I know what’s running through your head right now. “Okay AL, what does that mean? You were born in the South, you wear pearls like they’re going out of style, you’re in a quintessentially southern school, everything you own is monogrammed, you have a closet full of Lilly, you adore SEC football, and you’re subscribed to Garden & Gun: have you not always been a southern belle?” And the answer is…. sort of.
For as long as I can remember, I have been completely enchanted by everything to do with Southern culture. In the sixth grade, when I first read Gone With the Wind, I would have done ANYTHING to go back in time to the South before the War. I was obsessed with hoop skirts and plantations and all the history surrounding the time when cotton was king. (Later, as I continued to study history, grow more mature, and realize the inhumanities that would have come with being the stereotypical Scarlett O’Hara belle, I decided getting to wear hoop skirts everyday would just not be worth living in a world where humans commonly owned other humans- but even with my now realistic views of the hardships and evils of the period, I still enjoy learning about the Old South greatly.)
As I’ve grown up, I’ve started trying to learn and decide for myself what denotes New South culture, what makes our men “gents” and our women “belles” and our region stand out from the rest of the United States? In my quest to define this, I’ve discovered it is nearly impossible to pin down. Every single person has a different view of what Southern is and how we are different from the rest of the world…even our geographical boundaries are debated. Sure, I have a thick accent, and I expect doors to be opened for me, I like to shoot clays in the Fall, and I debuted my senior year; but is there any substance to my characterization deeper than the superficial things about me?
I learned that there was through tragedy…. One of the main pillars of my tight-knit community was taken to heaven late this summer. It was the day before I was supposed to leave for school, but instead of packing I found myself in a house full of mourning friends. The day it happened, as I drove up to the family’s house, the sight of an entire community coming together greeted me. The local fire department was cutting the grass. An extra refrigerator from someone’s house was being set up in the garage for the mass of food soon to come. Cars lined the road and neighboring driveways, and people entered and exited the house so frequently it looked like a beehive. Inside, the house was being scrubbed clean and lunch was being set up. Merely hours after the death had occurred there was an entire feast of sandwiches and fruit and chicken salad and cookies brought to the house and people willing to help serve it. No one was giving directions, it was just happening. Amid the sadness and the tears there was also comfort and laughter and a sense of peace.
For the next three days leading up to the funeral I, along with a handful of other both younger and older women were at the family’s home everyday for the majority of the day serving meals, cleaning, running errands, reminiscing about our favorite stories, and just being there for our friends who we viewed as an extension of our own families. We put our own lives on hold to be there for people we loved. The amount of people who dropped in and brought food and blessings overwhelmed me as an onlooker. The whole week was a study in southern culture and a reminder of why I love it so much. I found myself wondering just how anybody got through such pain without these funeral traditions that are so uniquely southern?
The night before the funeral, the wife of the man who passed, and one of my favorite women said, “You talk about your monograms and your pearls, but this right here girls, is the real deal.” And she was so right.
Southern girls are picked out from the crowd by their accents and their style of dress and from where they say they’re from…but being a “southern belle” has little to do with the outside appearance. The way we are there for our own when they’re hurting, or willing to push aside our own needs to take care of issues bigger than our own, going out of our way to help our people even when we have no idea what we’re doing- the ability to cope, that’s what the real South is all about.
I had never been in such a heartbreaking position before, and being able to be there for the family during that time was one of the greatest privileges I have ever had. Now whenever I’m zipping up a Lilly sundress, or clasping on my pearls, or pulling on a monogrammed sweater I can do it with pride…. because I have had a baptism by fire and come out on the other side knowing that I am more than just a girl with an accent who claims to adore all things stereotypically Southern, I am a girl who has proven to myself and others that “southern belle” is far and away deeper than the outside, and I have been initiated into the ranks of the women who carry on the tradition.