City Girl Studies on Southern Culture

We “women-folk” were sitting on the front porch at Granny Grump’s Sunday. We’d just finished cleaning up the dinner mess and had adjourned to the porch. Granny, Aunt Myrtle, Mamma Jane, Mz Marie and I struck a uniform pose of relaxation with our church skirts askew and the porch splinters picking runs in the ankles and heels of our nylons.
We were too exhausted to care.
Myrtle-n-em were face fanning, the ordeal of cooking while suffering from hot flashes having taken it’s toll. I was sucking in fresh air and wondering – if you spent hours trapped in a room with hot bubbling pig flesh – could cholesterol could clog your bronchial tubes?

Sunday dinners normally aren’t such a big production. Hot Dogs or “balonie samwhiches” are the typical fare; however, this was a special occasion. Granny Grump had gone “whole hog” because Lil’ LaDonna was visiting from Maine. Lil’ LaDonna was Granny’s cousin Martha’s sister-in-law’s niece. Apparently, she was a lit student at university, and for some reason, had decided to “study” her country cousins.
Aunt Myrtle had gone to a lot of trouble to make a good impression. Last week, she’d gone to Wal-Mart and purchased a new sheets, two tapestry throw pillows adorned with elephants for Granny’s circa 1974 plaid sofa and several fancy little bath soaps. I know this because Granny forced me to go into the bathroom and look at them Thursday when I’d brought her my old Ladies Home Journals.
“Didja see em? Purty ain’t they? Shaped like roses. Don’t know how you supposed to wash anything with them though? If I tried to wash my big ass with those, they’d get lost! ” Granny’d said.
I’d picked Lil’ LaDonna up at the airport the day before and was shocked to discover that she could have easily weighed in at 250 pounds. Naturally, Granny, who hadn’t seen the girl since she was four, exclaimed truthfully upon greeting her, “Good Lawd Girl, you look like you done swallered yourself… four or five times.”
I grinned.

I had decided on the drive in that I didn’t particularly like LaDonna. Something about her manner rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps it was how she wrinkled up her nose at everything: my raggedy UT sweatshirt (What did she expect? Black Tie at the baggage claims? ) Lunch at Long Johns, the raggedy people in the parking lot, the houses, cows, dogs… The things that offended her sensibilities seemed endless.
So, my intention had been to dump her at Granny’s house and skip Sunday dinner. However, as the only family member, who had traveled extensively beyond the invisible southern borders, LaDonna requested my presence.
So, here we were – departing from Bad en route to Worse.
We’d met at Granny’s at 8AM. We’d taken the cousin to the Battle Creek Baptist Church. The preacher ran out of steam around 1. Dinner was on the table by 2. Lil’ LaDonna must’ve thought her role as an observer pardoned her from doing her share. I noticed, however, it did not prevent her from eating.
“You cook everything with pork fat,” she pointed out with her nose wrinkled, then proceeded to eat until there was nothing but grease floating around in the pot.
During dinner, the women discussed the basics of Southern Culture: family, community, church, quilting, cooking and manners. The men shared their thoughts on hunting, fishing, racing – and in order to make a good impression, they exaggerated the size of all things Southern: engines, animals, wallets and body parts.
After we’d adjourned to the porch, LaDonna asked me, “Have you ever been west of Missouri? That is one of the Southerner’s pretend boundaries,” She proclaimed as if I should be impressed by her extensive knowledge.
I bit my tongue, and Granny Grump piped up.
“Missouri? Whar’s that?” She asked then waved away her own question, “Pro’ly up towards the top of the map somewhere, but I don’t know no people what live up there, so the place can’t be much worth a damn, can it? If it were, you’d reckon somebody’d live there, wouldn’t they? Now, I know folks in Narshville.”
LaDonna was still frowning,”Narshville? Now, is that…”
“It’s the capitol of the state of Tennessee, girl,” Granny snapped then eyed LaDonna suspiciously, “I thought you said you was in college?”
“I am,” LaDonna assured her.
“Well, they sure as shit ain’t teachin’ you much, are they?” Granny proclaimed.
It was official. We had arrived at worse.
After a few moments of silence, LaDonna wrinkled her nose and announced.
“Well, Southern families are very patriarchal I’ve noticed.”
The rocking chair groaned as Granny reared herself up, “Now, I ain’t an educated woman but I ain’t sure I like what you said. ”
“She thinks the men lead the families down here.” I explained.
And six sets of female eyes wandered down to the edge of the yard. Our fearless leaders were down there surveying the uppermost branches of a large oak tree.
Aunt Myrtle had sent them off to rig-up a rope swing immediately after dinner. I think she was worried that the men might besmirch the reputation of the entire southern portion of the US. Then what would LaDonna write in her paper? After all, college people would be reading it, and Aunt Myrtle didn’t want to be portrayed as uncouth.
So, there the men were. They had tied the end of the rope through a brick and were now attempting to throw it over the limb. One by one, they each took a turn. Each time the brick missed its target and came hurtling toward the ground, they scattered like confused ants, slipping in the wet grass, cursing and tripping over their own feet. This was a great source of amusement to the children, who sat watching the spectacle from a safe distance up the hill.
Granny Grump shook her head sadly, “Lawdhamercy girl, you really think we’d let those fools lead us anywhere? It’s a wonder they found their way to the edge of the yard by themselves, and half of them pro’ly stepped in dogshit on the way there.”
Mz. Marie’s Sneedville Shopper shook slightly as she attempted to control her giggles. Aunt Myrtle stared off into the distance, perhaps wondering where her dignity had ran off to… and I pressed my lips together and studied the planks of the porch.
Right about then, one of the children came flying up the hill, “Unca Junior hitted hisself in the foot wif a brick!”
Later that afternoon, it was decided LaDonna would accompany me back to Rogersville. After all, she’d have to go to the airport Monday, and this would save me a trip over home. LaDonna carried her own suitcases to the car while the men stood in the front yard studying the swelling of Junior’s foot. So much for Southern Chivalry.
As I hugged Granny Grump goodbye, she said in her most theatrical whisper, “Lawd, I shorely am glad to be gettin’ shed of my company. Now, I don’ hafta hide my pocketbook. “

LaDonna was quiet until we hit the city limits of Rogersville, when she said, “Is she always that mean? ”
“Ah, you can’t take her seriously. She spouts off mostly for shock value,” I explained.
“Why?”
“Considers it a privilege of her age, I guess.”
LaDonna leaned back in the seat, “Well, she’s mean… and ignorant.”

I bristled. I might’ve pointed out how Granny cured my son’s colic with catnip or my daughter’s rash with a homemade salve. I didn’t think LaDonna was smart enough to be impressed by this. It takes a long time to discover that intelligence comes in many different forms, the most solid derived from experience.

” I don’t see why your family doesn’t put her in a nursing home. ” she announced.
“LaDonna, here’s a tidbit for your research. In the south, we’ve all got relatives on the low side of the sane scale. Some of them are crazy. Some are mean. Some are both and plenty of it, but we do NOT discard them when they become inconvenient.”
“I’ve offended you,” she observed.
“Yes, another thing about Southern Culture. We don’t take kindly to strangers badmouthing our kinfolk . Some of us might even be inclined to do something about it.”
“Is that a threat?” she tittered nervously, “What are you going to do beat me up? Get your shotgun?”
“No, I was thinking I might take you back to Granny’s.”

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