All things bright and beautiful: the art of deportment

‘Okay girls,’ Miss Bright said, ‘Let’s begin with the way you sit.’ She towered over us, raised on a dais to one side of her desk and then lifted her chair without scraping the floor. She rested it gently into its new position. Next she straightened and placed herself between chair and desk.

On ballerina toes, her back ramrod straight, Miss Bright lowered her behind onto the seat and perched there on the edge as if she was ready to get up and leave at any minute. She looked uncomfortable but the expression on her face, a faint smile of tranquillity, never left her for one moment.

‘Now you try.’

Chairs scraped as twenty adolescent girls adjusted their seats beside their desks and each tried to tiptoe first then place their behinds neatly on the edge of their chair.

Miss Bright walked around the classroom, her stilettos clacking on the hard wood floors. 

‘That’s right,’ she said to Bernadette Tuohy. 

‘A little more centred,’ she said to Rosanna Tochetto. And every girl was seated in minutes in the same strained awkward pose.

Miss Bright worked for the Elly Lukas School of Deportment and visited because the nuns at our schools had decided we girls needed to learn better manners – ours was a convent for ladies after all. I should not have attended but a week before Miss Bright arrived, Mother Ursula spoke to me after class one afternoon. 

‘There’s a subsidised place to this course in deportment, and I think you should have it.’

I was flattered to be given the chance to join the other girls whose parents were prepared to pay extra money on top of school fees to enable us to learn how to become ladies.

I chafed at the idea that Mother Ursula might have offered me the place, not only because my family were too poor to afford it, but also because I needed this type of help more than most. My torn pinafore. Buttons missing from my blazer. My worn shoes. Deportment was all about appearances and appearances were not my forte.

Miss Bright’s classes ran for six weeks, a lesson each week for an hour during which she taught us the basic elements of sitting, walking, standing, and saying ‘hello’.

She taught us about personal hygiene, to use deodorants down below, preferably in spray form so that we might keep our bodies at their freshest best.

She taught us that we must prepare our wardrobe each evening before a major event and preferably for any day so that we did not waste precious time in the mornings on our dress. 

Being prepared was the essence of her bible. Prepared for whatever might lie ahead. Stockings darned. Shoes polished each night. Everything designed to look our best for when we would take our place in the world as the bright and shining secretaries of tomorrow.

From six weeks of classes there is not much I remember other than Miss Bright’s insistence we always look our best, even late in bed at night. All of it designed to keep our men happy. Our men who expected us to be like Stepford Wives, perfectly coiffed at all times, while able to cook excellent meals, clear dishes with minimal fuss, keep a tidy house, keep children quiet, well behaved and good mannered.

All of this with the aim of keeping the man in our lives happy and satisfied. Unharried in his important work in the outside world where he needed his wife to be an attribute. 

Is this where the idea of Trophy Wife or the wife as handbag came into being?  The wife as handbag. Husband as handbag. Partner as an extra limb on our bodies to give the impression we have it all.

The nuns and the deportment school never taught us this.

On the feminine

Last night in my dreams my mother had another baby, a tiny boy whom she cradled on her lap and referred to with the feminine pronoun in the way my mother often gave the feminine pronoun to objects. 

‘She is heavy,’ she said when it came to lifting a pot full of spilt peas before the water had been steamed off, or ‘she has a leak in the roof’, when she talked about our house.

Most objects were feminine. And her choice of whether objects should be feminine, or masculine seemed as random as when I learned French and could not remember which words took the feminine article and which not. 

My mother in my dream was sixty-six years old, too old to have babies but somehow she managed. Her tenth living child and she was proud of this baby and delighted to re-enter the early phases of motherhood again. 

My father was in my dream too, the two of them seated outside on a bench after I had taken my ping pong ball and begun to bounce it around the concreted back yard of a neighbour’s house. 

I did not know my neighbours and at first I was hesitant to play in this prohibited territory but one of the neighbour’s sons came out and we talked.

Soon after his brother, an older boy, also in year eleven like me in the dream, exchanged ideas about our subjects at school. This family was foreign from Poland or Czechoslovakia and foreign smells wafted under their door. 

In time other members of the family rocked up and by now I was no longer shy. The sons made me welcome and the mother when she came along, also nursing a baby, seemed curious about me but not hostile at this interloper. 

I told them about my mother’s baby. How my sisters and I were disappointed this baby was not a girl. Now top heavy with boys. 

This stuff about gender dogs me everywhere I go. The way delightful boys can grow into rageful and devouring men who swallow pornography as though it’s popcorn and think nothing of the way some people who produce the porn portray women as willing subjects, keen to be abused in whatever way the masculine fantasy runs.

Pornography feeds the fantasy of men as strong and in control, even when they too can feel small, fearful, and inadequate.

I am too close to the surface of this writing, too top heavy with the weight of pain that ripples through my veins like a poison.

When I found The Truth newspaper discarded in the laundry after my father had finished reading it, with pictures of topless women and huge engulfing breasts on the front page, I shuddered.

Like the calendars in the mechanic’s garage where my father left his car for repairs. There among the oil stains and greasy fingered workers with their dark overalls and tousled hair, the men whose fingernails were blacker than mine, attached bare breasted women to the calendars that hung off the walls near the cash register as though these naked women were somehow part of the process of repairing cars.

In much the same way as the beautiful but at least clothed, albeit scantily women draped their bodies over the shiny hoods of brand-new cars advertised on the television. 

And this the world into which I was born. A world where women were demeaned as sexual objects. And today it continues.