My South is not the one of antebellum homes, their wide and cool porches wrapped around the entirety of the house. It’s not The South where coquettish young things, secretly sweating under their hoopskirts, smile slyly at the neighbor boy, just home from the war. My South is not one of droning insects heard from behind plantation shutters closed to keep out the sweltering, wet midday sun.
That’s not My South, though it is in my fantasy.
That South died 50 years ago. 100. 150. And yet these ghosts of the Confederacy outlive their usefulness, coloring the contrived recollections of someone as impressionable and romantic as the likes of me.
Redefining the Definition
So what IS my South? I’m not sure I can properly answer that. After all, I ran from it screaming for something more metropolitan, more exciting, more More. I’d decided by the age of 10 that I was a city girl (after all, I’d lived the first six years of my life in Houston, so that obviously put me in the City Girl Club.) but there aren’t too many metropolises in Arkansas, where I spent the rest of my formative youth. And so I wanted to get out. To anywhere.
When I think about the South, it’s what I’ve read that colors my memories. And yes, reading Gone with the Wind multiple times between the ages of 10 and 18 had much to do with this.
I somehow felt — and feel — cheated for having grown up in a midsize town in Arkansas (Hot Springs; Boyhood Home of Bill Clinton!) rather than in some tiny peach-infested town in Georgia, or even spicy Cajun country, where my family is from. I was a city girl not deep enough in the South to carry a Biscuit-Eatin’ Bona-Fide Southerner card. Or so I believed.
So when my husband recounts tales of catching crabs with his grandma in Biloxi under the hot, humid sun, or when I watch as people pour onto the dance floor at a family member’s Cajun wedding to dance the fais do do, I feel a little left out. I don’t have these kinds of authentic Southern experiences. I’m the Tin Man in Oz, only instead of having no heart, I have no culture.
Because that’s what the South is. Culture. It might not be a mint julep culture for me, but it’s sweat dripping down your spine when you wait for the school bus after school, and you pray to miss it so your mom will have to pick you up in the cool air conditioned car. It’s azaleas everywhere, even though you won’t appreciate them until they don’t grow everywhere in California. It’s being able to grow tomatoes simply by spitting seeds into the yard. It’s that pure sense of relief when late September rolls around and the sweat stops…somewhat. It’s getting funny looks when you shop at the store with your black boyfriend. It’s no one being able to think any more creatively on what you could do with your English degree than to say that phrase that is like fingernails down a chalkboard to you: “you can always teach.”
The South is swimming in a murky brown lake with questions lurking beneath the gradually cooler layers of water, where occasionally something caresses your ankle and makes you shudder. It’s lightning bugs, the unfortunate slow ones prisoners in your (you think) humane bug habitat. Dead by morning, after a night of desperately flashing a signal for help. It’s puddin’ pops, made by you and your mother in Popsicle molds that are old but sturdy. You’ll wish you could find them as an adult when the ones you buy break the organic juice pops you attempt with your own son. The South is sticky sweet Kool-Aid and Honey Buns. It’s people so obese they have to use the mechanical scooter to get around Wal-Mart.
The South is cruising in lazy circles on Central Avenue, hooting at the cute boys cruising in opposite circles, them shouting invitations to meet at Sonic. It’s all you can eat pizza buffets, and those fine football players making the manager sweat as they get their $3 worth over and over. It’s teenage pregnancy; not a concept for the well-heeled to raise money and awareness of, but rather the reality of your best friend, who, despite being a talented artist, will never do much with her life, thanks to some guy who wasn’t a first-time father at the age of 21, and didn’t stick around long enough to know his kid was autistic.
The South is your dad sitting in his green corduroy chair, the headrest worn out from countless naps there. It’s trips to Acadiana, where cousins slide on socked feet in the grandma’s house. It’s church picnics and lock ins (Baptist, of course) that you couldn’t go to because your devoutly Catholic mother worried they’d try to convert you. But you turned out Buddhist, so she needn’t have worried about that.
The South is where the neighbor, upon introducing herself as your family unpacks the U-Haul van, asks what church you go to before she even asks where you moved from. Where love and sympathy is expressed through handmade baked goods. Where people turn store names like Kroger into a possessive, like Kroger’s. Where corn syrup is consumed intravenously and organic is something people make fun of.
The South — My South — is all of these things and more. Some better, much worse. Well, some worse. That was part of the desire to move away. Everyone just seemed so backwoods to my egomaniacal self. Being in a relationship with a black man gave me the right to be indignant at the ignorance and discrimination that those same confederate ghosts had inbred in so many generations, it was worse than Sangiovese on a white carpet to get out. There were the eyes. I always felt them on me. On us. There were the stories he told me of His South that made me not want to raise a beautiful mocha colored boy there, no matter how different things were this generation. I wanted opportunity to make more money. Do something more challenging. Live where I could eat food from every corner of the planet.
And so I left, and when I did, I divorced My South. After all, it had been nothing more than an albatross (or maybe a mosquito — the unofficial state bird in every southern state) around my sweaty neck. What had My South ever done for me? And I felt that way for years. But The South has a funny way of creeping back into your life, like English Ivy you know you pulled completely up. It comes back. It came back a few years ago when this slipped out of my face when telling a friend I was going to visit my mother in Arkansas: “I’m going home.” HOME??? Home is where my family is, not that dead end town. And yet.
It creeps back when I get a hankering for biscuits. Or grits. Crawfish. Tony Chachere’s seasoning. Community coffee.
It creeps in when I catch myself saying “dudnt” and “wudnt” instead of doesn’t and wasn’t, despite years of masking that giveaway twang that only comes out when I’m drunk or tired (taahrd). It creeps out when I tell people I’m from Arkansas and their eyes goggle with the actuality of meeting a Real Live Southerner, and I feel a little proud for seeming exotic to them. Guess I got that Biscuit Eatin’ card in my wallet after all.