Not just anyone can make it as a son (or daughter) of The South. There’s a special flare to being southern. . .
THE LANGUAGE: No matter how things are spelled down here, we are notorious for adding, subtracting or rearranging letters and, sometimes, complete syllables within our pronunciation. For instance, if something is likely to take place, it will prob’ly happen. You may find that you have painted yourself into a co’ner, own a dawg, live in V’ginia or reside in a ha-ose. And, one of the largest cities in Florida is Mie-am-uh. I don’t think the English language has the proper letters for some of our terms or phrases. You will soon realize “I” never “saw” anything, but “I seen” it all.
We also use an abundance of adjectives and verbs in our phrases, like, “God bless her poor li’l ol’ heart,” or “Lord, have mercy on my soul and body.” If Mama said, “Sis, come here,” I simply walked to where she was, but, God forbid, if I heard, “Carolyn Sue, you better get yourself over here right now,” fear chilled my blood, especially if it was followed by, “Don’t make me come and get you!” When Mama goes to using your first and middle names, things are foreboding, but in her highest level of anger Mama would throw in that last name, as in – If I wanted to remain alive and part of the family, I better listen up.
Mama would tell me, “Go take this to your grandmama,” or “Come take this to your daddy.” Now, looking back, which was it? Did we know if we were coming or going? And my grandmother “took” a headache, but never just had one. Whenever we were fidgety, Mama simply stated, “Get still,” and we did. I have a big white cat now, and when he crawls into my lap, walking in circles to find just the right position, like Mama, I raise my voice just a tad and say, “Get still.” He drops like a bullet. I guess it’s because he, too, has been raised in the south.
THE COOKING: Some of the most special memories of childhood took place in and around the kitchen, as I’d watch Mama use a tea glass, rather than a rolling pin, to roll out dumplings, biscuits or pie crusts. She used a coffee cup to measure flour, sugar and the like, and her measuring spoons were the ones we used to stir tea and eat soup. We ate three meals a day, and they were breakfast, dinner and supper. A fit and proper southern breakfast always includes grits. Grits are boiled, then served with salt, black pepper and butter – never sugar – often with milk gravy. Sunday dinner is a big deal in the south. You rush home after church, change out of your “good clothes,” and start fixin dinner. One Sunday I had just changed from my “good” dress when a loud explosion took place in the kitchen. I heard Mama wailing, “Oh, Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul! Sugar, come here quick!”, as she called for my father’s timely assistance. My three brothers and I slowly edged our way into the dining room and looked around the corner to see carrots, celery, potatoes and gravy coating the kitchen, from floor to ceiling and back. Right there on the spot I developed a pressure cooker phobia.
A fit southern kitchen always has at least two cast iron skillets, nicely seasoned and ready to fry up a large chicken or rabbit at any given time, or set and ready for fried baloney sandwiches. Many have a set of Club Aluminum pots and pans, as well. A pot of dry beans and rice could easily feed a family of six for at least one to two meals, served with fried cornbread and strong syrupy southern swee’tea.
THE LIFESTYLE: We never had a lot of money or stuff, but Mama always told us we had “the good Lord’s plenty,” and that was enough to get by. If we got our nose bent out of shape about something, we were likely to throw a fit or pitch a hissy. If it was really bad, we would have a hissy-fit. And, we never fainted or lost consciousness, we simply fell out.
When I was a little girl, every Sunday morning played out the same. We’d crawl out of bed slowly, amble toward the kitchen table and have breakfast. Then we’d scoot back to our bedrooms, because we knew it was time to start fixin’ to get ready for church. That meant bathed, dressed, hair combed and sitting still on the couch, ready for departure. As we filed out the door we knew we were fixin’ to go to church. We were ready, now we were going. During church service the pastor would state from the pulpit, “We’re fixin’ to take up the offering,” or “The choir is fixin’ to sing a special after we take up the offering.” “Fixin” is used as a verb or a noun. For example, “Mama is fixin to cook a big fried chicken dinner, with all the fixins.” That never meant instant mashed potatoes, but peeled, boiled and mashed taters with plenty of butter and whole milk, gravy and some sort of peas or corn from the garden. Dessert was only for special occasions like birthdays, funerals or dinners on the ground.
