Note: Former editor Ann Dorer first shared her thoughts on what it means to be a Southern lady in 2009, when we celebrated the magazine’s 10th anniversary. They provide an ongoing message of the dignity, strength, and good humor that comes with being a woman of the South—timeless characteristics we believe are just as relevant today.
By Ann Dorer
Born and raised in the South, I have naturally known Southern ladies all my life, starting with my momma, her friends, and my aunts; moving on to my schoolteachers, Sunday school teachers, and the mothers of my friends. As a child, I simply assumed all women were like these wonderful ladies who, each in her own way, strongly, gently, and often unintentionally shaped who I grew up to be.
Somehow I managed to hold onto this assumption until, as a young married woman, I came to know Jeanne Prescott, the wife of my husband’s boss. To me, Jeanne was the epitome of a Southern lady. She had done a fine job of raising a good boy and a sweet girl. Her style of dress was always tasteful, appropriate, and pretty. She could be counted on to be kind, thoughtful, and genuinely interested in you. And to my delight, beneath her calm and reserved manner lurked a wicked wit that would leap out unexpectedly and send me into fits of laughter.
So when Jeanne shared her story with me, I was surprised. She was actually born and raised in Danville, Illinois, coming to live in the South after she married Jim, a small-town Georgia boy. As a newlywed, she found herself plunged into a culture foreign to her. She felt like an outsider who didn’t fit in with Southern ladies—that is until, after studying us, she finally figured us out. “All you have to do,” she told me, “is say two things: ‘How’s yo’ momma?’ and ‘Love yo’ hair’.”
Who knew? Since then, I pay more attention to what we say—and we do have our ways. Maybe I’ve had one of the worst days of my life: The dog ran away; the school called to tell me that my child got sick and needs to come home; my mother called to tell me she fell and might need me to take her to the hospital for X-rays; my husband, unable to get through, left a message on my cell phone that he’s bringing two friends home for supper; there are no groceries to speak of in the house, and as Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard put it, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.” Yet on this very day, if I run into a Southern lady friend at the grocery store, I know our exact conversation: “Well, hi, how are you?” she’ll ask. And smiling, I will answer, “Just fine, thank you, how are you?”
Yes ma’am. Our mommas taught us to be polite.
From early childhood on, I never left the house to go to somewhere without my mother reminding me as I departed, “Be nice.”
“Nice” is what we do. Manners must be minded, no matter what. In Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird, when the Cunningham boy comes home with Jem and Scout to eat lunch, he asks for molasses, then proceeds to pour it all over his vegetables and meat. A horrified Scout wants to know what the sam hill he is doing. Although Atticus discreetly shakes his head, Scout protests, “But he’s gone and drowned his dinner in syrup.” At that point, Calpurnia, the loving woman who’s helped Atticus raise the children, gets Scout in the kitchen and explains manners, Southern style: “That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the tablecloth you let him, you hear?”
If ever there is a time when Southern ladies shine, it’s when someone dies. We show up. We pay our respects. And we bring food. I like to bring a sour cream pound cake, hot from the oven. It smells heavenly, I know the recipe by heart, and the cake freezes well when the inevitable too-much food arrives. My Aunt Ann always kept a red velvet cake on standby in her freezer. And there is no doubt what my friend Rosa’s mother, LaVelle Kirkpatrick, often carried. Rosa tells this tale: One day, her mother had just baked her family a beautiful lemon meringue pie, which was sitting on the kitchen counter in all its glory when Rosa’s brother Raymond walked in. He took one look at this sweet delectable dessert, and asked matter-of-factly, “Who died?”
Oh, how we love our stories! Noted Southern author Lee Smith relates how her mother could make a story out of anything—a trip to the drugstore, something somebody said in church . . . Lee says she can still hear her mother prefacing such stories with “Now promise you won’t tell a soul . . .”
And eager to hear, we always make that promise, and absolutely never tell another living soul without first making her promise not to tell. It has been many years since my friend Jeanne shared her story with me of how she came to adapt to Southern ways, but I remember the last time I saw her before she went to heaven, where the Lord surely welcomes new arrivals with “Y’all come on in.” She looked at me with sweet concern and asked sincerely, “How’s yo’ momma?”
And after answering her that Momma was just fine, I had to smile as I said to Jeanne, “Love yo’ hair.” And I did.