The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - AWW

in­side her pri­vate world

She’s an award-win­ning ac­tress, an ac­claimed pro­ducer and an en­trepreneur, but at her roots Reese Wither­spoon re­mains a proud South­ern Belle. In this ex­clu­sive ex­tract from her book Whiskey in a Teacup she talks love, life and why she’ll never wear sweat­pants on a plane.

In my late 20s, I found my­self fac­ing some hard choices. I’d en­joyed a great deal of suc­cess in movies, but per­son­ally, I was at a cross­roads. I didn’t know where I was go­ing to nd the strength to pick a path. One par­tic­u­larly rough day, I found my­self look­ing out at a room full of men who were ask­ing me about a de­ci­sion that needed to be made. One of them said: “How do you want to han­dle this?” I paused to think. Then sud­denly a light went on. I sat up straight, lifted my chin, and said, “Well, I’m a lady, and I’m go­ing to han­dle it like a lady.” Where did that voice come from? I won­dered.

I’d never said those words out loud be­fore. (Men in that room told me they’d never heard any­one say them be­fore, ei­ther!) But in my voice that day, I heard all the women I knew grow­ing up in the south – women for whom be­ing a south­ern lady was a source of con dence and strength in times of trial and a source of joy in good times.

On that day, I es­pe­cially heard the voice of my grand­mother Dorothea. Dorothea was smart, am­bi­tious and brave. She had a de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion from Ten­nessee Tech and a master’s from Pe­abody Col­lege at Van­der­bilt Univer­sity, one of the rst such de­grees ever earned there by a woman. A rm be­liever in women’s rights and civil rights,

Dorothea had a bril­liant aca­demic mind and she dreamed of trav­el­ling the world. But be­cause of the times, she found her choices lim­ited and ended up be­com­ing a rst-grade teacher at a lo­cal school. She never did get to see the world as she’d hoped.

Still, she main­tained ex­quis­ite poise through­out her life, op­posed in­jus­tice wher­ever she found it, and com­manded ev­ery­one’s es­teem and at­ten­tion – es­pe­cially mine. She was at once tough and beau­ti­ful. She could make you feel in nitely wel­come but also let you know when you’d pushed her too far. She was im­pec­ca­bly mannered, but she loved to see a whole mess of neigh­bours, their kids and ran­dom pets tear­ing across the lawn. To me, she was the epit­ome of south­ern wom­an­hood.

Dorothea al­ways said that it was a com­bi­na­tion of beauty and strength that made south­ern women “whiskey in a teacup”. We may be del­i­cate and or­na­men­tal on the out­side, she said, but in­side we’re strong and ery. Our fa­mous hos­pi­tal­ity isn’t mar­tyr­dom; it’s mod­el­ling. True south­ern women treat ev­ery­one the way we want to be treated: with grace and re­spect – no mat­ter where they come from or how dif­fer­ent from you they may be. Dorothea taught me to never abide cru­elty or in­jus­tice. The Golden Rule, she said, ap­plies to ev­ery­one.

When I was a lit­tle girl in pig­tails and Coke-bot­tle glasses, lis­ten­ing to Dolly Par­ton cas­sette tapes and watch­ing 90210 and De­sign­ing Women, I imag­ined that when I one day left the South, I would see the world and do im­por­tant things.

When I told a teacher that I as­pired to be the rst woman pres­i­dent, she said, “I’ll be the rst one to vote for you, Reesey!”

Well, I didn’t be­come pres­i­dent

(nor, alas, did I achieve an­other early goal: mar­ry­ing Wil­lie Nel­son), but

I did be­come pres­i­dent of a pro­duc­tion com­pany that makes movies and TV shows with strong fe­male char­ac­ters. And I have trav­elled all around the world, to places I never dreamed I’d go. In a lot of ways, I’m liv­ing out my grand­mother’s dreams. She couldn’t do so many of the things I get to do, so I don’t take th­ese op­por­tu­ni­ties for granted for one sec­ond. And I do ev­ery­thing I can to make sure those op­por­tu­ni­ties and more are there for my daugh­ter and for other young women.

Hot roller s, re d lip­stick an d st eel mag­no­lias

Like a lot of women in the South,

I love dress­ing up. I launched my cloth­ing com­pany, Draper James, be­cause no one else seemed to be mak­ing the sorts of af­ford­able, sim­ple, pretty dresses I like to wear day to day. Also, I didn’t re­ally see any­body talk­ing much about south­ern women or ap­pre­ci­at­ing their sense of style.

That said, if you went back to my el­e­men­tary-school class and told them I’d be­come in­volved in the fash­ion world in any way, shape, or form, they’d laugh you out of the room. I dis­cov­ered fash­ion late. When I was grow­ing up, my mum was a nurse and had nei­ther the time nor the tem­per­a­ment for fash­ion. And I think she liked see­ing me have the free­dom to run wild out­side with the boys.

That meant that I grew up as a tomboy, wear­ing my brother’s hand-me-down shirts and tube socks. I was not ex­actly fash­ion-for­ward.

Well, my grandma Dorothea had some­thing to say about that. Day to day, my mother’s non­cha­lance reigned, but twice a year, my grand­mother would step in and take me shop­ping

at the fancy, fam­ily-owned de­part­ment stores down on Fourth Av­enue in Nashville. We would make a day of it, and she would let me pick out three out ts, in­clud­ing a “Christ­mas dress” and a “spring dress”, of­ten in dainty prints and pas­tels, with puffed sleeves and smock­ing. (It would al­ways look great with the or­chid or gar­de­nia cor­sages my dad would get for me, my mum and my grand­mother to wear for Mother’s Day and to Easter par­ties.) We also bought match­ing sad­dle shoes or Mary Janes.

