By Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler
Wilmington, North Carolina
No matter how much it pains Mom and Dad to admit, I am a born Southerner.
My parents were the first and last to properly leave New Jersey, save for a wayward great-aunt who recognized that access to decent Italian food wasn’t enough of an incentive to keep fighting though winters that lasted well into spring. She set up residence in the town of my birth, and coaxed my parents down the coast with a promise of lower property taxes. They moved, with no real expectation that they would hang around for longer than a decade, maybe two. They were spectators, not residents. I therefore developed a secondhand sense of displacement, exacerbated by our frequent trips back to the promised land. I defended fiercely whatever lay north of the Mason-Dixon to my classmates. I lamented the lack of real bagels and the fact that we seemed to be the only family I knew that owned a menorah.
When spring came each year, I knew from the azalea flowers. The petals fanned out into church bells, slightly puckered, the hues ranging from soft pink to shocking magenta. They always seemed to arrive too early or too late — certainly never on time for the festival hosted locally in their honor. They are not, as the fervor suggested, a strictly Southern flower. But there was something about the colors, juxtaposed with the scraggly pines and wide oaks, that invoked plantation living. Yearly the town dedicated a weekend to calling forth the self-proclaimed landed gentry of the Southeast. The whole affair was punctuated by using local high schoolers as living lawn ornaments.
These were the Azalea Belles.
In retrospect, most of my high school experiences make me cringe. But my tenure as a Belle takes the cake. I had not grown up with fantasies of role-playing the antebellum period. When the flyers appeared in school hallways seeking “ladies of esteem,” I largely ignored them. The description given was scant, for good reason. If you were the type of lady they were looking for, you were meant to know. The ads appeared next in the local paper, and when the deadline began to creep up, my mother asked me, jokingly, if I planned to apply.
“It’s a bunch of rich kids re-enacting the Civil War, I’m pretty sure.”
“Right,” she replied. “I just figured all your friends would be doing it.”
She wasn’t wrong. My friends were doing it — the wealthy, white, blissfully genteel friends. My father chimed in, laughing, from the other room, “Don’t use your real last name, just to be safe. I doubt they take Jews.” He made a fair point.
To tell this story honestly, it’s important to note, as is obvious, that even toying with the idea of participating in a festival that celebrates such an era is a perverse privilege — one I did not reconcile with at the time. I didn’t think critically about what racist and classist tropes the whole event perpetuated, because I had room for disconnection afforded to me by my skin color. My excuses were flimsy even then: that the granddaughter of one of the dressmakers begged me to apply, because she felt uncomfortable with the process and wanted a friend to accompany her to fittings; that the little girl I babysat wanted me to dress up for her princess-themed birthday; that my father’s business was being roped into providing goods for the festival, and didn’t he have a daughter in the right age range?
Now, five years out, all I can say is the Belle program continues to enable the worst of femininity, of whiteness, and of Southern stereotypes, wrapped in an oversized, pastel, dress ribbon. The rest, as Rabbi Hillel once said, is commentary.
I was called first to interview at the house of one of the Cape Fear Garden Club members, in a neighborhood I had never driven through, where magnolias really did line the street. I was asked what virtues I would bring to sitting silently in a garden (“Oh, uh...patience?”). When a letter came in the mail a few weeks later telling me to report the local country club in a fortnight for something called Belle Boot Camp, my parents were mortified.
“They don’t have any Jewish members in that country club still, I don’t think, just so you’re aware,” Dad offered unhelpfully. “Maybe you were their attempt at a diversity pick.”
