Mayberry, R.I.P.

andy

(This piece first appeared on my old blog in August, 2012.  With the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, I thought it timely to post this piece once again.)

 

I grew up in Mayberry, RFD. Officially, the show was named The Andy Griffith Show for most of its on-air life, but the location was Mayberry and that’s how I remember it. RFD for those who don’t know, stands for rural free delivery. What it technically means to the post office, I can’t tell you. What it means to the world is that the post office services an area so small and intimate that an address is barely necessary. I received mail with nothing more on the envelope than my name, county, and state. The postman knew everyone, had time to chat, had time to lend a hand to the elderly on his route if needed. The postman was the thread that connected all.

In this world, my daddy was Andy Taylor and I was Opie. Dad wasn’t the sheriff.   He was a state trooper, but in our county if you were in danger you called the state police. Our local sheriff was a sorry excuse of a man. He took his phone off the hook every Friday afternoon and didn’t put it back until Sunday evening. If you got in trouble on the weekend, and the weekend is where trouble thrives, you got a busy signal on the sheriff’s line.

How did he keep getting elected? That’s a good question. The sheriff’s wife was the head public health nurse for the county. When she delivered medicines to the poor in the months before the elections, she’d tell the recipients that if her husband didn’t win she might be so distraught she’d be unable to continue delivering their prescriptions. So he got re-elected standing on blood pressure medicine and insulin. As I said, sorry excuse of a man.

Just like Mayberry, we had a courthouse square with the obligatory statue and ancient shade trees. There was a drugstore with a soda fountain that made excellent grilled cheese sandwiches. Their strawberry milkshake was pretty special, too. The gas station would let you pump gas and settle up with them on payday if you were in a tight spot, just like Goober and Gomer. There was no stop light in the entire county. There were more historic battlefield markers than there were stop signs.

It was a great place to be a kid. Just like Opie, I lived in the land of dirt roads, fishing holes, and ice cream socials. My world was populated by women who planned for months to show off their skills in the county fair, just like Aunt Bea with her pickles. There was a barber shop like Floyd’s that was more men’s social club than a working hair stylist. Until I was six, there were party lines and an operator on the phone system, though her name wasn’t Sarah.

We even had our version of Otis, the town drunk. I wonder what would happen to Otis now that law enforcement is sitting squarely in the military surplus world of fear-based policy decisions? Otis is still just an alcohol-addled, stubborn nuisance every payday, but now he’s seen as a menacing threat by people wearing riot gear. This development will not end well for poor Otis.

I remember my daddy talking a thoroughly drunk and completely naked Otis down out of a maple tree where he was singing a shaky version of Beautiful Dreamer and driving him home to sleep it off. I can’t help but think that today poor Otis would be tear-gassed, tasered, handcuffed, and tossed in jail if he lived through the process at all. It seems like overkill, when kindness works just as well, maybe better.

So I was personally sorry to hear that Andy Griffith, the actor who so completely inhabited and molded Mayberry, passed away recently. I hold Mayberry as a touchstone for a time when I was happy, carefree, and cared for. Neighbors knew and took care of each other because it was the right thing to do. If a farmer fell sick with crops in the field, those crops were anonymously harvested and put up. Livestock was fed and milked morning and evening until the farmer was back on his feet.

If someone got sick or died, God forbid, women descended on the family’s home with casseroles, ham, and baked goods, scrubbed the house into company-ready status, and got the lawn cut. All was done without thought of acknowledgment. It was simply the right thing to do. It was also done because you knew that when you hit a rough patch, your neighbors would drop everything and be there without you having to suffer the embarrassment of asking for assistance.

This abiding sense of community was shown every week on Mayberry. Now that Andy Griffith is gone, he’s pulled the last remnants of Mayberry into the mists with him and I will forever miss it. Andy Griffith played Sheriff Andy Taylor with the three qualities that could still save our world: grace, generosity, and good humor.

Good-bye, old friend.

What It Means To Be Southern

biscuits

 “I think we Southerners have talked a fair amount of malarkey about the mystique of being Southern.”

~ Reynolds Price

 Many Yankee friends have asked me to define what it means to be Southern. Since I am promoting myself as a native tour guide for all things from the American South, I should be able to answer this question easily, only it’s not that simple. It’s messily subjective when you start thinking about it.

