North and South
Unbeknownst to me, these were some of the misconceptions that I faced when I journeyed South at the tender age of 18. I learned a lot that first year and after almost 20 years in the South, I'm still learning.
Despite the yawning chasm of cultural divergence, I married a Southern country boy. And though he had been succesfully citifed by the time I met him, his family remained firmly entrenched in their small town ways, antiquated attitudes, and stereotypical beliefs regarding those who hail from North of the Mason Dixon line. It has made for some mighty entertaining moments over our 13 years of marriage.
The first time I took my then fiancee, who had never been further north than Tennessee, home to Wisonsin was Christmas of 1992. They were having a brutal cold snap, with wind chills near 30 below zero. I, who had journeyed home a week before him, called to remind him to dress warmly. He assured me he would. My parents and I went to pick him up at the small municipal airport, which did not have the luxury of jetways like the large international airport from which he had departed. We, along with many other families eagerly awaiting the yuletide return of widely scattered loved ones, watched as passengers deplaned and made their way to accross the tarmac. As my beloved appeared at the hatch dressed in a leather bomber jacket, a silk shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, two things happened.
First, the smile on his lips froze in place as the saliva on his exposed gums instantly crystallized, turning his boyish grin into an agonized rictus of disbelief. Secondly, his testicles retreated into his abdominal cavity with such force and velocity that he was momentarily convinced that they had simply disintegrated in the savage cold; frozen solid and fragmented into tiny, sperm laden shards. Everyone saw his reaction to the frigid conditions, and a collective exclamation of pity was heard, sort of like "Yeahhhoooooh." My Dad, though trying to amenable, could not resist muttering to my mother "Doesn't that boy have any sense?"
Well, yes, he had plenty of sense, but he had Southern sense, not Northern sense. He simply had no frame of reference for judging cold of such bone piercing brutality. "Cold" in Georgia means throw on a jacket and you can always take it off if it's too much. Cold in Wisonsin means long underwear and Goretex, and a stadium blanket in the trunk in case its not enough. I blamed myself for not explaining the difference between stiff nipple cold and mother of god I can't feel my butt cheeks cold and specifying that we were dealing with the latter. But my Dad wasn't buying it. He grumbled sotto voce to my mother, "It's cold, you put on a sweater for Chrissake."
Despite the rocky start, my husband and my family actually hit it off quite well, and the rest of the week went smoothly. My parents' annual New Year's Eve bash was my first opportunity to show him off to those outside the family. Being a pretty great guy, he made a good impression and scored big points by proving his willingness to laugh along with everybody else when he complained that the beer sitting outside the back door would not be sufficiently cold for his taste and when it was revealed in a semi-drunken revelry that he knew all the words to "Sweet Home Alabama."
He endured it all with good humor, but the first Thanksgiving with his family a month previous has proven just as harrowing for me, so he owed me one. After five years of spending my solitary Thanksgivings in front of the tv eating pumpkin flavored ice cream out of the carton, I was looking forward to a family Thanksgiving dinner. My mouth was watering at the thought of turkey and stuffing, and all the accompaniments. I chose a nice dry Chardonnay to bestow upon my future in-laws, hoping to make a good impression.
When we arrived, the kitchen was awash with aromas; some familiar, some decidedly alien. I spied several dishes that were unidentifiable to me, but, being gastronomically adventurous, I resolved to try everything. I hugged my future mother in law and handed her the bottle of wine. She thanked me graciously, then apologized for the lack of a corkscrew and placed the bottle on the uppermost shelf in her kitchen cabinet, next to a coffe can full of nuts and bolts, and a bedraggled plastic floral arrangement.
My fiancee whispered in my ear "Chattooga is a dry county, hon." Wha??? A dry county? I thought those were a myth, like tar paper shacks and people marrying their first cousin, both of which, I later found, were not in fact, myths. "Why didn't you TELL me?" I hissed back. He shrugged..."I thought you knew." I momentarily considered asking for it back; it was a $40 bottle of Mer Soleil, after all. But I decided it would be in poor taste, so I resigned myself to drinking ice water with the meal. I couldn't help but cast one last longing glance at the lovely Chardonnay, which did not go unnoticed.
We settled in at the table whereupon I was given the dubious honor of saying Grace. I couldn't help but think it was test of some kind, though in reality, it was most likely just a kind gesture meant to made me feel welcome and included. Having already exposed myself as a raging alcoholic, I was reluctant to add Godless Heathen to the quickly lengthening list of shortcomings. Nevertheless, I passed the buck to my fiance with as much diplomacy as I could, as my mealtime prayer repertoire had never evolved beyond "Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub." The ease with which he channelled Jerry Falwell was slightly disconcerting, but I chose to overlook it in light of the fact that he had saved me from being branded a drunken impious wretch by people I would have had to spend the next 30 or 40 years sucking up to in an effort to convince them that I am not the devil's concubine and our children his imps.
At long last the food was served, and most of it seemed perfectly palatable. By and by, however, I was passed a Pyrex bowl filled with something that resembled kelp and smelled like feet. I looked up to find half a dozen pairs of eyes fixed upon me expectantly. My future father-in-law proudly pronounced, "Them's Collard Greens. Linda boils em with streaked (pronounced stree-ked) meat for flavor." "Is that so?" I replied. I did not know what streaked meat was, and I wasn't sure I wanted to. Reminding myself of my resolve to try everything, I enthusiastically placed a pulpy dab upon my plate.
I found myself repeating that reminder when I was handed a bowl of liquid the color and consistency of snot. I hesitated, uncertain of its exact purpose. My
The lesson I learned that day is....don't put anything that smells like feet in your mouth, and there are things in this world that taste worse than snot.
To be fair, there were some truly delectible dishes on the table that day. My mother-in-law can make the lightest, flakiest, most succulent apple turnovers you have ever tasted in your life. They call them fried apple pies. I call them orgasmic. She can make biscuits of transcendant fluffiness, creamed taters that melt in your mouth, and fried chicken that defies description. I've never mastered the art of frying chicken despite her patient instruction, and I definitely do not have the biscuit gene, so despite the initial shock of my first experience with collard greens and giblet gravy, I have to admit to her superiority in the kitchen.
Since that fateful day 13 years ago, we've struggled through many issues related to our cultural differences. Some, such as collard greens, were trivial, and easy to laugh at later. Some of the differences were deeper and harder to reconcile and some we still labor to overcome. But I've learned that my in-laws are good, kind, and generous people and that a lazy drawl can disguise a keen intellect and quick wit.
I still pine for home, of course. And no matter how many years I've been here, I still can't get into the Christmas spirit without snow or cope with the crushing humidity during the interminable summer. But I've learned to appreciate the genteel charm, rich history, and easy hospitality of the South.
After 20 years, I guess it's growing on me. Now, if we could just do something about the Metro area traffic, I might be persuaded to stay.