As a high school senior, I traveled to Chicago for a national forensics competition (speech and drama, not CSI). The only thing I remember about the other contestants was that a guy from Kansas asked where I was from. His response upon learning I was from Mississippi was to say, “Wow, and you’re wearing shoes and everything!” What I meant to say was, “Well, your regional biases are not going to get you far in life. Diversity is what makes this country great.” Instead, what came out was, “Listen up, hayseed, you’re from Kansas. You’ve got no business looking down your corn-fed nose at anyone.”
It’s not that I’ve never understood being from the South was going to set me up to be the punch line of a joke or two. It’s that it’s always fascinated me people still insist on making these jokes. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand Southerners are an endless font of material, but it’s like someone saying something about my mama. It’s okay if I do it. If you do, we’re going to have a come to Jesus. I get there’s plenty of history to use to pick on us. And that’s sort of the problem. It’s history. Not a lot of the jokes I hear are relevant. Or funny.
Talk Southern For Me
Let me tell you something, I love a regional accent. Love it. And I happen to love a Southern accent most of all. See, speaking Southern is a little like speaking Mandarin Chinese. It’s all in the tones, the emphasis, and the inflections. Sentences totally change meaning with a shift in emphasis. And we don’t like to use our articulators. If you walk into a room of Mississippi Rotarians, you might as well be walking into a room of professional ventriloquists. And you can make fun of y’all and fixin’ to and bless her heart all you want. If I’m in a particularly good mood, I’ll not mention that I happen to think thick Wisconsin accents sound like cars cranking on cold days. Or ask what the “t” has ever done to Philadelphia that you want to make it sound like a “d”.
Having said that, you must understand there is no one Southern accent. People from Mississippi speak as if wading through honey. Virginians put an almost Canadian twist to words like “about”. Georgians speak though mouths full of sweet peaches. And a Louisiana accent can range from Bostonesque with a little French thrown in down south to tumbleweed twang in the north. Those vampires on HBO? Some of them have good accents, but none speaks Louisiana. Well, that one guy did, but they killed him off for being a demon. You’d have to be a demon to get a Louisiana accent right. It is nigh impossible to replicate.
We have a tendency to sound as if we’re, well, slow. I mean mentally slow. We do this for a reason. It’s so we can suss out those interesting people not from here. Should you not be willing to sit, have a coldbeer (Yes, that’s one word and it’s pronounced colebeer. Coldbeer is totally different from beer. If you do not understand this, I do not know how I can explain it to you, but I will pray for your soul) or an iced tea–depending on your affiliation—and discuss the ins and outs of Southern politics, Nicomachean Ethics, or SEC football; then we will politely restrain our comments to that of the weather, our child’s tap recital, or SEC football. We’re sly. As I’ve said before, that Memphis man may sound like a good ol’ boy, but he’s a good ol’ boy who can quote Homer. And I don’t mean Simpson.
A Southerner and a Brit can sit for HOURS and entertain each other endlessly by listening to the other speak. The only time there will be conflict is if either refers to the other’s manner of speaking as accented. Although they will both agree, one’s idioms are the first thing to give away status. Just as a posh Brit will never end a sentence with innit, a well-bred Southerner will never say classy. Margaret Thatcher said being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to say you are, you aren’t. Classy follows the same rules. It is true that if someone describes a restaurant as classy, I immediately assume it is decorated with fake Victorian furniture and red shag carpet or that the wine glasses have black stems. Which brings me to my next point.
Yes, We Can Be Snobby
Recently a friend was saying that she had read an article which talked about the correct way to hold a handbag based on what sort of strap it has. Our other friend thought this was absolute poppycock. I sort of like it. Some rules are good and some rules are ridiculous, yes. For example, the best fashion advice I ever got was from my very stylish grandmother who told me to dress for the weather not for the season. In Memphis, this means I can wear linen though September and sometimes into October. I take any opportunity to wear a fabric which resists ironing like a five-year-old boy resists a bath. Yes, some still think it’s inappropriate to wear white after Labor Day. I find that rule ridiculous. Winter white wool trousers with a pastel cashmere sweater is a look for anyone. Now, white shoes after Labor Day? No, not unless you are a nurse or you are on your way to the gym. As a general rule, anyone over the age of twelve should eschew white shoes. Unless, of course, your work requires use of a pole.
I don’t like engagement pictures that are anything other than a head shot of the bride-to-be. I’ve seen some really great pictures, sure, but good Lord. If I see one more picture of the Happy Couple standing forehead to forehead in front of a rustic brick wall, I will go bat shit crazy. And while I firmly believe this whole “save the date” phenomenon is somehow inspired by Lucifer, I am perfectly willing to accept that he probably inspired someone Southern to invent it. Weddings are very Southern.
