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Business Casual: Bless Your Heart

 

I always thought my mom’s early life story sounded like the plot of a 1940s-era ro-mantic comedy – pretty, spirited young girl from Georgia moves to the Big Apple in search of adventure and romance. 

The best part of the story for me – and the happy ending for any movie version – was that she married the handsome young New Yorker – my dad – she met on a blind date.

She was proud of making the move “up north” at a time when that was fairly daring for a young woman on her own, and she was, I think, a little sorry that her time in New York came to an end when my father went into the army and was shipped overseas. She moved back to Atlanta to await my arrival.

Two stories she told me stand out – one mostly funny, one not.

At the brokerage house in Manhattan where she worked, her colleagues used to ask her to repeat the sentence, “I’d like a ham sandwich and a Coca-Cola, please” so they could count the extra syllables, laugh and tell her how cute her accent was.

Some of those same office mates were rightly critical of how the South of that time treated its black population; she couldn’t defend her native region but bristled at the smugness of some of the criticism. She was a bit taken aback that not many shared her astonishment at classified ads for apartments that included the line: “Jews Need Not Apply.”

The notion of loving a place even as you see its warts is not new to me or anybody else. The South and its citizens – and I am a proud one, a sixth-generation Georgian on my mother’s side – are full of contradictions. Most of us know what parts of our history to embrace and what to regret, what has been achieved and what is left to do. We understand when our part of the country is deserving of criticism, even though we may not relish hearing it delivered with a heavy dose of self-righteousness.

The South is not a homogeneous place populated by people with uniform opinions and one-size-fits-all frames of reference. But there are commonalities, shared histories and experiences that unite us in many ways – food, music and language among them.

I don’t have a lot of patience with the professional Southerner’s “you-call-that-a-pork-chop” line of conversation, or people who try to out-do each other with tales of their mama’s cornbread or their grandpa’s watermelon-seed spitting. 

But I sure do know that slight throbbing at the temple and stiffening of the spine that most of us experience when condescension comes calling. And does it ever. Decades ago for my mom, it was people listening to her talk funny and being surprised when she said something trenchant. For me, it’s matters large and small – not always malevolent, sometimes just tiresome.

At work, I still get phone calls from out-of-towners who seem surprised that the voice on the southernmost end of the conversation can speak in compound-complex sentences. In my line of business, many of them are publicists, certain we will jump at the chance to interview a third assistant regional vice president who is “going to be down there in Georgia.” I mean, what else could possibly be happening here that would detract from such an exciting professional opportunity? (“Sorry, I’m busy that day – marrying my first cousin.” Or “Can’t do it. I have to go eat some dirt.”)

I know I sound a little cranky, but none of us likes being painted into someone’s narrow idea of a Southern Corner.

It is possible to abhor, as I do, Paula Deen’s comments and clueless flubbed apologies all the while noting that a lot of folks seemed to be lying in wait, positively gloating at the chance to denounce her. And to wonder why some of those folks, if they are so concerned about the way things are in the South, aren’t worried about the Supreme Court’s gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act or yet another Southern legislature (Texas this time) passing a bill that will restrict women’s access to healthcare? Or the U.S. House of Representatives taking food stamps and some community food bank funding out of the farm bill it passed this summer?

To those who find those contradictions hard to fathom: Well, bless your heart.

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