At the orientation, we were reminded to be on show, as ambassadors for the festival. We were to sit in approved poses and forgo tardiness, gum chewing, and tearing the dresses. I was admittedly fascinated by the nuts and bolts of the clothing: Each Belle was assigned to one of the dressmakers, to pick from the hundreds of gowns made and maintained by hand. Naturally, mine was the oldest and fussiest of the bunch. I visited her on a Tuesday evening in March, and found myself being asked to strip and stand on a precarious stool in the middle of her living room, with all the windows facing the street left completely open. The entirety of the room was decorated in “Gone With the Wind” memorabilia, growing my discomfort by the minute. She hemmed and hawed her way around the room, occasionally throwing a tape measure across random limbs and reminding me to cover my breasts from her view (though I was wearing a bra).
“I don’t want to see any bits,” she huffed, bending to measure my ankles. Finally, after nearly half an hour, she straightened as much as her back would allow.
“What dress size are you normally?”
She led me out to an enormous shed in her backyard, softly chanting, “two, two, two,” to aid her memory as we went. The doors to the shed were thrown open, a light switch flipped. Light flooded the shed, illuminating rows and rows of honest-to-god antebellum dresses, each more intricate than the last. Pointing me in the direction of the rack that held my size, she asked me to pick. This was admittedly less intimate than I’d previously imagined — but behind me, a foot tapped impatiently. I pointed vaguely in the direction of a powder-blue gown that reminded me of Chapel Hill’s colors (go Heels), and off we trundled back to her living room, carrying the gown above our heads like an offering.
Everything happened rather quickly after that. I was sent garden assignments, a series of three to rotate through from Friday to Sunday of the festival. I learned to tie myself into the hoopskirt, a task more difficult than initially suspected. I transformed into a floating, overstuffed, blue cake, barely able to fit in the backseat of my mother’s sedan for transport. She drove me to each location, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter as we went. At my first garden, I was led by the homeowner to their oversized hammock. The wife arranged me, lifting the dress and bottom hoop in one fluid movement while her daughter helped me get my legs onto the stretched fabric.
“There,” she sighed. “Perfect. Now, don’t move.” Sure.
There were other Belles around — usually four or five, depending on the size of the garden in question — but we were discouraged from talking while “on duty.” Occasionally, we’d wave to each other, a silent look shared that signaled we weren’t alone in our quiet, chosen hell. Over the course of that weekend, I fended off lingering glances, wholly unsubtle, sloppy flirting, and occasionally downright lewd commentary from interchangeable drunken men, trying to have a little fun despite the indignity of being dragged on a garden tour by their blonde, seersucker wives.
“You’re the prettiest flower in this garden,” one man memorably slurred in my ear. “I’d pick you, if you weren’t so young.”
I was delightfully miserable with my choice, stewing in my own sweat and realization that regardless of whatever justification I had given myself before, I did not belong in this garden, this festival, or this tradition. There was no one to complain to, though — and rightfully so. I’d done this, all of it. Occasionally, little girls, tramping through the gardens with their parents, would ask to take a picture with me. That mitigated the accumulated sense of dread, if only for a moment. In someone’s vacation photos from 2013, you might find me, a smile frozen, arranged in front of a lovely azalea bush.
In the end, my parents got some good photos out of it. My mother made prints, but never showed them to anyone, lest they think we had suddenly warmed to the Confederacy. The dress was returned with little fanfare and nary a rip or tear. The azaleas died, slowly, yellowing as their ends withered brown before dropping off the bushes entirely. I graduated high school and moved on — only to find myself explaining the entire concept to a date over drinks during my senior year of undergrad.
“People still do that?” he asked, his jaw now located somewhere on the floor next to the couple one table over.
I started to rattle over my old excuses (now a graduating gender studies major, I was even more mortified by my previous gig). He stopped me — pausing first to laugh — before noting seriously, “What does it say that this still exists?”
Of course, we both knew. There isn’t room for romanticizing. I could omit that experience from my life story — but that would be indirect, silent approval. Instead of celebrating the thousands of people who lived lives both big and small in the area, who fought segregation, enslavement, and religious persecution, each spring a hundred young women down on the southeast coast of North Carolina fold themselves into crinoline and lace. The flowers have nothing to do with it.