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What We Keep

The Vernacular

It’s quiet at Hollins this week, with my grad students gone and the undergraduates not yet arrived, which means that thinking can be done, and possibly writing. One, alas, does not necessarily lead to the other. When you make your living with words, one way and another, writing, teaching, editing, it becomes a lovely time-waster to ferret out what things actually mean, and why. And lord knows the South is fertile ground for that.

I’m from Southern California, but my mother was from Birmingham, and clearly there was something latent in the blood that came out when I moved to Virginia. Occasionally it’s a matter of outlook, but mostly it’s a figure of speech — lots of them, acquired from Mama, who I had always assumed to be speaking a private language of her own, until I went South.

In Virginia, however, when my husband, exasperated that I call the refrigerator an icebox, says, “An icebox has a block of ice in the top; no one has had an icebox in seventy-five years!” more faces than mine will give him a wide-eyed stare. They all call it an icebox too, because their mothers did.

Mama also used to say that it was cold as flugens, on the rare California days when it was cold. I assumed it was a made-up word of her own, until I read Eudora Welty, and there it was, in Delta Wedding. What’s more, it’s not just a Southernism, it’s a Deep South Southernism. No one in Roanoke knows what it means. Mama probably got it from her mother, who was from the Delta.

Now I know why I was the only one of my California childhood friends who called her father “Daddy” and why no one else had relatives with names like Aunt Sis or Uncle Sonny. I know what “sorry” means when used as an adjective, and what a branch is, as in bourbon and branch water. In my youth I assumed it was water with branches in it. I never asked why. I know that acting ugly has nothing to do with your looks and everything to do with your behavior (see “sorry,” above). I know what a bottle tree is, and what’s more, I know what it’s for. I know why you should always paint your porch ceiling sky blue. I know what it means to snoot someone, and why my mother thought I needed a deviled egg plate. A raft of phrases and traditions from my childhood suddenly make sense. The first time I heard someone say “bless her heart” with my mother’s intonation, I knew exactly what was meant — as in “She likes a little drink, bless her heart,” which means, “The woman is falling down drunk by two p.m. and last week she set the biscuits on fire.”

Even my grandmother’s story about the yard man who shot the town bootlegger makes sense. This yard man had a way with roses, and four hours after he was arrested, he was out on bail. The judge’s mother, my grandmother assured me, and every other woman in town with a rose garden had called their husbands and made sure the fix was in. No one minded about the bootlegger (well, the men did) but the spring rose show was in two weeks and that was another matter. That is not how they do things in California.

When we teach fiction writing, we teach world building, but really all you have to do is look around, and eavesdrop.
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