Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Talkin' Suthern: How I became a ma'am
Although I grew up in the Deep South, I was never a debutante, and, yes, we do still have those here in Georgia. As the only Southerner at a recent conference, however, I felt like the belle of the ball.
I found myself surrounded by fast-talking Jersey natives, plain spoken Connecticut folks and fun-loving guys from Wisconsin. For many, it was their first trip to the South. I was the first real Southern girl they’d met besides the waitress at the corner Waffle House where they’d stopped for lunch, served smothered and covered.
As soon as they heard my slow drawl, I became an expert on all things Southern. And this group had plenty of burning questions.
“What are grits made from?”
That’s an easy one, I thought, smugly, “Corn, and you eat it with salt and butter, not sugar.”
“What is the gnat line?”
“Well, it is an invisible, yet well-defined line separating north and south Georgia.”
“How do you get there?”
“Take the hard road—the highway—south, anywhere, roughly, from Augusta to Macon through Columbus. Stop for peanuts and Coca-Cola in the bottle along the way, and you will know you’ve crossed it by the cloud of little black gnats encircling your face,” I said.
“What does 110 degrees in the shade mean?”
Another easy one, I thought.
“It means it is so hot you can fry an egg on the sidewalk,” I said. “In Georgia, folks might say it is a ‘bit warm.’”
“What is the difference between a redneck and a hillbilly?”
Hmmm…a little trickier.
“Well, hillbillies sometimes live in the mountainous region of north Georgia, and rednecks can be anywhere in the country,” I said.
I then went on to describe the characteristics of rednecks, noticing confused looks on their faces.
“Are their necks really red?” asked the New Jersey native.
Uh, oh. I’m losing them, I thought.
“At what age do women become ma’am?” asked one of the ladies.
Oh, boy, I’m in trouble now, I thought, silently recalling the day I officially became a ma’am. It was my neighbor’s son who had recently returned from college. He went away a chubby kid and came back a broad-shouldered, handsome man. He entered a restaurant where a girlfriend and I were having dinner.
“What a good-looking guy,” I drooled. “Look, he’s coming this way.”
He approached our table and flashed me a gorgeous smile.
Do you remember me, Miss Leigh?” he asked. “I’m Jenny’s son.”
Realizing who he was, I managed to mumble some question to which he replied, politely, “Yes, ma’am.”
I blushed, embarrassed, and my friend snickered, loudly.
I felt like crying.
Years have passed, and I have grown to accept being called ma’am as a term of respect. I teach my son to say yes and no, ma’am. It is truly one of the things I love most about the South. Having said that, there are still times like when I see Jenny’s son jogging through the neighborhood that it makes me cringe.
“So, when do women become ma’am?” the lady at the conference persisted.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I wouldn’t know.”