The first time it sank into to me that people from other parts of our nation see Southerners as somehow different I was a college student visiting friends in New York City.
Feeling as sophisticated and worldly as only an undergraduate can, I was chatting up an appealing young man, also a college student, but at a school in New England. As our conversation drew on, he finally said, “May I ask you a personal question?” Curious and intrigued, I responded, “Of course.”
“Do all you people drink soda for breakfast?”
And to think I imagined he would ask me for a date!
He asked the question as if “you people” — that would be us Southerners — were specimens in a lab or critters in a zoo, but he did have a point.
I have known a number of fellow Southerners who get their morning jolt of caffeine from an ice cold Coke or Pepsi, including one of my oldest friends who now takes hers in diet form. I have not; however, encountered anyone from “somewhere else” whose first morning sip is of carbonated soda. I suspect that fellow had never heard of grits.
This youthful memory flooded back to me recently when I stumbled upon what appears to be a collection of all things Southern on Pinterest, an online site with far more images than words. Some of the Southernisms were sappy —“The South: Where love, family and tradition are the sugar in our tea,” some trite — “North is a direction. The South is a lifestyle” and some right on target — “Say what you want about the South, but you don’t hear about people wanting to retire in the North.”
My favorites, though, go to my own experience as an — almost —lifelong resident of eastern North Carolina where people say things that make no sense to people from somewhere else. Pinterest lists these — “Oh my heavens!,” “Thank you kindly,” “Goodness gracious!,” “I do declare!, ”Lord have mercy!,” Hush your mouth!,” “Oh, my stars!,” “Slower than molasses,” “Gimme some sugar!,” “Hey, ya’ll,” “Heavens to Betsy,” “Hold your horses,” “Sweet as a peach” and my all-purpose favorite, “Bless your heart.” It can be intended kindly or can be a veiled barb, as in “That Margaret has put on weight, bless her heart!”
My eastern North Carolina grandmother used all those words as well as a few others. I was in college before I realized most people have never heard of a teewiddie, a word my grandmother said often to her seven grandchildren. It was generally used in this context: “Margaret Dawson, don’t you ever tell me another teewiddie!” Not even my friends from Georgia and Texas knew that one.
Being Southern is more than language, though. The way we see the world is strictly our own, as Julia Sugarbaker, a saucy Southern character played by Dixie Carter on the CBS sitcom Designing Women, said. Julia had a great deal to say on many topics, and this is one of my favorites. “I’m saying this is the South. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off. See, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.”
Most Southern families have some version of — shall we say, eccentrics? One of ours was a cousin who was so enraged by the power company in his part of eastern North Carolina condemning some of his property for power lines that he hopped into his tiny plane and dropped leaflets berating the utility all over that part of our state. When he could no longer pilot his plane, he set up a flatbed trailer along a busy highway, decorated it with Christmas lights and railed against the hated utility with a megaphone to passing vehicles.
And who can forget the famed Savannah hostess who made it into John Berendt’s’ bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? So sought after were invitations to her parties that guests gathered outside her home before the events, waiting for her to throw open the door to share her beautifully decorated home and scrumptious food and drink. She did just that one Savannah evening clad in her bathrobe. She calmly explained to her assembled guests that she had been so busy preparing for the party that she simply did not have time to get dressed herself and invited them to “Come on in.”
I know a number of women in Fayetteville who might do exactly the same thing.
North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton put it this way. “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would just be a human being.”
It is not that Southerners think we are better than other people. It is just that we really understand when we hear someone say, “I I’m not from the South, but I got here as quickly as I could.”