If I had a penny for every time someone has come down here and insulted us where we live, I’d be rich beyond all imagination.
What are people thinking? There I sat, in a writing class in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d missed the first class and hadn’t met my classmates yet, so I was taken aback during the pre-class chitchat when one woman said to another, “I hate southerners. They’re all so fake-y.”
Had she taken leave of her senses, I wondered? Here she sat in Virginia, a southern state if ever there was one, mindlessly offending anybody from down here who happened to be within hearing distance of her loud voice. The teacher arrived and, for my benefit, asked folks to go around and introduce themselves. Turned out I was the only person who’d grown up south of New Jersey.
I kept my thoughts to myself at the time. Did this make me fake-y, I mused, or simply polite?
Recently, a writer whose work I otherwise respect included this sentence (about his move to Albemarle County, VA) in a personal essay: “Sweater vests, bourbon, boat shoes, and y’all briefly entered my life—bourbon, thankfully, remains.” He failed to mention that he, also, remains. And for the record, the term y’all happens to be a contraction for gender-neutral, inclusive you all. It’s a hell of a lot more appropriate than “you guys,” but that’s a topic for another blog.
It’s not that I don’t poke fun at others— I do. For example, a friend who shares a Swedish heritage with my family recently disclosed his uncle’s favorite slur: “Norwegians are just Swedes with their brains bashed out.” Do I agree with this? No. Do I burst out laughing every time I think of it? Yes. Would I blab this in public in Norway? Never. No sooner than I’d visit Maine and complain about the strangeness of the accents, or the temperature of the ocean water.
If only a similar sentiment would keep northerners from blurting out each winter, “You southerners can’t drive in the snow.”
Hey geniuses! How weird would it be if we were good at driving in the snow? It doesn’t happen all that often down here. We don’t worry about driving in the snow for the same reason you don’t worry about finding cottonmouth moccasins in your yard back home. It’s rare here. And isn’t that part of why you moved down here to begin with—to get away from the snows of winter?
Besides, you’re not that good at it either, it turns out. My great aunt was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. She forbade me to visit her after October. She’d send me envelopes crammed with dire headlines she’d carefully clipped out of the newspaper. “Local Woman Killed by Snow Plow.” “Massive pile-up on Mass Pike as Rush Hour Blizzard Bears Down.”
“This whole town shuts down when it snows,” you north people say. Right again. It would be pretty fiscally irresponsible of us to make the huge capital investments required to purchase entire fleets of snow-moving heavy equipment that would sit idle for most of the winter.
Still, if it bothers you all that much, you could always lobby your state and local representatives to raise taxes in order to purchase more plows. Oh wait. You moved down here in part because of the lower tax rates, didn’t you? Or was it to establish residency to take advantage of the more affordable tuition rates at our world-class universities in the south?
“And slow? You southerners are so slow,” you northerners complain, as you lay on your horns if we take more than three seconds to advance through a green light. We, on the other hand, will toot toot lightly behind your car (as you talk on your cell phones, text, read emails, and whatever else you do) to indicate that the light changed a while back. Then we’ll wave cheerfully so as not to offend. What’s another light cycle to us? And what’s it to you? After all, you came down here to escape the madness of the pace up north, isn’t that right?
You southerners are still fighting the war, is a favorite expression of those of you from the other side of the Mason Dixon.
Not really. It’s just that the majority of the Civil War was fought down here; a huge number of the battles bloodied the ground right here in the Old Dominion. And not just the Civil War. Virginia is the most war-torn state in the union. We’ve got your French and Indian. We’ve got your Revolution, We’ve got your War of 1812.
And if I’m not mistaken, you all have commemorated a few battlefields of your own up there, haven’t you? Think Concord. Think Ticonderoga. What about Gettysburg?
Read your history. The world over, it’s not unusual to monument places on the ground where blood was shed. And it can take decades, centuries for the sting of conflict to fade. Look at England and France. Shoot— look at England and America. Heck – look at England and anybody.
“It take you guys so long to get to the point,” you complain. When I worked for a non-profit, my Boston lawyer flew down to participate in negotiations with a rural county that wanted to take a portion of our land through eminent domain. We met with the county attorney at the courthouse in Hillsville, Virginia. Though long, the meeting proceeded cordially enough and we left with everything we wanted.
“You spent almost an hour exchanging pleasantries and complimenting each other,” my lawyer marveled. “You took nearly 20 minutes figuring out who your relatives were.”
“I know,” I said. “Wasn’t that nice?”
“Where I come from, we’d open the conference room door, toss in a grenade, then hand our demands to whoever was left standing,” he raved. “It takes a lot less time.”
All that stress. All that collateral damage. Why would anyone want to live like that? Besides, I want to be on speaking terms with the county attorney. He and I may wind up at the same family reunion one day.
“The heat. The God-awful humidity,” you moan.
Yes, I say. While you’re cranking up the AC, we’re drunk on the magnolia and gardenia-scented air that wafts on humid updrafts through our screened porches where we rest feet up with a glass of iced tea.
For us, seersucker isn’t just another southern affectation. It’s a delightful adaptation. A light fabric, worn in hot weather, puckered so that only a portion of it touches moist skin.
The next time you start in on a tirade about your adopted southern home, maybe think about why we love it so. William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee. The Williams boys (Hank and Tennessee), Elvis, Ray Charles, Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Porgy & Bess. Gone with the Wind. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Arthur Ashe. New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, Nashville, Richmond. The Everglades, The Okefenokee and the Great Dismal Swamps, Alligators, piney woods, the beaches. Okra. Collards. Shrimp. Grits. Just to name a few.
So take a deep breath of that honeysuckle air. Pour yourself a glass of sweet tea and: Please. Just. Hush.