Southern Life

Tradition? The South drips and sways with them. Little did I know this when I arrived ten years ago – a Yankee from Michigan via California – but Great Grandpa fought for the Confederates, so perhaps it was inevitable that I ended up here.

California traditions only last five minutes, so there are really few customs save the New Year’s Day Rose Parade – most memorable for the floats created from thousands of flowers and for the “Perpetually Perfect Parade Weather.” What we did in California was make it a tradition to scramble over each other, feet first if necessary, in an endless attempt to climb anything – up the corporate ladder or into bed with somebody.

(Photo by bunchofpants / Creative Commons)

Universal reverence for the elderly was the tradition I immediately recognized upon moving to the South. I came to work on an old Victorian home for an iconic, Southern family. They put me up with Paw-Paw, the family patriarch. He and I lived downstairs, with the younger generation one floor above. Knowing my penchant for cooking, the family hoped my presence ensured Paw-Paw would be well fed. He was.

One day the family came over – the whole rootin’-tootin’ lot of ’em. Evidently word had gotten out, and I was asked to make pancakes, as I had done so many times for Paw-Paw. There, at the long dining table, generations of Jenkins sat, forks in hand, ready to give ‘er a go. But I could only make one pancake at a time, so my conundrum became who gets the first one. About the time that cake was ready, Paw-Paw moseyed over and sat down at the head of the table. Now, I was a bit smitten with one of the family members and wanted to give her the first pancake – maybe curry some favor.

In the end though, after the blessing, I slid the pancake down on Paw-Paw’s plate. His eyes met his son’s, those two pair of eyes met the grandson’s, and back and forth this went for a moment. There was a hanging silence, then Paw-Paw either grunted or farted, I wasn’t sure which, and the son glanced over at me without a word. After that, I was in – I was one of them – because I understood. There’s a hierarchy here, and that’s how it’s done. It’s tradition.

I got a gigantic jolt of tradition going to Ole Miss on game day and partaking of the action down at The Grove. I had long since given up on much civility from large crowds, especially when the alcohol was flowing. So I was flabbergasted to see young men sporting coats and ties, young women wearing dresses that actually covered up their bodies, and the total absence of paper plates.

Instead, everyone laid out rich tablecloths, fine utensils, and linens of all types, not to mention some mouthwatering food. This was no backyard barbeque. This was a big, formal party and everybody respected the rituals. The entire place vibrated with a prescribed hospitality I thought was long gone with the wind.

At one point, the band played Dixie and the entire crowd fell silent. Everyone removed their hats and bowed their heads. No cell phones chirped. Not even church was ever this solemn. In an instant, I was transported back, helped along by having heard the story, just ten minutes prior, that in the “War of Northern Aggression,” over 2,000 students from Ole Miss left and took up arms. Zero came back.

LSU won the game that day, and though the result was in doubt until the very end, the outcome seemed to take a back seat to the other activities, with one exception. That would be the Ole Miss cheer. It’s better after a couple of beers, but even sober, it has a nice ring to it: “Hoty-Toty Gosh O Mighty, Who the hell are we? HEY! Flim flam, Bim bam, Ole Miss by damn!” I asked a dozen people where the cheer originated. It didn’t matter. Nobody cared. Tradition.

With the game now behind us, the party revved back up. Only now, the festivities moved to a private residence. The owners were proprietors of a general store in Oxford – another generation maintaining their position and safeguarding the family business. They were pillars of the community and their house dated from the 1850’s. History and patina stood front and center – along with the folklore.

The resident matriarch was in her 70’s, resplendent with perfect posture and a commanding presence not unlike that of Kathryn Hepburn. Though disappointed with the game’s outcome, she cheerfully pointed out, “The boys gave it their best, no need for anyone’s head to hang as a result.” By God, there weren’t going to be any whiny babies here. Not at her house. Not on her watch.

At one point, the thirty-odd guests jumped to crisp attention and formed a receiving line when the mother of our hostess arrived. I was off in another room noodling on a piano, wondering about all the fuss. I quickly absorbed yet another tradition, and realized that not joining the crowd to “pay my respects” to “Mama” was a certain breach of etiquette. I had more than sand to brush off my languid, California feet.

