An inheritance is what you leave with people.
A legacy is what you leave in them.
A question I’ve been asking my entire life and I’m not alone. A Google search will return over 175,000 hits. Sadly, while they promise to dispel the myth of the Southern Belle, most characterizations eventually come down to sweet tea, southern accents, good manners, football and looking pretty with little attention to intellect. In other words, the Southern Belle.
I never bought this, and though I tried to be a southern belle in my teens, I could never quite make it work. And frankly, I don’t know that many southern belles. In my experience, the Southern Belle is just someone we made up to avoid the southern reality.
I always knew there was something else, something achingly beautiful and tragic that southern souls are compelled to share in spite of their differences. An elusive fragrance in the air, a whisper in the trees, a ghostly sprit in the bayous. Ingrained in childhood, handed down through generations, clinging to us tighter than skin. An elaborately crafted mantle designed to hide something dangerous. Something I couldn’t name.
But I think I know what it is now. It’s our heritage; the legacy of the Civil War. A war predicted to last a few months, that raged on for four years, taking the lives of 620,000 American men, more than all the wars to follow combined; approximately 20% of them under the age of 18.
And at the end, for the South, there was bitter defeat and a legacy of shame, poverty and rage
Wounded and weary, fathers, sons and husbands, reviled and shunned,straggled home to homes and crops devastated in the path of the war, while northern soldiers returned to a hero’s welcome to homes untouched by war for the most part, with fanfare.
Salt in wounds already festering. And yes, the slaves were freed, but with no support, no access to the tools they needed to prosper. Free, but not equal. And so the war ended long ago but the struggle continues. No wonder there is such free-floating rage in Southerners. It is rage born of grief that has nowhere to go but inside.
State sovereignty is sometimes offered as a righteous rationale for the war, and it’s tempting to cling to this slender reed. But the Civil War was about slavery and all of us bear the responsibility for it. Slavery existed in all 13 colonies prior to the Civil War. My ancestors owned slaves. Black people owned slaves as did American Indians. But none of this matters. Slavery is wrong. Just wrong.
But before I get too sanctimonious I realize I cannot know what I would have believed, or what I would have done, in a time when slavery was the acceptable norm. I can only hope I would have had the clear-minded courage to speak my truth.
I take some solace in the knowledge that not all legacies of the Civil War were bad. The southern woman rose from its ashes. Left with farms and businesses to run and children to raise, they had to be strong to survive. They relied on each other; they formed strong communities. Their faith was their only source of hope through terrible loss and deprivation. They had to be resourceful to provide for their basic needs; they made clothing and quilts from draperies, feed sacks, scraps from worn out clothing. Together they birthed their children and buried their dead. Food was scarce, they had to raise their own; they became expert gardeners and didn’t flinch at killing a chicken or butchering a hog. They were recyclers before there were recycling bins. The land and its creatures provided their needs and so were respected; they were environmentalists before Greenpeace. They found beauty to ease their harsh lives in the things they had; a rose, a treasured teacup, a button from a favorite dress.
So it’s not surprising that southern women are strong, that they are passionate about family and community. That they are unapologetic about their religious faith and famous for their elegant quilts, their welcoming homes, their sumptuous recipes and lush gardens. That they value hard work and frugality.
These are the Southern women I know.
It’s true, you’ll know a Southern woman by her accent and colorful turn of phrase. She has good manners and she won’t leave home without her makeup. But she is made of stronger stuff. Much stronger.
My mother and I weren’t close. But we never fought, not overtly. She was gentle and mild-mannered to a fault. Mother didn’t raise her voice or indulge in corporal punishment. She had very few rules but her “no” meant no and there was no point in challenging her.
Her tastes were simple and her needs modest. Frugality was a way of life. We never bought anything we could make, grow or barter for. Collars were turned, hems let out. We sewed our clothes, ate leftovers. Nothing went to waste, nothing was for show. We wore our clothes until they were too threadbare to wear in public and then they were recycled into fabric for quilts. She never went to movies or took
vacations. She didn’t wear perfume or go to a beauty shop. Lipstick was her only concession to cosmetics.
Farm life is strenuous and follows a set routine with little margin for error. Rules and boundaries are necessary to insure productivity and safety. They aren’t up for vote. Mother worked hard, gardening, running a household with no modern appliances, cooking, feeding livestock. In spite of its demands, she seemed comfortable with her life and in those days, it was not out of the ordinary. Girls married, raised their families on the family homestead, and once the children were out of the house, they cared for their parents and grandchildren, continuing the pattern of generations. If girls went to college, it was to become a teacher or a nurse until the children came. Though we never discussed it, I knew this was what was expected of me, of all of us, and it terrified me.