Most houses in central Florida were framed houses set on blocks. The cats, dogs and children often played under the house, where it was cool and the dirt beneath it was more like black sand. There was a lot of sand in Florida, a lot of black sand, apart from the white powdered sugar sand you see on the beaches.
THE GEOGRAPHY: When I was a little girl, there were no 4-lane highways until the Interstate System came into being. There were only two kinds of thoroughfares in my Florida. There were the paved ones that might have been asphalt or gravel, but always referred to as “the hard road,” and there were the dirt roads that were anything from a driveway to a country mile. You gave directions according to which road was where. “Well, go down the hard road about a mile, then turn left on the second dirt road. We’re the third mailbox on the right.”
The flora and fauna played such an important role while growing up in central Florida. We had our vegetable garden where stalks of corn would sway in the breeze, hovering over the bright yellow squash and rows of conk peas covering the ground. Wildflowers were seen more than horticultural species of roses or posies, so it was an annual event for me to go outside, walk along the property line and gather a beautiful bouquet of purple, pink and white flox for Mama. Unfortunately, they usually grew amongst the beggar weeds that would attach firmly to my clothes. Growing up in a purer Florida also meant sandspurs and sting nettles.
It was nearly impossible to drive more than 3 or 4 miles without passing a phosphate pit. When the phosphate began to be mined out, they moved to turning the pits into swimming holes for the kids and watering holes for the cattle.
I suppose we took for granted the ability to simply walk out the front or back door, directly to a citrus tree, and pull off a fresh orange, grapefruit or tangerine, peel it and eat it right there on the spot. As far as the eye could see were palmettos, citrus trees and of course, the pines with their sticky, messy sap, along with ancient live oaks, standing stately with dainty gray Spanish moss cascading from their large limbs. Back then a tree’s value was judged by how climbable it was. Many imaginary battles were fought and won from the boughs of mighty oaks and camphors, and a stray stick immediately became a sword or rifle.
THE CRITTERS: We had barn cats and yard dogs. Even though the state animal is the Florida panther, it would probably be more politically correct to identify it as the cockroach. We grow ‘em big down here. In an effort to appear a bit more socially acceptable, many refer to them as palmetto bugs. Nonetheless, I’ve actually had one, about 4” long, rear up on its back legs and hiss at me. I’m still suspicious that we had a broom standing in the corner of the kitchen more for insect control than sweeping floors. The Florida State bird is officially the mockingbird, but most of us natives know it is, in reality, the mosquito.
During my youth, some of the most common fauna, and I use the term loosely, were armadillos and possums. Many more were seen splayed out along the roadside than walking on all fours. There would be the usual sighting of cotton-tailed rabbits and ‘coons, and far too often a snake sighting, as well. Nothing is more amusing to a native Floridian than to watch a snow bird standing on the bank of one of our lakes with their camera, taking pictures of alligators. We are so tempted to “roll” down the window and holler, “Them things’ll GIT YOU!” We know to keep a considerable difference and give the reptile its space.
You don’t see many snakes, or cattle roaming these parts much anymore, and most of the citrus groves have been stripped away by either Mother Nature’s freezing winters or man’s attempt at progress. Most of us Crackers no longer have orange trees outside our door serving as shade or there for a quick bite of juicy fruit. There’s not as much moss draped from the trees, and even the sandspurs and stinkweeds seem to be diminishing. A lot of hard roads are now called turnpikes and parkways, and there are very few dirt paths named for someone’s family. My heart surely longs to feel some of the Florida from those days again, but I fear they are gone for good.
I’ve learned this: In the middle of gators, dirt roads and sandspurs, it’s quite possible to find some of your happiest memories. Don’t take anything for granted. Most things are bound to change, and a few may even come back around full circle. In the midst of growing up, I had no idea how the times I was living in then would mean so much to me now. Reflecting on the past is sometimes a nice thing, especially if you reflect on the good parts. Look around and etch what you see, hear, feel, smell and taste into your heart. Get still and savor the moment, ya’ll!