When I was a kid, I used to say, “I speak two languages: English and Hillbilly.” That cracked my mother up, especially when I mimicked Loretta Lynn singing Coal Miner’s Daughter better than Sissy Spacek. My parents are from the south, so I suppose it comes naturally. Even though my sisters and I were born and raised in Toledo, I didn’t really notice that my parents spoke with an accent…not until the neighborhood kids brought it to my attention.
“Why does your mom talk like that?” one of them asked while we were outside playing Red Light, Green Light.
I cocked my head. “Like what?”
“Like a hick,” he smiled. “You don’t talk like one.”
“What’s a hick?”
“Someone from the south.”
I shrugged. “Well, I guess ‘cause she’s from West Virginia, she must be a hick.” Little did I know that wasn’t such a nice thing to say…unless you were spawned south of the Mason/Dixon line and used that euphemism to define people from your own culture.
In our family, it was more acceptable to call someone a “Hillbilly”, which is why I had no problem dressing up as one for Halloween, complete with a corncob pipe, black beard, and bare feet. When the kids in my class asked what I was supposed to be, I twanged, “Cain’t you tell?” After spending the entire afternoon in character, I won “Most Original Costume” in the sixth grade…and got a staple stuck in my heel to boot.
Ah, the price of victory.
Every summer, my family traveled through Kentucky and Tennessee, across North and South Carolina until we reached a barrier island outside of Charleston where we spent a glorious week by the sea. Throughout my childhood I learned the subtle differences between a twang and a drawl, between the “uppity” and “mountain folk” accents. By the time I was in high school, I could imitate any inflection, any intonation of any person I met in the south. In fact, once I was having a conversation with a store clerk when I easily slipped into the regional southern dialect.
“What neighborhood y’all from?” she asked. “I haven’t seen ya ‘round here, honey.”
“Oh, I’m from Ohio,” I twanged, sliding her a few dollar bills.
“Ya are?” she laughed. “Well, I’ll be darned.”
“My parents are from the south,” I explained. “Accents aren’t that hard for me to pick up, ‘specially when I’m hangin’ out with my cousins.”
“Darlin’, ya got ours spot on,” she smiled, handing me some change. “Y’all come back again and we’ll chat some more.”
I’ve always had a soft spot for sweet, southern ladies, for they're the ones who taught me how to enthusiastically start a conversation with a complete stranger. When I drove back to Toledo from Big Sur, my heart lightened just a bit when I stopped at a Cracker Barrel in Missouri to pick up some chocolate and coffee in the general store. Walking past the jars of stick candy, I saw two women behind the counter, both eagerly smiling at me.
“How ya doin’, darlin’?!” one of them exclaimed. “So nice to see ya! Where’re y'all from?”
Tears beaded in my eyes when I instantly recognized their kindness and friendly nature, for there’s nothing quite like southern hospitality. I should know…I was raised by a woman who knew how to entertain with the best of them.
My family was always proud of its southern heritage. My mom had a Marshall University sweatshirt that she proudly wore until it was worn out; then, unwilling to toss it, she donned it to paint our bedrooms, hang wallpaper, and do other odd jobs. Mom routinely cooked hush puppies and grits and mush. Every year on my little sister’s birthday, Greta asked for homemade chicken and dumplings, and my father annually requested a butter cake just like his cousin used to bake.
My older sister had a Scarlett O’Hara doll proudly displayed in her room and often said things like, “Oh, fiddle dee dee,” and “Tomorrow is another day” just to get my goat. In return, I used to mercilessly tease Patricia that she dated a bunch of guys who reminded me of Ashley Wilkes, but what she really needed was a Rhett Butler to put her in her place. As you might imagine, I had nothing in common with the movie’s heroine, except for her first name.
As a matter of fact, my favorite scene from “Gone with the Wind” is when Mammy harshly chides Scarlett, saying, “You jest get in trouble in Atlanta. I’s talkin’ ‘bout Mr. Ashley Wilkes. He’ll be comin’ to Atlanta when he gets his leave, and you set there waitin’ for him jest like a spider.” When Greta and I created a parody of the film called “In With the Breeze”, I lobbied to play Mammy, the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-understanding character, and reveled in the fact that I could parrot the incomparable Hattie McDaniel to a “T”.
Last week I was asked to speak at a local book club whose members had read The Lace Makers. In the middle of the conversation, one of the women asked, “How in the world did you write Sapphire’s dialect?”
“I heard her voice so clearly,” I replied. “She'd say a few lines of exposition, then tell me to ‘write it down.’ So I did…and even though I’ve never written in a dialect before, it was nearly effortless.” Now I clearly understand that Sapphire’s character was greatly influenced by Mammy’s, and perhaps she’s the younger version of that wise, wonderful woman who says it like it is.
I’ve never lived in the south, yet have connections there even today. Two cousins live in Texas. One aunt still resides in Huntington, West Virginia, while the other in southern Ohio, right across the river. My uncle spent most of his adult life in the south, but now resides in the Chicago area. Every time we talk on the phone, it’s a joy to hear the soft lilt in his voice.
Last Friday, a friend from high school stopped by on her way home to Georgia. Angelia and her husband, Greg, had been to Niagara Falls and made their way through the horrors of northern Ohio road construction to have a home cooked dinner here with me. Alas, hush puppies and grits weren’t on the menu, but they seemed to enjoy the vegan Patra and mixed green salad, complements of my backyard garden. We sat on the porch enjoying the evening breeze and a bowl of avocado mousse with strawberries, laughing as the fireflies came out and the nearly-full moon rose over the tree line.
Angelia calls me “Katie Belle”, and I have to laugh, for I’d never consider myself to be a southern charmer. Sassy and brassy and smart-mouthed to boot, I’m much more salty than sweet...not that I'd want to be anything else. As a kid, when I saw Carol Burnett dressed up in a pair of natty drapes, complete with a brass curtain rod balanced precariously across her shoulders, I thought, Yeah, that’s my kind of Scarlett!
Growing older, I’ve found I can embody the best of both worlds – the one my parents grew up in and the one in which I was born. I can be the “hostess with the mostess”, offering a plethora of baked gluten-free goodies or a vegan meal that will hopefully expand my guests’ palate. I can make anyone feel at home simply by telling them to rest their feet on the furniture or offering a cup of chai or chamomile tea. No one leaves without taking something with them, be it some dark chocolate, a bag of fresh, organic spinach from the garden, or a little bit of peace that comes from knowing they’ve been seen and heard and loved.
I’m proud to be a Belle of the Midwest, happy to welcome people to my place for a yoga class, a cup of something warm and wonderful, or an unconventional conversation. Over the years, I've learned that a house becomes a home when laughter and love are shared with friends, when the joy of being who we are is as effortless as slipping into a southern dialect.
So the next time you're passin' through my neighborhood, y'all stop by and set a spell...ya hear?