Southern Lady Code: Essays

Southern Lady Code: Essays

by Helen Ellis

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"I loved it." —Ann Patchett 

The bestselling author of American Housewife ("Dark, deadpan and truly inventive." --The New York Times Book Review) is back with a fiercely funny collection of essays on marriage and manners, thank-you notes and three-ways, ghosts, gunshots, gynecology, and the Calgon-scented, onion-dipped, monogrammed art of living as a Southern Lady.

Helen Ellis has a mantra: "If you don't have something nice to say, say something not-so-nice in a nice way." Say "weathered" instead of "she looks like a cake left out in the rain." Say "early-developed" instead of "brace face and B cups." And for the love of Coke Salad, always say "Sorry you saw something that offended you" instead of "Get that stick out of your butt, Miss Prissy Pants." In these twenty-three raucous essays Ellis transforms herself into a dominatrix Donna Reed to save her marriage, inadvertently steals a $795 Burberry trench coat, witnesses a man fake his own death at a party, avoids a neck lift, and finds a black-tie gown that gives her the confidence of a drag queen. While she may have left her home in Alabama, married a New Yorker, forgotten how to drive, and abandoned the puffy headbands of her youth, Helen Ellis is clinging to her Southern accent like mayonnaise to white bread, and offering readers a hilarious, completely singular view on womanhood for both sides of the Mason-Dixon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385543903
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/16/2019
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 14,529
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

HELEN ELLIS is the author of American Housewife and Eating the Cheshire Cat. Raised in Alabama, she lives with her husband in New York City. You can find her on Twitter @WhatIDoAllDay and Instagram @American Housewife.

Read an Excerpt

Making a Marriage Magically Tidy

I have the reputation of living what Marie Kondo would call a “magically tidy” life. My tights are rolled like sushi, my tabletops are bare, my kitchen is so clean I could perform surgery in it. But I wasn’t always this way. When I was twenty-three, I left my New York City apartment with a panty liner stuck to my back.

Yes, it was used. Yes, earlier that day, I’d taken it off and tossed it onto my twin bed like a bear throws salmon bones onto a rock. Once it was there, I guess I forgot about it. It was probably camouflaged. I promise you there was other stuff on the bed. My bed used to look like a landfill.

Maybe I threw my coat over it and it stuck. And then I put my coat back on and rode a bus thirty blocks with a panty liner between my shoulder blades. No, nobody said a word. I didn’t know it was there until my date gave me a hug and then peeled it off like he was at a burlesque show in hell.

This was not the man I married.

The man I married walked into my apartment and found Pop-Tart crusts on my couch. I can still see his face, bewildered and big-eyed, pointing at the crusts as if to ask, “Do you see them too?”

I shrugged.

He sat on the sofa. It is my husband’s nature to accept me the way that I am.

My nature is to leave every cabinet and drawer open like a burglar. My superpower is balancing the most stuff on a bathroom sink. If I had my druthers, I’d let cat puke dry on a carpet so it’s easier to scrape up. If druthers were things, and I had a coupon for druthers, I’d stockpile them like Jell‑O because you never know when you might need some druthers.

My husband fell in love with a creative woman. “Cre­ative” is Southern Lady Code for slob.

But it is one thing to accept a slob for who she is; it is another to live with her.

A year into our marriage, my husband complained.

He said, “Would you mind keeping the dining room table clean? It’s the first thing I see when I come home.”

What I heard was: “I want a divorce.”

What I said was: “Do you want a divorce?”

“No,” he said. “I just want a clean table.”

I called my mother.

Mama asked, “What’s on the table?”

“Oh, everything. Whatever comes off my body when I come home. Shopping bags, food, coffee cups, mail. My coat.”

“Your coat?”

“So I don’t hang my coat in the closet—that makes me a terrible person? He knew who he was marrying. Why do I have to change?”

Mama said, “Helen Michelle, for heaven’s sake, this is a problem that can be easily solved. Do you know what other married women deal with? Drunks, cheaters, pov­erty, men married to their Atari.”

“Mama, there’s no such thing as Atari anymore.”

“Helen Michelle, some women would be beaten with a bag of oranges for sass talk like that. You married a saint. Clean the goddamned table.”

And so, to save my marriage, I taught myself to clean.

Not knowing where to start, I knelt before the TV at the Church of Joan Crawford, who said as Mildred Pierce, “Never leave one room without something for another.”

Yes, I’ll admit she had a temper, but she knew how to clean.

You scrub a floor on your hands and knees. You shake a can of Comet like a piggy bank. You hang your clothes in your closet a finger’s width apart. And no, you do not have wire hangers. Ever.

