You can become rich, you can become a blonde, you can even become a Republican, but the fact is you just can’t “become” a Southerner. Pretty much you are or you aren’t, and not even an address on your driver’s license can alter that fact.
So when my mother moved my sister and me south of the Mason-Dixon line, we were nothing but a bunch of hopeless, hard-edged square pegs in a world of unaccommodating round holes (so much for southern hospitality!). We couldn’t have appeared more alien to this strange territory if we had been dropped right out of a spaceship. Everything about us was not only different but strangely enough—shorter: our names (not one of us had a hyphenated first name), our haircuts (women in the South chose to ignore the shorter, shaggier styles of the 60s), the number of syllables in our words, and most importantly, our bloodline. We drank pop, not soda; our mother’s sisters didn’t mind being called “ant”; and when we visited the john, he generally had a last name too. We eventually came to realize that no matter how long we lived in the South, we would always be outsiders to these bred-in-the-bone Southerners.
The lucky thing for us was that Southerners, although humble as all get out about most everything else, are pretty darn self-righteous about being southern. We had all kinds of friends and neighbors willing to show us how being them was so much nicer than being us. We had a lot of unknowing teachers in those early years, from the lady at Roses five and dime, who steered us to the dotted swiss curtains for my bedroom to my Girl Scout leader, who put her hair in curlers every night of her life, including on camping trips. But by far, our best teacher was a dear friend of our mom’s, who was from even deeper down South than where we lived. She didn’t see us as rude interlopers from “up therah,” but rather as potential converts. She made it her mission to soften our edges, turn our “I”s into “ah”s and teach us to make a mean batch of sausage gravy in the process.
I was really young when this conversion process began, so I was literally a sponge for all things southern. I picked up the ya’lls in the first few months, tossing away my old “you guys” like so much Yankee garbage. And it only took me weeks of tagging along behind June at the grocery store, at Miller and Rhoads department, even at church to learn that to a southern lady friendliness is just as close to godliness as keeping the stove clean.
There were so many things to learn and luckily so much time as I was only 8 when we started and 18 when June figured her job was done. I learned to eat tomato sandwiches—big slabs of beefsteak tomato between white bread with lots of mayo, salt and pepper. I learned to say “yes maam and sir” rather than “yeah,” which was perfectly ok where we came from. I learned that Robert E. Lee was a name that was always preceded by General and always spoken in hushed tones. I learned that my freckles were brown sugar spots and made a girl sweet (June had a whole bunch of them herself).
One summer when I was about 10, I’ll never forget spending a week with June’s huge family in the mountains of North Carolina. She was the baby in a family of 10 kids, so she had a whole “mess” of nieces and nephews close to my age. This particular week June passed off the task of southernizing me to this group of young Rebels and I not only learned how to pick worms off of tobacco leaves and sleep in a featherbed, but I also learned how it felt to be kissed behind a tree by a southern boy. His name was Scottie and he taught me the merits of romantic, dewey-eyed southern boys. It might not have been the lesson June intended but as far as I’m concerned, it represented an integral piece of my southern education! To this day, my knees still buckle when I hear a slow, deep voice turn my name into four mellifluous syllables.
But even though I know all the words to “Dixie” and eat my grits plain, thank you very much, I know I’m still not a Southerner. Occasionally though, I’ll be “talkin’” to some recently transplanted Northerner and they’ll mistake my dropped “g” for the real thing. I just give ‘em one of my most honeyed southern smiles and think … “you’re not stealin’ any secrets off me”!