An Unlikely Debutante
Me. I was the unlikely debutante — I am the unlikely debutante. But “once a deb, always a deb” is a badge of honor I tote proudly. I tote it a bit tongue-in-cheek, and quite fondly when I think back to my debutante days 23 years ago that meant so much to my family. It was an experience that offered unlikely joy, at least for a skeptical Meredith College girl who is a native of Rocky Mount and daughter of a lovely couple originally from Ohio. A debutante with roots in Ohio? How could this be?
In just a few weeks, the Terpsichorean Club of Raleigh will send invitations to a couple of hundred young women who are freshmen in college. Their presence will be requested for the 91st North Carolina Debutante Ball in September 2017, always held the weekend following Labor Day. Entire families attend the ball and fill up hotels in downtown Raleigh during this formal presentation of young ladies over a long weekend that includes cocktail parties, brunches, dinners and dances, as well as months of parties prior to the official “Deb Ball.” Daughters issue their own invitations, too. Escorts, aka marshals, are asked to play the part of dutiful date over four whirlwind days.
I received my engraved invitation secondhand from my mother in early May 1994 and, as she shared with me over the phone, my dad had been waiting. That was all it took for my decision. My dad. I knew even then that the invitation had far more to do with him than me. He and my mother and brother settled in North Carolina a few years before my birth, and my mother has always proudly touted me as “our Southerner.” Perhaps the social circles that had evaded them would open for me, but there was more to it than that.
It had been a hard few years for my family. My brother, who had been a debutante marshal five years before, was gone after that lovely summer. Cancer struck quickly, and at 19 his beautiful life ended and my parents and I were left to pick up the pieces. If making my debut would uplift my mom and dad, I was happy to oblige. They had attended the deb ball for the young lady whom my brother escorted and I remember their palpable joy. It was a weekend with their son that would never come again.
And so, I accepted the invitation for all of us. It was more fun than I could have imagined. Parties all over eastern North Carolina that summer, meeting folks from around the state — and that deb weekend? Well, I remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, joy had come to our family once again.
Sallie Allen, a 2016 debutante, expresses thoughts that nearly mirrored my own from 20 years ago.
“One of my favorite parts about being a deb was the way it honored my family,” she says.
Her paternal grandmother wore the hat first in their family and the meaning of tradition was not lost on Sallie. Her mother, Carol Allen, said of her three-time experience (she has three daughters) that it was about connecting with old friends and family time.
I remember so perfectly the father-daughter brunch at the Angus Barn. My dad and rode in a convertible back to our hotel and the sky was a lovely blue. We celebrated the fact that it was our first fine dining experience alone, as father and daughter.
Like us, Carol and Sallie didn’t rush out and purchase a whole new wardrobe. She also wore a secondhand deb dress. This perspective follows me all these years later in ways I could not have foretold.
Quite out of the blue, I began a blog a year and a half ago and was quite taken with the name for it that rolled mischievously off my tongue: “Tales of an Educated Debutante.” I still consider myself an unlikely debutante — a North Carolinian only by birthplace, not bloodline — but also a girl who hopes she has brought a smile to the establishment that gave her a chance and made one family smile again.
Adrian H. Wood, Ph.D., is a North Carolina writer who lives in Edenton with her husband and four children, the youngest of whom who has extra-special needs. Read more of her writing at talesofaneducateddebutante.com.
Photos: Adrian and her dad (top), Adrian's brother (right middle), Adrian in her ball gown (left middle) and Adrian's Debutante Ball invitation (bottom).