Shop­ping with Dorothea was a thrill. I came away with per­fect, ele­gant new clothes, and the stores were such a plea­sure to shop in. In the weeks lead­ing up to Easter, one de­part­ment store, called McClure’s, dis­played real live bunny rab­bits you could pet. Dur­ing Christ­mas, it had a model train and served spiced tea and hot choco­late. But I loved those shop­ping trips most of all be­cause they meant time learn­ing from Dorothea.

Dorothea said that pre­sent­ing your­self well is a way to show oth­ers you care about them. My grand­mother did the work of teach­ing me about clothes and tak­ing me shop­ping, so she ex­pected me to be dressed ap­pro­pri­ately when we went out to see a show. And if you’re a lit­tle girl go­ing to The Nutcracker or the sym­phony with your grand­mother, you’d best put on some white tights and white Mary Janes. To this day, I have the voice of my grandma in my head. If I’m go­ing to the theatre and am tempted to wear jeans, there she is, say­ing, “But it’s the theatre.” And I change.

Poor Dorothea would not be happy to see how many peo­ple travel in ath­let­icwear th­ese days. “You don’t wear sweat­pants on an aero­plane,” she used to say. “It’s a priv­i­lege to y. Make sure you wear a nice out t.” I guess she is why I have a real men­tal block about wear­ing work­out wear all day long. I just don’t do it. I think you gotta get up, you gotta work out and then you gotta get dressed in a real, proper out t by 10 o’clock in the morn­ing.

I would never judge any­one for do­ing oth­er­wise. But if I did it my­self, I just know my grand­mother would haunt me with that line she al­ways said, “Only wear sweat­pants when you’re sup­posed to be sweat­ing.”

The fam­ily ta ble

Th­ese days, I feel as though I can barely sit still for 10 min­utes with­out get­ting antsy. A lot of friends my age have the same is­sue: we’re al­ways look­ing at our watches half­way through a play or star­ing im­pa­tiently at the clock when we’re wait­ing in line at the bank.

What’s go­ing on with us? I used to be able to wait, or make it through a whole movie with­out want­ing to check my phone or run around the block. For a while, I thought I was just get­ting older and bat­tier, but now I think it’s due to some com­bi­na­tion of our faster pace of life, the on­slaught of tech­nol­ogy, and the feel­ing that there’s so much to do that there’s no time to waste.

Fam­ily din­ner is my only sal­va­tion from this af ic­tion. We put all the de­vices away. I put some hot food on the ta­ble. We say grace. It’s re­ally im­por­tant to me for us to ap­pre­ci­ate that we have very blessed lives and should be grate­ful ev­ery sec­ond of the day for all of our bless­ings. Grace is a time to raise the kids’ aware­ness that we must take care of oth­ers who are not as for­tu­nate and to re­mind them to think of the big pic­ture. For as long as we’re at the ta­ble, the rest of the world melts away. My kids love it when I make sim­ple one-pot meals such as chilli or pot roast. Or noo­dles with ground tur­key and veg­eta­bles. Some­times I’ll go all out and do fried chicken and sides.

After say­ing grace, as we eat, we’ll each talk about our day’s high­lights. It’s our lit­tle ve-year-old, Ten­nessee’s, favourite thing to do. Some peo­ple I know call this din­ner game “Roses and Thorns”: you have to say the best thing (the rose) of your day and the worst thing (the thorn). It’s a good way to get out of the “How was school?” “Fine” rut.

Also over din­ner, we might play a guess­ing game where one of us thinks of an an­i­mal and the oth­ers have to ask ques­tions about where it lives. It’s a re­ally good game with lit­tle kids. And they get ex­cited be­cause it feels very grown-up and so­phis­ti­cated to be play­ing a game with peo­ple of all ages. Each per­son can ask only one ques­tion about the an­i­mal to try to gure it out. My mid­dle child thinks of things that are so hard that no­body can guess them. But it’s re­ally sweet to see the ve-year-old try­ing to gure it out, so se­ri­ous: “Is it … an ele­phant? Is it … a kit­ten?”

Dea­con: “Close. It’s a North Amer­i­can mar­mot.”

When Jim and the kids and I are sit­ting there eat­ing and laugh­ing, I of­ten ash back to fam­ily meals with my grand­par­ents, which we’d of­ten eat out on the screened-in porch, com­plete with sound­track of the screen door’s spring stretch­ing fol­lowed by the whap­ping sound the door made as it slammed. Adults would sip drinks on the porch be­fore din­ner and watch the sun go down as the kids played out­side, lling jars with re ies. I like to think my kids will look back on our din­ners this way, how we talked and laughed together over plates of good, lling food – but even more ful lling conversation.

My grand­par­ents loved our sto­ries, hang­ing on ev­ery word and de­tail. We felt ap­pre­ci­ated and im­por­tant, as though our opin­ions mat­tered. My mother laughed loud­est at all my jokes – so I al­ways blame her for mak­ing me be­come an ac­tor.

She egged me on, which made me feel even bolder. Her laugh gave me courage. She has the best laugh in the world.

Whisky in a Teacup by Reese Wither­spoon, pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter, RRP $45, avail­able from Oc­to­ber 1, 2018.

Reese cred­its her grand­mother Dorothea (above) with in­still­ing many of her most en­dur­ing life lessons.

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