I have wooden hangers from the Container Store. They’re walnut and cost $7.99 for a pack of six. I bought the hangers online because stepping into the Container Store for me is like stepping into a crack den. See, you’re an addict trying to organize your crack, and they’re sell­ing you pretty boxes to put your crack in.

Pretty boxes are crack, so now you have more crack. But wooden hangers are okay. They’re like mimosas. Nobody’s going to OD on mimosas. Wooden hangers give you a boost of confidence. They make you feel rich and thin. They make a plain white shirt sexy. You promise yourself you’ll fill one closet, and then you’ll quit.

But I didn’t quit. To keep my buzz going, I asked my husband if I could clean his closet.

He asked, “What does that mean?”

I said, “Switch out your plastic hangers for wooden ones. What do you think I mean?”

“I don’t know, something new for Saturday night?” He did the air quotes: “Clean my closet.”

My new ways were so new he assumed I was making sexual advances. It’s understandable—so much dirty talk sounds so hygienic: salad spinning and putting a teabag on a saucer. It’s like Martha Stewart wrote Urban Dic­tionary.

My husband opened his closet door and stepped aside. The man trusts me. I rehung his closet with military pre­cision.

He said, “I never knew it could be this good.”

We kissed.

And then I relapsed.

I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it was leaving the Dutch oven to soak overnight. Maybe it was tee-peeing books on my desk like a bonfire. Maybe it was shucking my panties off like shoes. And then my coat fell off the dining room table. And I left it there because the cats were using it as a bed. There it stayed along with laundry, newspapers, restaurant leftovers (that never made it to the fridge), and Zappos returns.

My husband played hopscotch, never uttering a word of contempt, seemingly okay to coast on the memory of a pristine home as if it had been a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list thrill like white-water rafting or winning a Pulitzer. Sure, he could have put things away, but every closet except for his was bulging and breathing like a porthole to another dimension.

I scared myself straight by binge-watching Hoard­ers. What do you mean, that lady couldn’t claw her way through her grocery bag “collection” to give her hus­band CPR?

So I gave books I had read to libraries. Clothes I hadn’t worn in a year went to secondhand stores. I gave away the microwave because I can melt Velveeta on a stove.

And then came Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Or as I like to call it: “Surprise, You’re Still a Hoarder!”

Kondo’s big question is: Does it spark joy?

I took a harder look around my home and answered: Pretty boxes of novel manuscripts that were never pub­lished did not spark joy. Designer shoes I bought at sam­ple sales but never wore because they pinched my feet did not spark joy. My husband confessed that his inheritance of Greek doilies and paintings of fishing boats from his grandmother did not spark joy. So, out it all went.

And what is left is us. And my husband is happier. I’m happier, too. Turns out I like a tidy house. And I like cleaning.

Dusting is meditative. Boiling the fridge relieves PMS. Making the bed is my cardio, because to make a bed properly, you have to circle it like a shark. And all the while, I listen to audiobooks I would be too embarrassed to be caught reading. Not in the mood to clean a toilet? Listen to Naked Came the Stranger, and see if that doesn’t pass the time.

The downside is that my husband has created a mon­ster. I burn through paper towels like an arsonist. I joy­ride my vacuum—which has a headlight—in the dark.

And I don’t do it in pearls and a crinoline skirt. It’s not unusual for me to wear an apron over my pajamas.

I say, “Hey, it’s me or the apartment. We can’t both be pristine.”

Without hesitation, my husband will always choose the apartment.

Sometimes, I invite him to join in my efforts, offering him the most awful tasks as if I’m giving him a treat. I’ll say, “I’m going to let you scoop the cat box” or “I’m going to let you scrape the processed cheese out of the pan.”

My husband says, “You’re like a dominatrix Donna Reed.”

I say, “Take off your shirt and scrape the pan, dear.”

He takes off his shirt and scrapes the pan. In our more than twenty years together, my husband’s nature hasn’t changed.

Me, I’m a recovering slob. Every day I have to remind myself to put the moisturizer back in the medicine cabi­net, the cereal back in the cupboard, and the trash out before the can overflows. I have to remind myself to hang my coat in the closet.

And when I accomplish all of this, I really do feel like a magician. Because now, when my husband comes home, the first thing he sees is me.