My husband Gruff can’t wait to read this one, since he thinks my values are more aligned with South Park than with South Carolina. It’s true. I am more liberal than most of the geographically defined South, but the South is always reconstructing itself and its values. It must to stay relevant to its growing, shifting population. Otherwise, it becomes dusty and obsolete, a garish knick-knack destined for the world’s yard sale box.

I was raised in Virginia which is a very different milieu than Mississippi. There are dozens of flavors in the Southern stew, each as important as the next. Different states offer distinct tastes of the South, but there are common spices that bind it all. So no, I don’t have a pithy, bumper sticker definition of what it is to be truly Southern and probably won’t be able to produce one. Damn, I could have made millions selling bumper stickers.

Let me start by telling you what the South is not. It is absolutely not whatever the A & E and TLC channels think it is. A & E stands for Arts and Entertainment, and they have a rather flimsy grip on the Arts part of their name. TLC stands for The Learning Channel, an ironic moniker if ever there were one. If there is a TV channel currently on air attempting to dumb down its viewership outside of Fox News, it is TLC.

“Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.”

~ Kahlil Gibran

The South is not Honey Boo Boo, even though that little girl is an adorable dumpling. I don’t know anyone currently involved in the pageant circuit. It’s just not that big a deal here in Virginia compared to some of the other Southern states. I participated in a couple as a child and hated every minute of it. I finally announced that if I couldn’t wear shorts and flip-flops, I wasn’t doing it at all. Pageant career wrecked at the ripe old age of eight. Thank God.

It is not diving into muddy places to wrangle catfish. Every Southerner knows that you catch catfish by putting smelly bits on a hook, setting the pole in the river bank and coming back the next morning to round up your catch. Most of the time you get catfish, sometimes you get eels, and both fry up just fine. Catfishing is definitely not an aerobic, waterlogged, near death experience. That’s just silly.

It is not all trailer parks. It is not all hoarding. It is certainly not the combination of the two, chicken hoarding in a trailer. Yes, I did see this on one of the aforementioned channels. It was just pitiful. The whole time I was watching it, I was praying, “Please be Missouri, please be Missouri.” Even better, it turned out to be Illinois. Take that, Mason-Dixon line.

It is most certainly not letting camera crews follow you around while you commit a federal offense (moonshining). No self-respecting moonshiner would show a camera crew Grandpa’s favorite hidey-hole in the woods nor would they allow the making of their very best recipe to be filmed. What’s next, TLC? Backwoods Breaking and Entering?

It is not all shooting and spitting. It’s not all hunting, mud, and camouflage clothing. It is not all men with wild beards. It is not all gators, ducks, beer, and pickup trucks. Wait, it might be all about pickup trucks. I have to think about that one.

It is not all fried foods. Only 87% of it is. The rest is pie. Unless we are talking about fried peach pies, then 100% is about fried foods. Want to find yourself a mate in the South? Learn to fry chicken. Paula Deen is far more representative of our cuisine and tastes than I like to admit. She’s also indicative of our collective medical condition, unfortunately.

It is not all about pitching hissy fits or conniption fits. Yes, there is a difference between the two. Major fits don’t happen very often because we were raised better than that. However, if you hear a Southern woman utter the words “That’s it!” or “As God is my witness. . .” it would be prudent for you to find a reason to leave the house. Best not to dawdle, either.

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

~ Flannery O’Connor

Hello, Hollywood! A Southern accent is not shorthand to tell the audience that a character is stupid. Having a character say stupid things is the clue that they’re stupid. Stop being lazy and bigoted, why don’t cha? We are not ignorant. We have a slow, rolling cadence but make no mistake, we are not slow-witted.

I’ll stop telling you what the South isn’t and start telling you what it is. It is an inherited gift of storytelling. Every Southerner grew up hearing family tales and can share at least a half dozen stories that will have you laughing through tears. The best thing a Southern raconteur can hear is this phrase, choked out through laughter. “Wait, wait, let me catch my breath.”

It is flirting. We all carry the compliment gene. We will find something about you to compliment, even if we’ve got nothing to work with but your choice of socks. It will be a sincere compliment, and you will feel lighter for it. The goal of Southern flirtation is to get the face smiling with a wee bit of pleasantry. It is about friendliness and playful banter. It is about making life fun. It is not about foreplay, so don’t get all flustered.

