Southern Voice: Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne

This year marked the 30th anniversary of my favorite movie of all time: Steel Magnolias. Never has a movie so perfectly captured the South: its women, its men, its mores, and especially, its mother-daughter relationships. I mean just a simple conversation about tomatoes says a mouthful about the South. When Truvy, Claree, M’Lynn and Shelby ask Ouizer why she grows tomatoes if she won’t eat them, she replies:

“Because I’m an old Southern woman and we’re supposed to wear funny looking hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt. Don’t ask me those questions. I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules!”

To celebrate, theaters nationwide re-released Steel Magnolias for three nights only. I found out because Dolly Parton tweeted about it. And when Dolly Parton says go see the re-release of your favorite movie, you go.

And you take your mother, too.

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne | Image: Karen Kelly Photography

For those of you who have mothers who can go anywhere and do anything, that probably just sounds cute. And it was. But this was my mother’s first movie since she saw Steel Magnolias in theaters the first time.

It has been a very hard 30 years for her, full of hardships: she’s had two different kinds of cancer, multiple surgeries, lots of chemo and radiation, and narrowly escaped a devastating house fire with just a nightgown and one slipper. As if that wasn’t enough, the chemo destroyed the cartilage in her knees, and she can only walk about 40 steps a day, using a walker.

Just getting my mom into and out of the barbecue restaurant we ate at used up about all the steps she takes in a day. Then we had to get to the movie theater — and y’all know it was the furthest one from the entrance. My mother, a Steel Magnolia herself, refuses to use a wheelchair or scooter, despite desperately needing to. (Isn’t that the most Southern thing you’ve ever heard? “Here is something that would help you, give you more freedom.” “Why, no thank you. I don’t believe I will.”)

Finally settled, we sat next to each other in the dark. When the first scene of Annelle walking down Dogwood Lane came on and the opening score soared, my mother and I immediately started crying. We held hands for much of the movie, something we haven’t done in years.

Every time I watch Steel Magnolias, I am struck by a dissonance between what I remember the movie being about and what it is actually about. What I remember are the many, many hilarious lines, even though Robert Harling, the writer, recalled in a Garden and Gun interview that he hadn’t intended for many of the funniest lines to be jokes. The dialogue, the accents and the delivery are so on point you can’t help but laugh. But then, as I watch, I am bowled over by the heart-rending sadness at the core of it. Written originally as a play about the death of Harling’s sister, Susan, it was his attempt to make sure she was not forgotten. What was supposed to be a little play about his sister became the perfect Southern meditation on life and death.

Watching it now, as a mother myself, with my own mother beside me, I realized my relationship to the characters had changed. Previously, Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn, with her hair teased to look like a “brown football helmet,” seemed distant, angry, and overly worried to me. “You worry too much,” Shelby tells M’Lynn. “In fact, I never worry because I know you’re worrying enough for the both of us.” Shelby’s vivacious attitude and desire to seek joy in life no matter the danger resonated with me. Now, with four kids of my own, I can see both characters more clearly. I felt the loss of M’Lynn’s daughter all the more now that I have one. I felt for my mom, who hasn’t cried since the fire that burned down her and my father’s home, as she poured out buckets of tears there in the dark, right alongside M’Lynn.

Despite our tears, my mom and I walked out of the theater bickering, just like Shelby and M’Lynn. We argued over each other’s shoes, just like M’Lynn and Shelby over the church “hosed down with Pepto Bismol” and the large number of bridesmaids. (“It’s pretentious. And Daddy always says an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.” “Your father, the Poet Laureate of Dogwood Lane.”)  Even in the moment, I wished I could stop bickering, soften a little more, not color what was a really lovely experience with my mother.

But that’s what mothers and daughters do. Put two strong Southern women together, and that’s what’s going to come out. But behind all that bickering, all that tension, is the purest kind of love. Just after Shelby dies, M’Lynn tells her friends gathered around her in the graveyard, “I realize as a woman how lucky I was. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.”

Watching this movie beside my mother, I’m reminded that life requires us all to be Steel Magnolias: laughing at the good stuff (“take a whack at Ouizer!”) and strong in the face of the bad. I’m grateful to have had fictional Steel Magnolias like Truvy, Annelle, M’Lynn, Shelby, Claree and Ouizer, and real-life ones like my mother, to show me how it’s done.

After all, as the inimitable Dolly Parton tells us in her role as Truvy, a true Steel Magnolia, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne grew up reading, writing and shooting in East Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and was a finalist for the Ron Rash Award at the Broad River Review. Her debut novel, Holding On To Nothing, comes out in October. It’s available for pre-order HERE.

Holding on to Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne comes out in October.