I thought I was Southern until I moved to Alabama. This was back in the early seventies, when all those bumper stickers saying "He Walks On Water" referred to Bear Bryant. As a young reporter at the Tuscaloosa News, I had a lot to learn. I covered such events as Kiwanis breakfasts, historic-home tours, county fairs, and beauty pageants, including a huge all-state event named Miss Fancy Strut. You never saw so many competitions. In fact, I'd seen so many pretty blondes and tiaras and roses that I'd grown absolutely blasé. By the time they sent me out to cover my first "Little Miss So-and So" pageant, I'm afraid I had developed a bad, supercilious attitude. "This is so tacky!" I inwardly raged. "These little girls shouldn't be doing this! They should be home playing jacks or jumping rope or fishing in the creek."
But the girls were so sweet, with their overinvolved mothers and their whole families hovering in the background. And I loved the talent part: ballet, tap dancing, reciting a poem, drawing dogs. It brought tears to my eyes when a pigtailed brunette with braces sang "Over the Rainbow."
Then came the evening dress portion of the contest, after which the winner was chosen. However, the crown didn't go to a beauty at all but to a little freckled redhead named Donna in an obviously handmade white dress with exquisite cross-stitched embroidery at the neck and all around the hem. This gal had just wowed us all with her talent, a gravity-defying acrobatic display: a series of leaps, backbends, rolls, cartwheels, and flip after flip ending in a perfect split with her arms up in a V, a frizzy red halo around her big bucktoothed smile.
Of course, it was then my task to interview Donna, insofar as you can interview a 7-year-old. I took notes while her proud—and huge—family encircled us. They were not city folks, I noticed, more likely a farming family from the surrounding countryside. Donna said she loved everybody, especially her dog Prissie and her teacher Miss Whatshername.
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"But she done made up that dance all by her own self!" an elderly voice rasped out.
I turned to see the proud grandmother, long white hair drawn back in a bun, hunched over, clutching a big-headed walking stick.
"And what about Donna's lovely dress?" I asked with a sudden instinct.
"My granny made it!" Donna herself announced confidently, with her big, winning grin.
"Well, honey, don't tell her that!" exclaimed the mother, embarrassed.
One close look at the grandmother's proud, lined, beaming face made me realize that HERE was the real beauty of the day: the loving grandmother, whose "talent" was clearly spent in the service of others.
Is anything more beautiful?
I didn't put all this in the paper, of course. I didn't want to embarrass anybody. But I learned something that day and tried to go out on my future assignments with a different attitude, an open mind, and an eager heart.