by Lonnye Sue Pearson
"Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me . . ."
The words to the old Stephen Foster song still ring in my ears more than forty years after I first learned it. I was in the fifth grade at Pearman Elementary School when our music teacher announced we would be part of a Stephen Foster pageant.
This would be a grand affair with the girls in antebellum dresses and the boys in old-fashioned suits or semi-Confederate uniforms. And this affair would be held on the high school football field in the spring at dusk. I could hardly wait!
We spent weeks and weeks preparing for the pageant . . . the closest event to a pilgrimage our little town had ever seen. We learned every Stephen Foster song ever written by the poor man . . . well, maybe not every song--he wrote 94--but we learned many of them.
"Oh, Susanna," "Camptown Races," "I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "My Old Kentucky Home," and "Way Down Upon the Swanee Ribber," to name a few. But "Beautiful Dreamer" is the one that stands out in my mind as the quintessential nineteenth century Foster tune.
Letters were sent to parents announcing the pageant. Those letters began a frenzied rush to locate anything that resembled nineteenth century memorabilia. We girls began the long, arduous task of looking for just the right dress, gloves, petticoats, bonnets and parasols. Mainly we just wanted to be sure we each looked as much like Scarlet O'Hara as we could. For some of us, that was a real stretch.
My grandmother, Miss Carrie, agreed to make the dresses for my cousin Linda Gail and me. I will never forget those costumes. They were identical except in color. Linda Gail's dress was yellow and mine was blue. Yards of light, airy dotted Swiss covered yards of organdy petticoats starched to perfection. An elasticized scoop neckline allowed the off-the-shoulder style, and the puffy sleeves stuffed with balls of organdy billowed around our arms. Wide satin ribbons encircled our waistlines and culminated in a big bow at the back.
Linda Gail and I were resplendent with Shirley Temple curls pulled to the sides of our heads and tied back with matching tiny satin ribbons. We wore white gloves--mine were white organdy, delicate and sheer with a slight flare at the wrist. Satin ballerina slippers completed the ensemble. I thought we looked magnificent--just like a pair of O'Hara girls readying ourselves for a summer bar-b-que.
When I arrived at the school for the pre-pageant warm up, my self-image fell. I witnessed friends in authentically designed nineteenth century gowns made of exotic fabric and covered in vintage lace. Beautiful moires, watered silks, satins and organdies covered in yards of ribbons and bows with scalloped hems swirled around layers of petticoats and pataloons!
And when Linda Gail arrived in an exact copy of my attire, the questions began.
"Did you know you and Linda Gail would be wearing identical dresses?"
"Did your grandmother make your dresses?"
"Where is your parasol?"
"Why aren't you wearing pantaloons?"
"Are those ballet slippers?"
"Why are your sleeves sagging?"
Eleven-year-old girls can be cruel. The longer the practice took, the farther my spirits fell. After an agonizing thirty minutes, we were told to line up with our partners and move from the music room to the football field. Dusk in the Delta had arrived.
I don’t remember who my partner was for the pageant. I just remember that he looked as much like a Southern gentleman planter as he could. He even wore gloves and carried a cane. I remember that he seemed very uncomfortable in his attire.
The pageant began with our slowly strolling onto the field arm in arm with our gentlemen escorts and singing one of Stephen Foster’s songs. We moved to our appointed spots and turned toward the bleachers to finish the first tune. My eyes searched and finally found my parents, brother and grandmothers.
Suddenly I felt beautiful again. There in the stands directly in front of me were the five people I loved most in the world. And they were looking right at me with pride. My brother pointed, my mother smiled and nodded, my father sat a little straighter and my grandmothers beamed.
I must look all right, I thought, because they’re pointing me out to their friends.
From that point on I sang with a smile and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Even the humming of the mosquitoes seemed a fitting backdrop as the sun slowly set on that warm Delta night in the spring of 1960.
I may not have been Scarlett, but, at the very least, I was Sue Ellen!
Lonnye Sue grew up in the deep, deep south--Bolivar County, Mississippi. She now lives in North Carolina, where she teaches English. Readers may contact her at LSPEARSON.
The Last Train
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