Born and raised in the South, I have naturally known Southern ladies all my life, starting with my momma, her friends, and my aunts; moving on to my schoolteachers, Sunday school teachers, and the mothers of my friends. As a child, I simply assumed all women were like these wonderful ladies who, each in her own way, strongly, gently, and often unintentionally shaped who I grew up to be.Share
Somehow I managed to hold onto this assumption until, as a young married woman, I came to know Jeanne Prescott, the wife of my husband’s boss. To me, Jeanne was the epitome of a Southern lady. She had done a fine job of raising a good boy and a sweet girl. Her style of dress was always tasteful, appropriate, and pretty. She could be counted on to be kind, thoughtful, and genuinely interested in you. And to my delight, beneath her calm and reserved manner lurked a wicked wit that would leap out unexpectedly and send me into fits of laughter.
So when Jeanne shared her story with me, I was surprised. She was actually born and raised in Danville, Illinois, coming to live in the South after she married Jim, a small-town Georgia boy. As a newlywed, she found herself plunged into a culture foreign to her. She felt like an outsider who didn’t fit in with Southern ladies—that is until, after studying us, she finally figured us out. “All you have to do,” she told me, “is say two things: ‘How’s yo’ momma?’ and ‘Love yo’ hair’.”
Who knew? Since then, I pay more attention to what we say—and we do have our ways. Maybe I’ve had one of the worst days of my life: The dog ran away; the school called to tell me that my child got sick and needs to come home; my mother called to tell me she fell and might need me to take her to the hospital for X-rays; my husband, unable to get through, left a message on my cell phone that he’s bringing two friends home for supper; there are no groceries to speak of in the house, and as Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard put it, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.” Yet on this very day, if I run into a Southern lady friend at the grocery store, I know our exact conversation: “Well, hi, how are you?” she’ll ask. And smiling, I will answer, “Just fine, thank you, how are you?”
Yes ma’am. Our mommas taught us to be polite. (Read more.)