I was a boisterous and curious child, a puzzle to my parents; forever pushing the boundaries, challenging the rules, asking why. I read everything I could find in our small library. I was fascinated with faraway places, exotic religions, unfamiliar life styles and beliefs. From a small child, I ached to get out in the “real world,” and abruptly left home at my first opportunity. It was a foolhardy decision made with all the selfishness and confidence of youth. Of course I expected Mother to be disappointed, but instead she was profoundly, uncharacteristically, angry. This was not a decision I could not undo, she told me. Once I crossed the threshold, she told me, the door would lock behind me. That shocked and baffled me, still does. But I knew she meant what she said and anyway, I couldn’t imagine wanting to go back.
And so began our decades-long uneasy journey. Over the years, she “forgot” birthdays, ignored awards, expressed no interest in my accomplishments. All contact between us was one-way. She rarely visited; she never called or wrote. Nothing I did seemed to interest her. I get it, I thought. I blew my chance when I rejected her and her way of life.
It hurt, but I moved on. I couldn’t go home again, so instead I tried to convert her to my lifestyle. This may have been an effort to justify my rash decision to leave home, I’m not sure. But leaving any guilt aside, I couldn’t believe she could be happy, that anyone could be, with such a claustrophobic lifestyle. She had few friends, little outside interest beyond church on Sundays and visits with relatives. Her recreation was limited to crossword puzzles, soap operas and romance novels. I was sure she would want more if only she knew about it, if it was offered to her. Surely she would be delighted to have some of the luxuries her harsh farm life had denied her! I was relentless. I enrolled her in exercise programs, bought her the latest labor-saving appliances, sent her books to read. But to my frustration, she was not interested. The appliances remained in their boxes, the gym membership expired, the books lay on the coffee table, untouched.
This distorted dance continued for years; I pursued, she withdrew. As much as I told myself it didn’t matter what she thought of me, it did matter. A lot. I believed she never forgave me for leaving home, and that her withdrawal from me was my punishment for breaking the rules. I thought she saw my leaving as a rejection not only of my heritage, but of her way of life. But in my mind, I was simply choosing the way I wanted to live my life, nothing more. And in retrospect, I wonder if the same might have been was true for her. Was her withdrawal from me not a rejection at all; but simply her way of living out her life as she saw fit?
The mother-daughter tie is primal, enigmatic, eternal, the strongest of the familial bonds. It is Mother who breathes the breath of life into us. She is our first role model, the architect of those first deep wrinkles in our developing brains. Regardless of what we think or what we tell ourselves, our mothers matter to us, will always matter, probably much more than we realize.
On this Mothers Day, I wish I could re-live the times I hurt and disappointed my mother. I wish we had understood each other better; that we could have been close. But at the end of the day, the maternal bond prevailed and over the years we developed a companionable, if not affectionate relationship. We had some good years.
My mother died over 25 years ago. But there are still nights that she visits my dreams, mornings when I wake up thinking I need to call her. Mother still matters, she will always matter.
About 20 years ago, my husband and I bought a lake house near the small community in Louisiana where I grew up. During our working years, it was our retreat, our refuge from the stress of our fast paced lives. We loved drinking our morning coffee on the deck, watching the miracle of the morning sunrise over the lake: squirrels chattering and swinging from tree to tree, Blue jays, cardinals, finches, and sparrows competing for the bird feeder, a whooping crane perched on one twig-leg, snatching fish from the lake with a stab of his beak, and if we were lucky, one of the two resident golden eagles skimming the lake in search of breakfast. We watched as fisherman sped past in their bass boats headed home with their early morning catch. And lazy afternoons gliding over the mirror-waters of the lake in our “barge boat” (pontoon boat if you’re further north), our two Boston Terriers perched on a bench, tongues lapping the breeze.
What we hadn’t expected, however, was…..
If not for the satellite antennas, jet skis and BMWs, a visitor might think he had stepped through a time warp into the ’60s. The pace of life is pretty much the way I remember it as a child. No need to rush, even when driving. (Maybe that explains my collection of speeding tickets…) Going to the grocery store is a visiting opportunity – allow at least an extra half hour. There is a time-honored sequence visitors must follow upon leaving; fixing-to-get-ready-to-go, getting-ready-to-go, fixing-to-go, and y’all-come-to see-us. Allow at least 20 minutes.
Community is seamlessly woven into the fabric of daily life. There is always time to visit. Friends, relatives and neighbors drop by unannounced, bringing fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, blueberries (lots of) squash from their gardens, blueberry muffins, home-made bread warm from the oven, a crocheted do-dad, (“I’ve been needing me one of them” is an appropriate response). No need for neighborhood watch or security cameras here. If you aren’t seen leaving home, (and you always are) for a day or two, someone will come around to make sure you’re OK. This is, of course, also a fine excuse to see what you’re up to. Once when we pulled to the side of the road to make a phone call, someone stopped, rolled down the window and yelled, “Y’all OK?” Case in point.
Community is hardwired into the culture.
Although I was unaware of it, that was my mindset when I left for California after graduating high school. I was desperate to get away, to shed the confines and responsibilities of community. I was weary of the nosyness and yes, the accountability of community. In a word it was just plain inconvenient.
