After spending the first 61 years of my life north of the Mason-Dixon Line, most of it in Michigan, my husband and I moved to Georgia in 2007. I’m very sure I wouldn’t be mistaken yet for a Southern Belle born and bred! The first thing that would give me away is how fast I talk, and after 65 years now I’m not likely to be able to slow down to a southern drawl. Even if I could, the accent wouldn’t be right and never will be. It’s only young children who can learn a foreign language and end up speaking it like a native with the exact precision accent.
And then there’s the matter of the … fizzy drinks. The first time I went to the WalMart here in Rome, Georgia, and was ready to check out with a twelve-pack box of Diet Cherry 7-Up and 24-pack box of Diet Coke, I left the heavy cartons in the cart. I pushed the cart down to the end of the checkout counter and around to where the cashier could easily use her hand scanner to scan the bar codes on the boxes. But I made the mistake of announcing for her benefit that I would “bring the pop around” so she could scan it. She almost doubled over in laughter and said, “You’re from Up North, aren’t you?”
I had totally forgotten what I learned in informal Assimilation Classes from some of my Southern friends on the Internet. You DON’T buy “pop” in the South. You buy “sodas.” In fact, it is even more common to say, pointing to a stack of 7-Up and orange soda and root beer cartons—”I got the cokes for the party.” Yes, even if there isn’t a Coca-Cola in the lot. ALL soda varieties are “cokes.”
Then there is the matter of that “cart” I mentioned. I, myself, almost doubled over in laughter when the first WalMart greeter I met in Rome asked me, “Do you need a buggy?” I literally hadn’t heard the term “buggy” but a handful of times since I was a child.
Back in the 50’s and earlier, moms didn’t have “strollers” for their babies. Almost every mom had a “baby buggy.” A stroller is like a little chair you push around. The typical old-time baby buggy was practically a small playpen on wheels. The only other time I heard “buggy” was reading history about “horse and buggy” days. So to think that I’d be wheeling my groceries around WalMart in the 21st century in a “buggy” made me giggle. I’m still having a hard time remembering to ask “May I have a buggy, please?” when I need one.
I got to thinking the other day about all these little ways things in the South are different than they had been Up North. And that brought to mind an old song I had heard on the radio when I was a child back in the 1950s titled “That’s What I Like About the South.”
It had been originally recorded in 1945 by band-leader/singer Phil Harris in a movie titled I Love a Band Leader. It became his signature song, and a long-time classic on radio stations. If you are under 40 years old, you may think you never heard Phil Harris sing. But I’ll bet many readers in that age group have. He was the voice of Baloo the Bear in Disney’s Jungle Book movie, and sang “The Bare Necessities.” He was also the cat Thomas O’Malley in Disney’s Aristocats, and sang “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.” (See him on Youtube sing the South song in the movie.)
Phil’s song is too long (15 verses) to include all of it here (you can see it all on Youtube) , but here is a sample:
Won’t you come with me to Alabamy
Let’s go see my dear old Mammy
She’s fryin’ eggs and boiling hammy
That’s what I like about the South
Now there you can make no mistakey
Where those nerves are never shaky
Ought to taste her layer cakey
That’s what I like about the South
She’s got baked ribs and candied yams
Those sugar-cured Virginia hams
Basement full of those berry jams
An’ that’s what I like about the South
Well it’s way, way down where the cane grows tall
Down where they say “Y’all”
Walk on in with that Southern drawl
‘Cause that’s what I like about the South
Once I reviewed Phil’s song just now after all these years, I have to admit what I like about the South is not at all what he sings about. I don’t eat ham—Virginia or otherwise—or baked (pork) ribs. And although I do enjoy listening to the Southern drawls, they aren’t what makes me glad I made the move from Up North. It goes a lot deeper than that.
Remember when Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz steps out of the door of the crashed house, looks around at all the strange, colorful environment she finds herself in, and says, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more”? That’s sort of how I felt in the earliest days here in the South. One of my first discombobulating, disorienting experiences was at a stop light. I’d pulled to a stop behind another car early in the cycle of the light, and time drug on while waiting for it to turn to green again. So my eyes and mind began to wander. I suddenly realized the cars in the opposite lane were whizzing past me, and the car that had been in front of me at the light was gone way on ahead. The light had obviously been green for perhaps twenty or thirty seconds and I hadn’t noticed it.
And that’s when it dawned on me … no one behind me had laid on their horn to wake me up and get me movingmovingmoving out of their way! I don’t ever remember that happening Up North. Everybody always seemed in such a hurry there. Even if a stoplight laggard caused only ten seconds added to their commute to work, they couldn’t tolerate it. I’m not speaking of just in the Big Cities either. We lived in a 5000-people small town, and everyone always seemed in a frantic rush there too any time of the day or night. I never was quite sure why.