Southerners own many forks and they are used for very specific purposes. I believe mine may be the first generation of Southern women not to have a fish fork on the wedding registry. There are dinner forks, luncheon forks, salad forks, cold meat forks, pierced forks, bird forks, baked potato forks, bacon forks, baby forks, asparagus serving forks, butter picks, cake forks, and I could go on. Really, I could. When you are from the South, you understand there is no mystery to a table place setting. One simply starts from the outside and works one’s way in. We know it’s more important to keep forearms off the table than elbows. We know to leave our napkin on the chair if we must get up during the meal, but it is placed on the table once we leave. Young children are routinely given engraved calling cards and thank you notes and GOD FORBID you send a thank you note with the words “thank you” printed on the front. Your mother will never live it down.
I don’t see any of this as unnecessary or antiquated. Well, antiquated, maybe. But I like having a few rules to follow to see that things go smoothly. Remember the Cold War? Remember how you woke up every morning knowing exactly who your enemies were? Those Godless Soviet Commie Bastards? Knowing a berry spoon from a bonbon spoon gives me the same feeling. I can’t control much, but by God, I can make sure your berries are spooned efficiently.
In my house, you will say please and thank you.
I got into a bit of a row recently with someone, Southern born, who does not want her children using “ma’am” and “sir” because it is demeaning. That’s horseshit, hoss. Horseshit. It’s polite. It’s like holding the door open for someone. It doesn’t matter if you hold the door open for man, woman, or child. It’s just polite. And I happen to think, in this case anyway, the need to jettison basic politesse comes from a massive inferiority complex brought on by believing if you talk with a Southern accent, you have twice as much to overcome as the rest of the country. Faulkner talked like me. Harper Lee talks like me. Do you really think Oprah Winfrey thinks calling an 80-year old man “sir” is demeaning? Honey, please. Knowing good manners is Southern. Not using them is low rent. You know why you should say please? So your waitress doesn’t hock the remnants of her smoke break into your bread pudding. Oh, you think that doesn’t happen? Try it. I dare you.
Have you seen Elvis lately?
Anyone living in Memphis has heard this gem. My husband and I were recently in Chicago and we heard some variation of this at least three times in the two days we were there. Let me tell y’all something: Elvis, God bless him, is dead. No one here really believes otherwise, but we keep up this rouse for the tourists. See, we’re in on the joke, but we understand you like to go back to Scranton or wherever and tell your friends that we believe he’s still alive and working for the DEA. That he faked his death because he was a Mob informant. That upstairs at Graceland is closed off because he still shows up there from time to time and watches the tourists on the security system. The thing is that we don’t believe this…you do. So we’re going to keep feeding your Elvis conspiracy theories because, frankly, it’s good for our economy.
Please don’t call me a steel magnolia.
You remember that Secret campaign? Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman. At first, it sounds okay. Then you realize it’s ridiculous. Calling me a steel magnolia is the same thing. First, can we all agree not to use the term strong woman as a blanket descriptor for women who have to do what we have to do? Being a strong woman is a right, not a privilege. It should be a given. And calling me a steel magnolia makes it seem quaint that someone who wears lipstick could have deeply held positions on cap-and-trade or the post route.
I remember when Hillary Clinton said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” It would be easy, as the homemaker I am, to take offense. It would be easy to get all pissy because staying home and baking cookies and having teas IS work. But I didn’t because, I’m sorry, have you EVER paid any attention to Hillary Clinton? Does she really seem someone who would be happy not having a career outside the home? No, she does not. She doesn’t need to make ridiculous comparisons to grizzly bears for us to know she can handle her shit. And in this way, she is very Southern. Remember that thing I said before about being powerful? That’s very Southern.
Call your mother.
My mother and I have this joke. I heard it somewhere years ago, I don’t remember where, but it’s a joke about a Freudian slip. It goes, “I was at lunch with my mother and what I meant to say was, ‘pass the salt,’ but what I actually said was, ‘you ruined my life, you miserable bitch.’”
The Southern definition of a mother is the woman who birthed you and, 60 years later, is still reminding you of what a difficult birth you were. How she had to reschedule BOTH her standing hair appointment AND her bridge game. How they dispatched someone to the country club to get your father off the 12th when he was four under. That last one isn’t true. Sixty years ago, no one would have dared to take a man off the back nine just because his wife was in labor.
The relationship between Southern mothers and daughters is complicated. Very, very complicated. The relationship between Southern fathers and daughters? Blissfully simple. I’m two years and one syllable away from being a Tanya Tucker song. I’m 39-years-old and my daddy still calls me “baby girl”. He can do that. Who do you think taught me to shoot a pistol and use a circular saw? My mother and I, for the record, get along famously. In fact, she just sent me a “save the date” card she received last week. Her note said, “The marriage has its own website? Jeez.”