I grew up in a small Midwest town on Magnolia Avenue, named for the tree that graced the entrance to our modest neighborhood. Every year, we waited for our magnolia to announce spring’s arrival by bursting into a profusion of pink and white blossoms and spritzing the whole neighborhood with its delicious perfume. I loved that tree, that neighborhood, and the memories that come flooding back when I catch a whiff of its familiar fragrance.
As an adult, I lived in Tallahassee, Florida where southern magnolias decorated the landscape with bold silky white flowers. The magnolia of my childhood was a saucer magnolia, commonly known as a tulip tree, and it was just as lovely. In fact, there are more than 200 species of magnolias. Not only are they the essence of delicate beauty, they are also tenacious survivors, hence the term steel magnolias.
Fossilized specimens date back to 95 million years ago. Magnolias have adapted to changing geographical regions and climates, and some magnolias are thought to live up to 300 years. To avoid damage from pollination, the magnolia’s carpels are extremely strong and durable. A carpel, by the way, is the female part of the flower.
It was on Magnolia Avenue that I first learned lessons from my mother and her coterie of friends that have stayed with me until this day. They were, and still are, my steel magnolias. I still think of them as youthful middle-aged women, even though I am nearing sixty. They collectively taught me lessons I can only hope I passed on to my daughter and the thousands of young women who sat in my classroom.
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my hometown. On a drive through the old neighborhood, I was thrilled to see our magnolia tree was still there and just beginning to bud. Rooted at the base of that tree are lessons of my youth. It’s not too late to revisit them and renew my resolve to cultivate the traits of a steel magnolia.
Grace. Grace is defined as simple elegance, refinement of movement, and courteous goodwill. My mother and her friends are never tacky. They speak, dress, move, and act with a natural and simple elegance. More importantly, they treat others politely and with kindness.
Loyalty. Just as we could depend on our magnolia tree to bloom each spring, my mother and her friends could always count on each other. They’ve seen one another through good times and bad, sickness and health, sadness and celebration.
Dignity. Growing up, the kids in our neighborhood loved to climb trees, but we never climbed the magnolia tree. In hindsight, I suppose we respected it the way we respected the moms and older ladies who lived in our neighborhood. They garnered our deference by consistently behaving in an honorable, dignified manner.
Wisdom. The magnolia innately knows when and how to grow, bloom, and rest without advice from anyone. My mother and her friends not only ran households, but also managed companies, classrooms, committees, and campaigns. Perhaps it’s woman’s intuition or sage wisdom, but they’re smart chicks who never play dumb.
Beauty. Magnolia blossoms come in a myriad of colors and shapes, and each one is a beauty. Since I was a young girl, I’ve admired my mom and her friends’ attractiveness. They took pride in how they presented themselves, their homes, and their work. They had a special way of adding a dash of flair to everything they did.
Strength. A steel magnolia possesses an admirable combination of femininity and fortitude. Call her brave, plucky, resilient, intrepid, or one tough cookie, she has the strength of mind and spirit to endure pain and adversity with courage. As Annelle Dupuy Desoto resolutely said in the play, Steel Magnolias, “Miss Truvy, I promise that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.” §