Dear Lily June,
I wrote a letter like this before with the Midwest, but I’ve found myself having a hankering to do it again recently with the Deep South, especially since I still look back on that place with equal amounts of sighing and shuddering. To the locals, the South was nothin’ more’n their own backyard (or front porch, rather), a heapin’ helpin’ o’ sweet tea “cun-tree” (where cun-tree is an adjective, not just a noun). To a transplanted Yankee like myself, I often felt like I was passport-less in another country, which inspired both the loneliness and wonder that only being displaced can do to you.
I was born in the Northeast, and only lived in one Southern state proper (Alabama), though in my time there, I visited surrounding Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia. The following contains my impressions of the South, which I’ve nailed down about as accurately as if were hocking a loogie at a dart board with one eye closed from across a bar. I just wanted to share with you, Lily June, what I miss–and what I will never miss–about a place your dad and I once called [Sweet] Home for a significant portion of our lives. After all, it’s where we met and fell in love, and as it’s a part of our past stories, we are laden with its history.
Because your mother has a tendency to get wordy, this is going to have to be a two-parter. Come, sit a spell, and get comfy.
Part One: The Things I Miss about the South
Y’all & Piddlin’
There’s a lot to love about the Southern accent, like the way a little Southern boy might drawl the word “armpits” until it becomes “arum-pyitts.”
But my two favorite words that I picked up from Southernese were “y’all” and “piddlin’.” Y’all is a second-person plural pronoun, meant to refer to a generalized group of two or more people. There is nothing quite like it and the way it melts off your tongue like butter, as my students were apt to remind me when I’d tell them that the Pittsburghese equivalent (where I was from) was Y’inz. “That’s stupid,” they’d tell me, and biting back tears of hometown pride, I’d move right along.
Piddlin’ I love because it has such intensely different meanings in the North and South, which lead to an initial moment of hilarious culture confusion for me. Where I’m from, the word is used as synonymous with pissing or urinating. Your chihuahua, if he gets too excited, might piddle on the carpet, for instance. So you can imagine my shock and surprise when one of my students told a story in class about his grandpa who was “piddlin’ around in the garden.” I had to learn that for Southerners, the word could range in meaning from aimlessly wandering or tinkering to wasting time, with no particular purpose. I still prefer, though, my initial mental image!
(“Roll Tide,” another of my favorite Alabama-isms, deserves its own letter, which I hope to write someday.)
Sitting out on your porch in the South wasn’t just an action, it was a lifestyle, used for good and for evil. On the one hand, especially if you were one of the lucky ones with a ceiling fan OUTSIDE (really, really), it was a way to enjoy the perpetual sunshine. On the other hand, it was also an opportunity to people watch, which gave you gossip fodder. (Rumors, like kudzu in the South, sprang up all over.) Of course, on days where it was so humid you felt like you were chewing your way through a warm bath, you might leave a porch with you hair looking more like you’d sat in an electric chair than a rocking one.
But there was something about what porch sittin’ symbolized–that life could slow down a little if you let it, be a little simpler–that I adored, if I could never fully internalize it.
The Weird Pride Thing
There were a lot of Southern quirks I could appreciate as long as I was willing to take them dispassionately, like a scientist who drags her knuckles on the ground in order not to disturb the surrounding community of monkeys. Southern pride was one of those things that tickled the armchair sociologist in me. Being a Yankee, I’d never felt as if the Northeastern states bonded together in a common identity–unless, of course, it was to culturally mock those residing on the “wrong” side of the Mason-Dixon line.
I felt an affinity at times for the underdog redneck, who was often bullied rather than bully. Most fascinating to me was the strange system of competition that seemed to run between the states of the Deep-Deep South (not including places like Kentucky, Florida or Texas, according to my students). Once, standing with a number of colleagues from various reaches of the region, I heard one women from Alabama insult a second from Mississippi. I tried to intercede, but the two just laughed it off as “a Southern thing.” I asked the second woman, “But what do you say in Mississippi?” and she, without missing a beat, replied “We just thank Gawd we’re not Arkansas.” C’est la Southern vie.
The Church of the Pigskin
As a fairly non-athletic woman, you’d think the emphasis the South put on football wouldn’t appeal to me. You’d be dead wrong. Now, let’s be fair: even while I worked for the University of Alabama, I never once watched a game of college football. Never. Not in person and not on TV. (I say this from the safety of the Midwest, and I’m still glancing around for the torches and pitchforks to approach from behind me.) But having come there from Pittsburgh, a city that describes itself as “a drinking town with a football problem,” I could relate to the fans’ intensity. (Go Steelers!)
For instance, I remember reading an article in the first week I was there that a fan had tattooed the image of former coach Paul Bear Bryant, full-body, on his back and the words “Roll” and “Tide” on his forearms so that, as he put it, “When I put my hands together in prayer, God knows exactly who I’m praying for.” And I’ll never get over the fact that the team’s name was The Crimson Tide, while its mascot was an elephant, while one of its battle cries was “Rammer Jammer(?!)” Don’t bother trying to explain an interconnectedness between these disparate elements to me. I remain joyfully ignorant.