Table of Contents

Making a Marriage Magically Tidy 1

The Topeka Three-Way 11

How to Stay Happily Married 19

Free to Be … You and Me (And Childfree) 23

A Room of One's Own (That's Full of Gay Men) 35

The Other Woman's Burberry Coat 49

Peggy Sue Got Marijuana 59

What Every Girl Should Learn from ABC's the Bachelor 69

The Ghost Experience 73

Party Foul 87

Today Was a Good Day! 99

Straighten Up and Fly Right 103

Halloween People 111

Tonight We're Gonna Party Like It's 1979 123

How to be the Best Guest 129

When to Write a Thank-You Note 135

An Emily Post for the Apocalypse 141

How I Watch Pornography Like a Lady 149

Dumb Boobs 159

Young Ladies, Listen to Me 169

Seven Things I'm Doing Instead of a Neck Lift 173

Serious Women 181

That Kind of Woman 195

Acknowledgments 201

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Southern Lady Code: Essays 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Hilariously honest essays about the life of a Southern Lady whether or not she's currently living in the South - don't drink your tea while reading or you just might accidentally snort it out your nose! I loved Helen's sense of humor and every one of these essays about everything from marriage to thank-you notes to three-ways - I can't recommend this enough!
TheLexingtonBookie More than 1 year ago
Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Books for providing this DRC in exchange for an honest review. As a southern transplant, when I saw this book, I knew I had to give it a read to educate myself better on the Southern Lady ways. I already picked up on a few things, including "Bless your heart" meaning, "you silly fool." When Doubleday approved my request, I squeaked with excitement, finished up a handful of books I was reading, and then dove right in. It took me two days to zip through Southern Lady Code, and I had to physically restrain myself from laughing out loud in public. Ellis was born and raised in Alabama, who then went on to attend college in Colorado before officially moving to NYC. Pulling lessons from her southern roots, she gives the reader a collection of short essays about how to respect the Southern Lady Code, and what the meaning behind certain terms and phrases translate to. As the cover of her book states: "Southern Lady Code: noun. A technique by which, if you don't have something nice to say, you say something not-so-nice in a nice way." I wish I could quote the plethora of additional phrases for you, as I highlighted and noted so many that made me laugh or nod in a "ah-ha!" way, but I'd be spoiling many of the chapters within. The stories she told surrounding those phrases were so honest and relatable, and more often than not, I found myself wanting to take notes so that I too could behave like a southern lady. Keeping the house spotless a-la Marie Kondo instead of being messy, or writing thank you notes for any occasion in which you wish to expect gratitude- those are things that abide The Code. Ellis writes in an effortlessly clever style, with charm and humor that makes the reader feel as if you were having a conversation. She sets up each chapter with a statement that pulls you in, then keeps you hanging on every word so as not to miss the punchline or the lesson of her statement. She's also very confessional in a subtle way, giving glimpses of her most private experiences. I admired that she didn't put on a facade to make herself seem like the perfect example of a Southern Lady, but outwardly admitted her faults and struggles, then revealed how she faced them. Ellis has created a new fan, and I am eager to get my hands on a copy of this book- not only to share with friends, but to flag up for inspiration on how to be a supportive friend, a "best guest" at events, and when to know how to splurge on an investment piece for my wardrobe... as well as use the proper vernacular in my Kentucky home. (This review will be posted on my blog on May 8, 2019 at
ody More than 1 year ago
This is an entertaining collection of funny essays by Helen Ellis written with wit and candor and touching on family and marriage. Having lived in the South for a couple of decades now, I found plenty to grin at and relate to. If you’re Southern or know someone who is, you’ll likely enjoy it too, or if you like sassy, slightly snarky humor. I enjoyed the style of humor.
Rachel Bennett More than 1 year ago
If I've said it once, I've said it a million times - any book that can make me laugh out loud immediately wins its place on my metaphorical shelf of books worth reading. Southern Lady Code is a short, snappy book full of hilarious essays by Helen Ellis about her life as a woman who grew up in the South. Interestingly enough, I'm not sure I would call this a "southern" work in the way that books by Joshilyn Jackson or William Faulkner are absolutely steeped in southern culture and setting. Ellis has spent a large part of her adult life in New York, and a lot of the stories are very "upper crust NYC" in their sensibilities. The title comes into play as she examines all of the different experiences she has in her life through the lens of this "code" that she learned from growing up in the south. The code is: in her own words - "a technique by which, if you don't have something nice to say, you say something not-so-nice in a nice way." As someone who has spent her whole life in the South, I can confirm that almost everything she says is true - it is (unfortunately) not some over-exaggeration of the characteristics of a "southern lady." Despite this, I don't think that someone would need to be from the south to enjoy this collection - I think it has something to appeal to all women, as it's really about life as a modern American woman. She holds absolutely nothing back, and shares anecdotes that will have you barking with laughter.