Our state has generated a long history of remarkable women and seventh-generation Texan Rawlins Gilliland says they’ve fascinated him throughout his life.
In 1957, I spotted the famous Dallas tornado trotting a beeline toward our home. As Dad shouted escape orders from the car, my teenage older sister Ann became a brunette burro, refusing to budge because her wet hair was in curlers. So we left without her. Of course, like any kid brother worth assault, I hoped she’d be carried away in the swirling storm like in The Wizard of Oz. But, when we returned, she was perched on the porch in an April sundress, her hair freshly combed out saying "the breeze helped it dry." Demonstrating how diehard Texas girls can eclipse any blowhard to take the town by storm.
Vintage Texas females have always been a unique force of nature, seldom blowing with any prevailing winds. Witness my mother, who eloped with dad in 1936 but was hauled back to Dallas for a face-saving society wedding. To trump this parental move, she had the formal gown chosen in her absence dyed claret red. Growing up, I loved eavesdropping on Mother’s conversations with other strong-willed, original- thinking Texas women, many of them fellow working professionals. It positioned me well to enjoy a modern world where canny female rebels with a cause have come to access positions of authority and power.
Classic Texas women of that era have always spoken slowly but thought faster than anything ejected from a bull shoot. Growing up, it was a metaphorical Masters Class, conversing with them. Dad’s sister Blanche, born in 1898, once told me that her overbearing sister Ruth Mae was a “bossy cow not worth killing because she’s too old to eat”. What about a brilliant journalist colleague of Mother’s who complained during the 1950s drought: “All this lightning and thunder with absolutely no rain reminds me of when I dated that missionary”. I always regarded this indigenous audio buffet as prototype food for thought masquerading as regional puff pastries.
My great fortune was engaging the late Texas Governor Ann Richards when I managed a couture department in the early 1990s. Reviewing cocktail apparel for upcoming events, I recalled Mother advising her younger friend Gwynne to chose a "hateful dress". Governor Richards laughed, rearing her white cotton candy hair helmet.
“How,” she asked, “Did your mother define a ‘hateful’ dress?”
I answered: “Something so ruthlessly good-looking that it neutralizes hapless enemies and attracts helpless allies”.
Richards roared: “Honey, that sounds like Jack Daniels.”
On the flip side, a trophy bride of Frankenstein bellowed in that same salon that the "worst experience" of her life was at a private dinner in Paris when her gown’s shoulder pad became dislodged. Reminding us that for every deep-dish trailblazer like Barbara Jordan who articulates the good fight, there’s an Anna Nicole Smith pop tart whose unspoken weapon of choice is a surgically enhanced war chest. But all restless native Texan women I’ve known and loved since my youth have much in common: They’ve spoken their iconic Texas states of mind in a dialect all their own. And they’re an increasingly rare and memorable dying breed.
Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.