“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

~ Will Rogers

It is our dogs. We have a strong bond with our pets, and when a faithful companion dog passes away it tears out a chunk of our hearts. The connection between a Southern man and his best hunting dog is not to be trivialized. We appreciate the friendship, the helpfulness, the unconditional love, the comedy our dogs provide us. This world would be a better place if humans could be more like dogs.

“. . .this is the South, we encumber you with hospitality.”

~John Grishman, The Firm

It is not knowing a stranger. If we are in the Express lane at the Piggley-Wiggley, we will start a conversation with you and everybody else in line. We will be on each other’s Christmas card lists by the time we check out. We will be sad to see you go, we enjoyed our time together that much.

It is hospitality. If you appear on our doorstep, even if you are a Jehovah’s Witness and our true inclination is to set the dogs on you, we will offer you a glass of lemonade. We will sit down with you though our chore list is backed up two miles long. We feel obligated to make you comfortable. We love to visit. Calling on elderly friends and relatives after Sunday lunch is a tradition. We simply must talk to others or we will lose our minds.

“Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern corn bread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite as bad as the Northern imitation of it.”

~ Mark Twain

It is our food. It is barbecue. Barbecue is cooking meats with smoke, not heat, at 250 degrees or less for many hours. It is not grilling. Grilling is a cook-out. They are not the same and the terms are never to be used interchangeably. Hear that, Bobby Flay?

Barbecue is to the American South what wine is to France. Drive 200 miles in any direction and there are regional differences in technique and flavor. The French have their terroir, we have our sauces. Barbecue is our claim to fame. It is our birthright. It is our destiny. We simply do not joke about barbecue.

It is fried chicken emerging from hot grease like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. You can heal a lot of bad situations with a platter of good fried chicken. Southern fried chicken aficionados are second only to barbecue hounds in their commitment.

It is iced tea. It is homegrown vegetables. It is sugar. It is bourbon. It is pie. It is cornbread. It’s a mess of greens. It is seafood, particularly shrimp. It is grits. It is hot biscuits. It is country ham. It is all our favorite foods, born in hardship and making do, that feed our very souls and make us feel the rush of generations past whenever we put spoon to mouth. Want to make friends? Learn to fry chicken.

“I even went so far to become a Southern Baptist for a while, until I realized that they didn’t hold ’em under long enough.”

~ Kinky Friedman

 It is church. Collectively we are a religious group, fond of the drama and entertainment of a good, old-fashioned revival every summer. Much charity and good work has been done by the churches in the South. Yes, there are Southern religious groups that claim to speak for a much larger portion of the population than they actually represent, and there are groups that seem to cherry-pick the bible as a justification for judging others. The majority of churches in the South concentrate on helping people and are not drawn into the political forum like moths to a bug-zapper. Don’t let the loud mouths lead you to believe that this is what Southern religion is all about. It is not.

“The Southern character is opposed to haste. Safety is of more worth than speed, and there is no hurry.”

~ Maria Mitchell

It is hot. It is sticky. We move slowly. We talk slowly. We are not quite on “island time” nor do we belabor the word manana, but we are pretty close. You try to be all perky and motivated when it is 98 degrees with 95% humidity. It’ll beat the frisky right out of you, but quick.

“A family is one of nature’s solubles; it dissolves in time like salt in rainwater.”

~ Pat Conroy

It is family. It is having certain archetypes represented in every single Southern family, and that is an inescapable truth. You are destined to be related to:

(1) either a Blanche DuBois or a Scarlett O’Hara and God help you if you have both in your extended family because the level of manufactured drama will be unbearable;

(2) a rough-and-tumble Tom Sawyer type (can be female);

(3) a Jim Williams bon vivant (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil);

(4) an Aunt Polly or Aunt Bea, hardworking, pearl-clutching, everybody-be-good-now woman;

(5) an Andy Taylor or a Caddy Compson (The Sound and the Fury) decent guy;

(6) a Boo Radley, (To Kill a Mockingbird) cranky on the outside, kind on the inside type; and

(7) some incarnation of Barney Fife.

This is why food is so important at family reunions. It gives you something to distract everyone from personal differences. Want to keep the peace at family gatherings? Learn to fry chicken.

“There is no such thing as being too Southern.”

~ Lewis Grizzard

So there you have it. My definition of what it means to be Southern. I am Southern. All you need to know about me is that I faithfully worship my own Holy Trinity of Southern life: a porch, a pie, and a pack of dogs. Oh, and you can bet big money that I can fry chicken.