Living in the South…A primer

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After George Ivey overcame my objections to moving from Connecticut to North Carolina in 1980 by offering to take off his “Coonskin Cap” if I would agree, we packed up our two children aged six and almost one, a cat and anything we didn’t want the movers to handle, squeezed into Alec’s Saab and struck out. I had lived in the South once before when Alec was in the Army (one year in Newport News) and my feelings for the land of Dixie were colored by my interactions with the military, my acquaintance with Southern Belle Army wives eager to see their husbands serve in Vietnam to move up in rank, and Klansmen who forced me and a carful of small Black children off the road and into a ditch. George asked me to lay aside my preconceptions about the South and to give Charlotte a chance. I did.

The trip down was memorable for me in the cramped backseat with the cat and the baby, both yowling the whole way. We stopped at a rest stop outside Greensboro and encountered a busload of old ladies on the way to PTL to meet with Tammy Faye Bakker. They told me of their love for the Bakkers and how many of them had hocked their wedding bands to pay for the trip. They were appalled that I didn’t know who Jim and Tammy Bakker, television Evangelists, were.

We finally rolled into Charlotte at lunchtime on a Sunday. We were exhausted, hungry, rumpled and drained, but happy to be at the end of the long journey. We got off the Interstate on Tyvola Road and stopped, for some strange reason, at a Ryan’s Family Restaurant, which was packed with people dressed in Sunday best. Already I felt strange because Sunday in a restaurant in the Northeast is a time for casual, laid-back brunches with the Sunday Times. We were seated next to a large party of what I now know was a group of church folk with their pastor. Everyone was dressed up and gazing respectfully at the pastor who sat at the head of the table. The fashions were unfamiliar to me, dressy and cheap-looking, lots of ruffles and flowers. As I studied the group like a specimen under a magnifying glass, I jerked up when I realized that the woman seated to the preacher’s right had no arms and was feeding herself with her bare foot which grasped her fork. Everyone at the table acted like there was nothing amiss. I started crying. I felt so sorry for her, was proud of her, but wanted to get back in the car and drive back to Connecticut.

Clearly we didn’t give up, though. We moved into one house after another in Charlotte, looking for the right place, and I continued to be both puzzled and delighted about living in the South. Back in the Eighties, fashion was a big shocker for me. Grown women in Charlotte wore pantyhose even on the hottest days. They loved silk shirts with big bows at the neck. And they collected gold beads on a chain, Add-A-Bead necklaces. They wore make-up. They dressed in business suits for garden club meetings. I failed to make the grade in my torn jeans and Indian wrap skirts and was black-balled from the garden club.

Years later, I am still taken aback by the regional differences I encounter daily. It is not unusual for a stranger to bring up Jesus in a casual conversation. Yesterday I was waiting on line at the bank and the man in front of me turned around to cheerfully tell me that Jesus had made a beautiful day for us. I answered appropriately, “Yes, we are Blessed.”

It  is not uncommon to see bumper stickers telling you to “Honk if you love Jesus,” and declaring that “Real men love Jesus.” Many rough-looking teenagers wear tee shirts emblazoned with gigantic crosses. Lots of tattoos on the arms and chests of people have religious themes.

The other thing that is different here is that people are way too open. You are considered rude if you don’t smile and say “Hey!” to everyone whose path you cross. Also, people you don’t know tell you way too much. A complete stranger approached me in the supermarket line to tell me that she was too hot. “It’s the Menopause!” she announced. “It started just last month, and I tell you I have to change the linens every day because of those night sweats.” TMI.

Because I am a shit-talker, one of the many, many things I really love about the South is that people are Plain Speakers. You can say anything you want to about someone as long as you follow it with, “Bless her heart!” For example, “John Doe smells like butt. Bless his heart.” Or “Mary looks like a ho in that short skirt. Bless her heart.”

In addition to sweet tea, great fried chicken, and perfect weather, I love the friendliness and warmth of the people here. I do not really fit in here, but as my sister said, I “finally found a place where (I) blend!” I wouldn’t live anywhere else.