Saturday, August 26, 2006

"Being Southern"


I was asked a question a while back, by a Northern friend, when it came out that I had not been born in a Southern hospital. I was asked the definition of "Being Southern" as so many people had told this particular person that Southern can also be a state of mind as much as geography.

So I thought about it quite a bit…. WHY am I Southern? What makes me Southern?

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If you knew my early history, you wouldn't think I have a Southern bone in my body. But at times you can adopt a way of life fully and whole-heartedly and it becomes you. It did help that I moved to the South when I was young.

I was born in a Northern hospital to a couple from New York. Right there you'd be thinking, "That there gal ain't got so much as a Southern toe on her."

Wrong.

When I was 3, for some reason that I'll never understand my parents left The North and moved to Mississippi. I looked around me and, at a very young age, I thought to myself, "I'm home." I sucked up the Southern atmosphere, language, ideals and social rules. I managed to blend in so well that people couldn't believe it when they met my parents who were both distinctly Northern. They always thought I must be pointing to people behind those two.

I adored the South and the gentleness, politeness, caring for your neighbors, familiarity with everything around you. Even though I wanted to be thought of as having a brain and being "independent", I will admit to this day I adore Southern gentlemanly behavior. I love having the doors opened, the cuts in line you're given, the tip of the hat with an admiring look that comes your way. I love the respect that most Southern children are taught toward the adults. I will always be Miss Idgie in my neighborhood to the kids and they know it.

As I grew older I did realize that everything is not nirvana and that there were thoughts that could use some changing in this neck of the country, much like there are thoughts that could use changing everywhere. Racism was prevalent when I was younger. Polite racism, but there nonetheless. My parents didn't think along those lines though and I was raised knowing everyone was equal even if we looked different. I thank God that I was raised like that. They also raised me to believe that I, a female, could do anything I wanted in life. At the time, girls were still raised to be gentle, useless, pretty "Flowers of Womenhood" in large sections of the South.

When I was 18 I ran away from the South. I moved to the West Coast, where I worked very hard on hiding my accent (I never lost it, I hid it for years… but get me mad or a little too much to drink and Bam - there it was!). I can now pretty much speak two different ways, depending on who I'm talking to. I became "A Californian". When you're 18 you have strong ideals and thoughts, whether they make sense or not. Television and movies made mockeries of the South and I got sucked into that. I did not want to be from here.

But I soon realized the good things I was missing too. I now laughingly remember standing in front of a closed door out on the West Coast surrounded by people. I didn't realize it at the time but subconsciously I was waiting for a man to open the door, and the rest of the people were waiting for me to get the heck out of the way! The first time someone cut me off in line I was stunned. I felt very lonely in my nice, new, non-Southern city. I didn't feel that I would be dealt kindly with if I turned to a stranger and asked for assistance. I smiled at people and they turned their heads away, pretending that there was not a person trying to interact with them. I started to turn into that kind of person, a person too busy to meet others and share a minute of niceties and I didn't like it at all. Now, I'm not saying that everyone away from the South is rude, not at all, but I found people to be "busier" and more involved in what they were doing than in the South, where even an outing to the mailbox can become a social gathering.

On a positive note, I do feel that back then I was far too cloistered by my "whiteness". It was very instructional to learn and deal with so many other cultures, religions, etc. Made me even more tolerant than just listening to my parent's lessons and thoughts. Plus the discovery of all this other food in the world that's not fried and still tastes great!

Finally, a few years ago I talked my East Coast husband into moving to the South. Moving "home". I started whining and sighing and looking at books from the South and finally he said "Let's Go" and I had a realtor at the house that afternoon! We moved back to one of my old stomping grounds. I was in love, over the moon to be home.

I will admit that the South is a lot different today then when I moved away from it. It's definitely a melting pot these days and there is much more tolerance down here – or at least on the surface. It's faster paced too, not as much stopping to chat with everyone you meet, but if you dig down, you still find the old time Southern sensibilities and kindness here. There is still the sense of community and caring.

And if I ever move out of the South, I will never again deny my Southern-ness. My accent will stay, my happy stories will come out, I will talk about my life here. I won't ever be ashamed of it again.

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