I had to chuckle most recently when I was about to introduce a speaker and she told me in a hushed, whispered tone: “Don’t tell anyone I am a Yankee.”
With her warm smile and natural gift for gab, I would have never guessed. Well, maybe folks in Southern Ohio talk a little differently … I did have a slight clue.
The truth is the things that make us Southern have less to do with geography than being in a “state of mind.”
As a seventh-generation Mississippian, I can truthfully say that the State of Mississippi is my physical home as well as my metaphysical or spiritual home.
I swam in its creeks, been baptized in its lakes, played in its mud and eaten of its bounty, which includes plenty of venison steaks, fried catfish and scuppernong grapes.
I have basked in the warm glow of the magnificent setting sun on a Biloxi beach, shimmied to the sounds of blues and gospel in the Delta and swayed to a gentle bluegrass waltz in the hill country.
I have field-dressed a deer, cradled a dying old grizzled hound dog in my lap and sobbed at the sight of my beautiful, sweet child entering the world.
I have dined on fried chicken in cemeteries, wiped my brow and swatted wasps during an interminable sermon in an unairconditioned church and shucked my shoes to squish my toes in the soft red clay of my ancestors.
When I die and they cart my body to its final resting place, be assured I will be buried in the dark, rich Mississippi earth, surrounded by kin and loved ones who nurtured my soul and enriched my life.
For in the end, Mississippi is the place where I have buried my kin, lay my head and lick my wounds. It will forever be home.
On Dec. 10, this magnificent and often much-maligned state will celebrate its 200th anniversary.
I do not need an official proclamation to tell me how special this place and its people are to me.
My grandmother Lucy belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a half dozen other organizations but she never mentioned it once or displayed any official document touting her grace or intelligence.
The only certificate I ever saw displayed was one bestowed upon her by the University of Mississippi for her literacy efforts in helping to teach young people how to read.
And read, she did. Because of her, I was acquainted with the works of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and other talented Mississippi writers.
She regaled me with tales of watching Elvis Presley once walk down a street in Verona, near Tupelo, with a guitar slung over his shoulder.
The fact is proclamations are nice. Things to hang on the wall are nice. But one doesn’t have to wear his or her pedigree on their sleeve to prove they are Southern.
They don’t need to genuflect before statues, wave flags, attend political rallies awash with plenty of hot rhetoric, or skewer a perceived foe to prove they have Southern mettle.
It is their birthright. They are Southern by the grace of God.
They will be known as Southerners by the way in which they treat others. They will known by the way they show kindness to strangers. They will be known by offering someone another seat at their table. They will be known as Southerners by the way in which they gladly offer their coat or the keys to their car.
You see, when people say, “bless your heart,” it’s not always a subtle putdown.
As a Southerner, I do indeed feel like I have a blessed heart. It’s a warm and fuzzy kind of feeling I want to share with others. To all my Yankee friends who now call Mississippi home, I say “welcome to the family.”