaurants; no interstate highways. Practicing a different religion meant a different Protestant denomination, or at most, Catholicism. It’s easy to see how the Mrs. Porters in town seemed the apex of social approval.
Having grown up with one foot in that world, it’s hard for me to criticize it harshly. As a grandchild, visiting both Texas small towns that my parents grew up in felt, to me, comforting and welcoming. I liked Mrs. Porter, as well as other neighbors and friends of my grandparents’, and never felt any compunction to try to curry favor with them.
I concede, though, that the welcome in those small towns, and many other towns throughout the United States in the 70′s, would have been a markedly different thing had I been a child born out of wedlock, or a biracial child, or if we hadn’t practiced Christianity.
Still, I think there’s value in knowing that the people you live near care about good behavior and a good community. Peer pressure can be a positive thing at times. So, in this world where, thankfully, we know that there’s more than one race, religion, or nationality that contributes positively to society, how do we draw on the best of the “What would Mrs. Porter think?” era? How do we encourage each other to be our best selves without resorting to legalism or judging each other?
How do we push past the shame that can result from a question like that, and get to a place where we appreciate the attentive eyes of our neighbors?
I’ve thought about this, and I only have one suggestion. Love for others.
Love is the only way I can think of to make keeping an eye on each other helpful, not surveillance. To make our attention to each other full of compassion rather than self-righteousness. To make these verses comforting rather than creepy:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” – Isaiah 49:15-16, NIV
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” – Psalm 139:7-10, NIV
I want some eyes on me; people who love me have exerted loving pressure on me, to my benefit. There’s no denying that unloving pressure causes anger, shame, discomfort, guilt, and other negative emotions; but at times, we need to experience a taste of those things to realize we don’t want a steady diet of them. Love, real love, not just judgment dressed up in words of love, helps form us into the people we want to be. The kind of people that, otherwise, we might doubt we can be. The kind of people that might raise Mrs. Porter’s eyebrows in a good way.
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