I recently returned from a quick trip to visit my mom. She lives in Alabama, my home state. I say home state because it’s not only the state where I was born but also where I lived my first 22 years. It’s still where most of my family lives. It’s where I feel connected because it holds many ghosts from my past.
When I go home, I bond again to a rich Southern culture that is rarely understood by anyone except another Southerner. It has nothing to do with a Confederate flag, the Civil War, slavery, etc. It has everything to do with a good and decent way of life, with drawling speech and with kindness to everyone. This culture may be similar to other parts of the United States or of the world, and I hope it is, but since I have lived my entire life in the South, its culture is what I know.
While driving through the county roads that always need maintenance, I thought about how similar they look to all the times I have driven them before. Sure there are some new buildings along the way, but not much has changed in the rural/county areas. There are still huge pine trees, closely-managed pecan groves, long chicken houses, kudzu vines galore and acres and acres of Southern snow – cotton.
My paternal grandfather was a cotton farmer and paid people to hand pick the cotton that the mechanical picker left behind. They carried huge white cloth sacks that took them forever to fill and they worked all day in the scorching heat. I don’t know how much they were paid, but it probably wasn’t much. Once when I was around six years old, my grandfather told me that he’d pay me $.25 to fill a bag. I picked for about five minutes and left to spend the rest of the day jumping into the cotton-filled wagons.
On my recent trip, I told my fellow traveler, my 10-year-old granddaughter, all about cotton and its importance to the South. I told her that when I was her age, I learned in school about the evil boll weevil, Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, and the cotton farmer’s savior, George Washington Carver and his peanuts. I was taught Alabama history/civics in grades 4, 8 and 10, so I know a lot about the history of the state – every important part from the four major American Indian tribes and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War and slavery to the governor at the time, George C. Wallace.
I learned all of this history of Alabama and of the South, but what does it mean to be Southern? It’s not really one thing I can put my finger on, but I know it’s much more than just being born in one of the states below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Being Southern means worrying and worrying about something for a long time and finally letting go of your worry by telling yourself, “Just turn it over to the Lord.” It’s taking black-eyed peas and a peach cobbler to a church member’s house when his family member dies because food is comfort. It’s killing someone with kindness even though you don’t like the person and you don’t want her to know it, or that person knows you don’t like her and you want her a little bit paranoid. It’s going to church on Sunday or not going and toting a huge load of guilt the rest of the week.
Southern food plays a huge part of the culture. The South is synonymous for fried chicken, turnip greens, corn bread, buttermilk biscuits, fruit cobbler and watermelon. Watching Paula Deen cook is like being in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a kid. Oh my, the food was to die for. Actually, the food caused many early deaths because much of it contained artery-clogging ingredients like lard and sugar.
The people who think Southerners are slow simply because we speak that way are far from wrong. The South is filled with many smart people who are great spokespersons for this culture. Take former President Jimmy Carter, for example. You may not agree with his politics, but he’s one of the most intelligent and highly-educated POTUSs. His legacy is not what he accomplished when he was in office but all that he did to better humanity when he left the Presidency. And he did it all while still teaching Sunday school each Sunday.
My quick trip home revitalized me. Maybe the fields of cotton have the same relaxing effect as sitting by the beach. Maybe those country roads that are always the same allow me to drive automatically so I can mentally relive past events. Maybe going home gives me the chance to visit the ghosts of my past and remember what being a Southerner is all about.