And I was the recipient of a number of trickle-down benefits of the locals’ grid-iron obsession. A well-performing team meant money coming into my University, the kind of money that could keep a lush Southern campus looking pristine, like an oasis in a desert of heat and humidity. Game day, while it meant raucous near-rioting everywhere else, meant solitude for me. As long as it wasn’t a sports bar, restaurants were near-empty. You could grocery shop in relative peace. Of course, you needed a special map just to navigate which of the city’s streets wouldn’t be closed down for makeshift tent towns and the parking of RVs, but it was a small price to pay to feel like, as long as you weren’t in the vicinity of the enormous stadium, you were instead transported into The Specials’ “Ghost Town” (circa the 1980’s).
Your dad and I used to go to a barbecue joint called Mike & Ed’s (RIP, tornado casualty). There, they served what they called “garbage tea,” sweet tea brewed in such enormous quantities, they literally stored it in huge plastic garbage cans. And oh, was it garbage for your body, your teeth! But the taste? There has never been before, nor will ever be again, a taste so sweet.
Meanwhile, the South, specifically at a bar called The Downtown Pub (“where old friends gather and new ones meet”) is where I learned that if I liked my tea sweet, I preferred my whiskey sour. I would make a mutual friend, dubbed “Starberry,” order my whiskey sours for me because the female bartenders there thought he was cute and would load him up with extra cherries.
Drinking a beverage in the South (like every other activity) goes a little slower. Be it a Georgia mint julep or Louisiana Bloody Mary, the point is as much to savor as to intoxicate. Think of sippin’ as drinking’s equivalent of moseying. And not often, but sometimes, when the moment was right, your mother could really be known to mosey.
OMG WTF RTR BBQ!!!!
If you don’t understand the acronyms above, my dear, then you weren’t one of my students, who would only seem to open an email from me if all four appeared, in all caps, successively. But it is the last of these upon which I put my focus, barbecue. I went to Tuscaloosa armed with the name of one restaurant, Dreamland. When I’d Googled the town, I’d come up with a review about its sauce: “So good, it’ll make your tongue wanna slap your brains out.” It was not wrong.
The original shack, tucked back a ways from anything resembling society, is a true greasy spoon. As far as I recall, it had three items on its menu: pulled pork, bbq ribs, and banana pudding. You ate your dripping ribs out of a paper tub, dribbling sauce from your chin to your shins. You wiped yourself off with the side they served–whole slices of white Wonderbread–and then you ate that, too. Any extra mess could be cleaned with the only accessory on each bare wood table: a roll of paper towels. You would undoubtedly spend the rest of the day in one of two ways: roiling, utterly sick or stone asleep in a food coma.
But you’d be hard pressed to toss a rib bone without hitting a good barbecue joint in the South, so long as you prefer your meat more savory than sweet. Lil’ Dooey’s, in Mississippi, featured the art above (of a pig taunting a Barbie) drawn by a child on the back of a paper towel. They hung it on the wall with pride, and I feel that when I look at it. As much as I struggle with my weight today as a direct result of how I learned to–literally and figuratively–pig out in the South, I don’t regret a minute (or a meal) of it, though admittedly, I have had to relearn, back North again, that mac and cheese does not constitute a vegetable.
Okay, maybe I regret some of the trips your dad and I spent to the n-teenth Waffle House in Columbia, Tennessee where we once got trapped for a weekend. (Yet another story for another time.) But otherwise…
America, the Beautiful
There was an intense natural beauty to the South that seemed unique wherever you landed. I’ll never forgot, for instance, technicolor dream world the skies became in Alabama each time there had been a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico. And when Lynyrd Skynyrd would sing in “Sweet Home Alabama” (a song I heard so many times down there, I practically still get shell-shock hearing it today) the line about skies being so blue, he may as well have been talking about my campus on days like the one pictured below:
And the lights of downtown, even in a small college town like Tuscaloosa, could be enchanting:
And I remember from a brief trip to Savannah, Georgia for an academic conference how awestruck I was at the Spanish moss that hung from the trees lining what seemed like every block:
And short of my hometown towards which I exercise extreme bias, I have never seen a city more beautiful or lively than New Orleans (or, as my father who once lived there refers to it, N’awlins.)
If you’re looking for it, you can find beauty almost anywhere, Lily June, but the South, whatever its failings (which I’ll get to next time), offered up a lot of visual balm to soothe a sore and wounded soul. I think now, it would have been impossible for me not to fall in love there, even if afterwards, I would drag my–and his–heart elsewhere!
Picture Credits (All pictures not otherwise credited are my own.):
- By User:Gator87 – File:Southern United States Civil War map.pngInformation taken from File:Census Regions and Divisions.PNG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15055407
- By istolethetv from Hong Kong, China – redneck dogUploaded by Fæ, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24970629
- By Latics – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11677390
- By Melissa Doroquez – Flickr: Iced Tea, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20521542
- By CH52584 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Xnatedawgx using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9299985
- By Carol M. Highsmith – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID highsm.06823. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12130086
- By Jcl1995 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54794233
- CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=476717