Another early surprise—I pulled up to a drive-through window at the back of the City Hall where you could pay your water bill. In the center of the big window was an opening where you could pass your check to the cashier. But covering the rest of the window were several homemade posters—of Bible passages and inspirational religious thoughts or prayers! I later visited my grandkids’ high school, and there posted prominently on the wall was a poster that said “In God we trust.” My daughter (she and her family moved down here from Michigan in 2009 and are now Southerners too) mentioned to me the other day that if I had gone into the school office, I would have seen a Bible on a table.
Even at the foot doctor’s office, there was an open Bible prominently displayed on a decorative table. It was open to my favorite Bible passage: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” I was there that day with my paraplegic mother who was in a wheel chair. I handed the Bible to my dad—neither of them had ever read that passage. He read it aloud to mother. She cried. Dad later told me that in another town in Georgia where they used to live, the surgeon who was going to operate on mother one time stood out in the hall by her side just before the surgery, held her hand, and prayed with her. Not the hospital chaplain. The surgeon.
Perhaps somewhere in Michigan there are city halls, schools, and doctor’s offices where one could find the same open sharing of simple faith. But I never saw any. It’s pervasive, and natural here. I still have a hard time getting used to WalMart cashiers who don’t perfunctorily tell me to “Have a nice day” … they insist with cheerful urgency that I “Have a blessed day.”
I went to my insurance agency the other day. The first two agents in the big open room were busy with other clients, so I waited a short time. And out came a cheerful, mild-mannered fellow I hadn’t met before. He invited me into his private office. On his desk was a beautiful, multicolored mounted “wood duck.” I complimented him on the beauty of it, and his immediate, unself-conscious response was “Isn’t the Lord’s creativity amazing?” I agreed.
That’s what I like about the South. People are very typically not ashamed to be cheerful and open about their faith in public.
Then there is the approach to strangers. My daughter also mentioned that it still startles her when she goes to WalMart on a dark, rainy night, and on the way out to the parking lot, some total stranger heading into the store will cheerfully greet her. It is amazingly easy to strike up a conversation with strangers in a backed-up line at a fast-food place too, and practically know a brief version of their whole life story before you get up to the counter. I’d been used for sixty years to people staring straight ahead in such lines and only reacting to the presence of others around them if they were jostled by someone in the crush to hurry up and get their food.
That’s what I like about the South too. You don’t have to treat strangers … like strangers. Or be a stranger to everyone around you. You don’t have to avert your eyes if someone is coming toward you on the sidewalk, to avoid that awkward moment when you are both trying to decide if it’s appropriate or necessary to offer a greeting to a stranger. Here in our part of the South, anyway, the answer is always “Yes.”
I’m not saying it’s Utopia here, of course! I’m sure behind closed doors some of the same dysfunctional things are going on in my small southern city that go on all over in big cities and small towns in America. Marriages crumble, kids do drugs, crime happens. What I am saying is that there is a “culture” here that both accepts and promotes in public some very positive ways of interacting with others. Certainly there are many people in Michigan and other northern states who would like to be open about their faith, who want to be kind and friendly with strangers when appropriate. But all too often many northern settings have a pervasive culture that represses this in even the most sincere folks. And have a culture that almost encourages, through peer pressure, impatience, rudeness, lack of respect, and indifference to those around you.
I’m by nature a gregarious and outgoing person. Even in Michigan I tended to chat up strangers in checkout lines anyway. I tended to be open about my faith. I invited people into my personal space rather than pulling a bubble around myself to keep the rabble out. But I had to push past the peer pressure and cultural expectations of most around me in order to do it.
Here in the South I can be myself without all that resistance!
So with my best imitation Southern drawl, I’ll say it …
“That’s what Ah lak about the South”!
Still—I’d like to emphasize after all this cheerleading that my purpose isn’t to try to convince everyone to move South! What would please me the most is if people would realize that they don’t have to give in to the peer pressure and cultural expectations of their local environment, wherever that might be. I don’t want to transplant the population of the world to Rome, Georgia. That would end up spoiling its small-city charm anyway! What I want to do is transplant the culture of Rome everywhere else. One person at a time. Wherever you are, I urge you to push past the local peer pressure and cultural standard of stand-offishness, and embrace everyone with the love of Jesus. With openness and zeal and enthusiasm.
So some day He will say to you along with all His other servants …
“Y’all come on into my Kingdom.”