But the values of hospitality, trust and honesty were so deeply ingrained in me that they were unconscious. It was just the way I operated. So I was bewildered when my smiles at people on the streets of San Francisco were met with glares as they brushed past. (“What’s she up to…”) Confused when the cookies I took to welcome a neighbor were met with a door slammed in my face (after all who knew what was in those cookies!! ) Offended when my request to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor was grudgingly granted with the admonition to be sure to pay it back (people can’t be trusted…) Embarrassed at the sly chuckles as I ran after the stranger who dropped his wallet. (What a hick..)
It took awhile, but eventually I got it: Trust, honesty and hospitality are naive and totally uncool. And no way to get ahead. Every man for himself. Self reliance. That’s cool. That’s how you get ahead.
So I learned to look through people I rushed past on the street. I was astonished, but not distressed, when a co-worker was murdered and cut into chunks by her father. (Was there a memorial service for her? I don’t think so..) I watched dispassionately as a handcuffed neighbor was escorted from his house followed by EMTs carrying a body on a stretcher.
Eventually there was no more “we”; only “them” and “us.” And “they” were assumed adversaries until proven otherwise. People I met daily at the bus stop were familiar strangers. I became adept at “working the system.” I learned how find tax loopholes, to badger merchants to get the best “deal,” to rewire cables to “beat” (not cheat..) utility companies, to push to the front of the line. In short, I learned it was not about us, but about me; all about me. After all, where had that hokey countryfied attitude got me but broke, belittled and marginalized. “Smart” people put themselves first and if that caused problems for someone else, well, that’s life. And this attitude was not limited to California; it was my experience of metropolitan life in general.
This “me first” philosophy seemed to work well for a while. I did, in fact, “get ahead.” My standard of living greatly improved. I had the latest appliances; services and conveniences my mother could never have imagined. I never ironed. My clothing came from “the right” stores, I drove an expensive car, my dog came from championship lines. But the more “stuff” I got, the longer my list of “must haves” grew. Not what I expected. Neither was I expecting that this way of doing business would leave me increasingly lonely and isolated. I was sure I would attract an adoring crowd once I was “successful.” But of course, the people around me we all just like me….expecting me to be part of their adoring crowd. This kind of success had brought anything but happiness. And eventually, the pains of chasing mirages disappearing over the horizon became greater than the challenge of living out my own truth. I knew better, had always known better.
Because of time and distance, trips to the lake were infrequent during these years, but we managed two or three a year. And on each visit, as I reflected more deeply about this community, I saw truths I hadn’t seen growing up, truths only visible through the lens of age and experience. I saw how a sense of place grounds the soul. How immutable our symbiosis with the earth and its creatures. How the soul of the community is continuously formed and re-shaped by the spirits of each of its members. And I get it, all communities have their problems. But paradoxically, it is when the community thrives, that its members are nourished. Not, as I had been led to believe, the other way round.
I might have learned these lessons elsewhere. But it is here that I feel most grounded. It is here that I learned that true success comes only to the soul at peace.
You order iced tea and your server responds, “Sweet or unsweet?
A stranger strikes up a conversation with you at the produce counter and you don’t look for the manager.
It’s hard to find parking in the church parking lot on Sunday.
The ONLY dressing is cornbread dressing.
The “ballgame” means football.
Mama is a force to be reckoned with.
Men look forward all year to a weekend on a freezing lake in an outrageous contraption hoping to bag a duck or two.
If you visit, you have to eat.
And family is forever.
An only child and the oldest granddaughter I was overindulged and sheltered by adoring parents and relatives. And when things went wrong for me, I just picked up my toys and went home.
That didn’t work so well as an adult.
And things aren’t going so well these days. Political turmoil, war and poverty, mega fires, devastating floods, social upheaval, financial instability. And I must admit, my first reaction isn’t to charge headlong into the battle, but to hide, the adult version of “picking up my toys and going home.”
I hear a lot these days about people fleeing the country in desperation. I understand and share their frustration. We have a huge drug problem, our infrastructure is failing, our schools are falling behind, the middle class is struggling, our immigration policies don’t work, our racial divide is widening. Not to mention mass shootings and natural disasters. I hear all that.
But I have to wonder how many of those thinking of leaving the country have lived in or visited other countries for extended periods of time. One look at the nightly news shows us that these are not problems specific to us; they exist the world over. No country is exempt from problems and even if there were such a Nirvana, there is no way to hide there. Our community is global.
Besides, we have so much to fight for, so much we take for granted. Our public education, flawed, but still a route out of poverty for (I’m a case in point). Freedom of speech. No one is imprisoned for criticizing the government or attending religious services. Our cities have clean water and our children are vaccinated against deadly diseases. Our breathtakingly beautiful national parks are open to everyone. For starters.
But it’s not free. To quote Edmund Burke,
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. “
And it all counts. Every thing we don’t say, every seed not planted, word not written, neighbors’ pain ignored, adds to the turmoil, desperation and fear around us. It might be uncomfortable, even dangerous to face our problems. But we can’t afford to pick up our toys and go home.