Soon after, I piped up and asked for a tour around the various rooms, commenting on many of the exquisite pieces of furniture and the deep, rich history. We made our way to the dining room where the main table included a piece of glass better than an inch thick. It rested on what looked like two massive columns – obviously cut down to size and probably the remains of some former, big entry way.

I mentioned the table, especially the beauty of the columns, and inquired about their origin. Immediately, our hostess, the epitome of style, charm, and grace all evening long, turned bitter and sour and full of rancor. I would soon discover why.

She menacingly turned toward me, and with her face tightened down like a vice, said, “That’s all that’s left after they came and burned the courthouse down.” Then her eyes got even bigger. Sensing a foreigner in her midst, in a very cold and accusatory voice she said, “By the way Will, where are you from?”

I said a fast prayer. I needed a save, right here, right now. My prayer was granted. I took a breath and casually replied, “Well, Ma’am, I wasn’t born in the South, but I got here quick as I could.” She backed off only slightly, then muttered as she walked away, “Well, you did the best you could.”

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Will Nelson

Will Nelson

Will Nelson is a Buford resident and his company, Vitalogy.com teaches office workers successful strategies for mind and body. He can be reached at 678-900-0270 or [email protected]

25 Comments
  1. How true. What is really strange is that Democrats, who are supposedly so sensitive to other people’s needs, haven’t been able to capitalize on the store southerners put on tradition and etiquette. Obama tries his best to be polite, but progressive Democrats keep begging for a fight. They don’t score any points when they don’t stand up to the vandals plotting the destruction of Social Security either. Trying is more important than winning. At least, that’s my take.

  2. Great story, Will. I’m a transplanted Yankee myself, and you’ve really captured “Southerness”, here. Thanks for a goody to start my day with.

  3. Will Nelson

    Gail,
    Glad you liked it. I have a few more stories.. I have met some wonderful people down here, vibrant and unpretentious.

  4. Frank Povah

    Good on, Will – to those surviving traditions I would add politeness. Perhaps ot on the raod, but certainly in contact between humans.

  5. Tim Oliver

    Hey, Will, at least she didn’t tell you , “Oh, that table was fashioned from the door of my great-great grandaddy’s outhouse.” It could happen, you know.
    I love it when southern gentility gets turned on its’ head. Just the other night I was watching “Dick Cavett and Mel Brooks, Together Again” on HBO, and heard the story of Talluluh Bankhead’s introduction to New York, and meeting the Marx Brothers. Chico Marx was a notorious lady’s man, and was told before they were introduced, “Chico, I must tell you, Miss Bankhead is a LADY ! Please be polite !” He became indignant and sputtered ” I can be a gentleman, I just play an idiot onscreen and onstage !” So, she enters the room, commanding the attention of all, and the Marx brothers were led over to meet her. Groucho and Harpo were properly wowed, mustering every shred of good behavior. Chico shook her hand and said, “Hello Miss Bankhead, I want to f#$% you.” Supposedly she replied , ” And, you shall, you old-fashioned boy !”

  6. Ha Ha, like that ending, I can hear the “southern” in your text. Let’s hear some more.

  7. Will…Like your style! Give us more! Thanks for looking at the South with the respectful eye of “tradition.”
    We’re missing “rituals” in our lives and you’ve captured part of the essence of what makes the South so comforting – RESPECT! What else can we teach those “lanquid feet?”

  8. After moving North Atlanta from Southern California, I can identify with your article. I have met so many friendly people that would not normally approach me where I lived in California. When I purchased a house in Lawrenceville the receptionist at the real estate office said to me “welcome to the Atlanta area, I hope that you like it here.” What a breath of fresh air.

    Lee Janes

  9. Southern Traditions: More Than Biscuits & Grits — Having lived all over the United States, and outside the U.S. I must say Will makes the south sound very appealing.

  10. Loved this piece! I’m a transplant too. When I moved down here I was ready to put on my superior Yankee attitude, only to fall in love with the accents, the warmth and hospitality, and the genuine intelligence of a strong and wise people who have been through more than I knew. Your work speaks well to the best of a beautiful group of people. Thank you.

  11. A belated welcome to the South Will…glad you “get it”. Maybe one day you’ll get you a bigger pancake skillet.

    1. Will Nelson

      I got a right proper skillet now and cook 5 at a time – bulk cooking – feed an army.

  12. Hey Will,

    Loved the article. I am in the same situation – born and raised in Detroit, but now I live outside Chicago. So I moved South just like you!! Just not the Deep South…People are easy going here and pleasant enough, but I guess that would not qualify as “Southern hospitality” as it is generally understood. As someone said earlier, “you get it,” and that says to me that you “get it” wherever you live. You “got it” in California too. I suspect that you fit in wherever you go, and people find you interesting and acceptable, because you quickly understand their culture. I agree that we have lost many traditions in the U.S. especially family functions, and we might all be the better for resurrecting some of them. We have also lost a good deal of civility as evidenced by the people in the audience who are booing the Republican presidential candidates, the Congressman who shouted at President Obama during one of his speeches, and the many, many, many talking heads on TV news programs who interrupt their guests before they can finish what they are saying. That is just plain rude. The whole country needs a good dose of hospitality and civility.

  13. Way to think on your toes, “getting there (south) as quick as you could.” Better be careful asking too many questions, Yankee, because there might still be some nooses waiting around to hang ya’. It can be quite scary when you see beneath the veil of composure to witness generations of passed down resentment shining darkly back in your face. I like to stay on the friendly surface with people, too, because I don’t really have the skill set to deal with the psychological traumas I encounter. Humans are a whacky bunch. (deep breath) Long Live Paw Paw! P.S. Look forward to reading more stories. KEEP IT UP!

    1. Will Nelson

      “It can be quite scary when you see beneath the veil of composure to witness generations of passed down resentment shining darkly back in your face.”
      Wow… there’s a story… or better yet, a book there. Calling John Steinbeck!

  14. Hi! Loved the article, Will. Please keep on writing more of these captivating stories. Long Live, Paw Paw!

  15. Great read! You really capture the Yankee transplant experience What a strange place the South must seem to a newcomer. Please keep sharing your stories!

  16. Jack deJarnette

    Will,
    I loved it. Having been born and rasied in the South I can’t imagine the experience of moving here. I suppose it can be culture shock as well as an experiece of civility.

    To Frank Povah I would say, living on the Gulf Coast, our experience of impolite driving is mostly from the Northerners who invade the South as the winters turn cold in the North. We love their money so we tolerate their driving.

    As for gentility, it is almost a lost art. I haven’t been chastized lately for holding a door for a lady lately, but come to think of it, I haven’t seen many ladies lately, just women.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we treated others as we would like to be treaded? Humm, wonder who suggested that.

    Will, keep it up, I want to hear your other stories.

  17. Jeff Cochran

    Jack, I have encouraging news. While at Piedmont College near the family homestead this week, I had the chance to hold doors for many ladies, young, and not-so young. They were all appreciative. The same goes for the stores here in the Midtown area. Call them ladies or women, they all seem like very nice people.

  18. Hey Brother!

    A great engaging delightful story! You definitely have a writing talent! Please keep sharing… xo Katie

  19. Well Will, your style is a LITTLE different than mine. We do however try to get a point across. Very well done and have a good one, Bro Bob…………

  20. Will,

    Great article. I am a native Californian who loves the beach but you make it very tempting to consider living in the South. I miss the traditions and manners that seemed to have vanished here. I connect to the era of the 40’s and 50’s where that was a part of daily living. It is also sad where the elderly here aren’t treated well in many cases.

    You should write articles for the Chamber of Commerce…

  21. Welcome to the south!!! Glad you were able to join us. I am very proud to have been born and bred southern. I thoroughly enjoyed your story and hope you will write many more.

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