My mother is a recovering Southern Belle. She would still be Emily Post’s only begotten child if not for having her dignified roots collide with my father’s California surfer casualness in the 60s. Years after moving away from the daily influence of her refined Northerner mother and bonafide Southern gentleman father, she too became more and more casual with time. But even though Daddy has successfully loosened her up over the years, she has never lost her connection to her Memphis upbringing.
You see it everywhere in her life in some hilarious but mostly thoughtful ways. One would never pour ketchup straight out of the bottle in her house; of course not, it’s ladled from a silver bowl. She would never think of drinking coffee out of anything other than a porcelain teacup. Thank you notes are in the outgoing mail by nightfall, usually penned on engraved monogrammed note cards. She would never show up to a wedding without having sent a gift weeks ahead, wouldn’t dream of letting her living room be devoid of fresh flowers at any time, and never, no never would she arrive at your home for dinner without a case of your favorite fruit, an exotic round of cheese, or an orchid in tow. As a child, I drank root beer floats out of a crystal goblet, never wore pants on public transportation, and owned two pair of gloves by the time I was 6.
However, it is in her speech where her “Southernness” is especially apparent. Her Tennessean drawl is still alive and well after over 50 years on the west coast and she isn’t afraid to use it to get what she wants… and she always does. No lie, that archetype shows up when you least expect it. She can get total strangers to do the most unbelievable things by simply purring “Oh my, I’m in a terrible jam and I just know you’d love to help me”. (Admit it: you’re reading this with an accent, aren’t you?)
Further, she uses all kinds of colorful expressions that people from that corner of the world are known for. Though I adore them today, we would often cringe as kids and struggle with “calling her blessed”. No kidding, there wasn’t a situation I’d face for which she didn’t have an expression at the ready. If I was tempted to telephone the latest heartthrob who didn’t even know I existed, she’d be quick to tell me “Darlin’, don’t you know a good cow sells tied in her stall?” If I complained about someone who had wronged me, she’d say “Sweetie, just remember that no pancake is so thin that it doesn’t have two sides.” When I’d criticize a boss or a politician, Mom would empathetically spew “Oh honey, he doesn’t know if he’s a foot or on horseback.” Oh yah, I’ve got a million of ‘em.
But it’s the expressions she’d say in my darker moments that stick with me the most. When my fiancée cheated on me when I was 26, she scooped me up and defiantly stated “Sweetheart, let him pound sand because he doesn’t deserve someone as amazing as you”. When I was going through a phase of joblessness, she’d continually hurrumph “Sugar, something is going to happen any day now because there is no one as capable as you”. When I thought I’d lost my faith, she whispered “God’s still got you, sweetie.” And when I came to the end of the asphalt 14 years ago and was finally ready to transform the way I was living, Mom’s unhesitant response was her usual “I am soooo proud of you”, which quite simply helped to change my life.
The way she has mothered me has also taught me what to look for in other mom influences in my life. I’m not sure I would’ve recognized the powerful impact my spiritual mom Gail would have on me at first if Mom hadn’t not only encouraged the relationship in its early days, but in fact, strongly urged it. Even now when I’m struggling with something, she’ll ask “have you talked to Gail about it?”
Here’s the thing. She’s not technically my mother. But then again, I guess that depends on what definition of the word you use. She got me and my two older siblings in the deal when she married my father and endured all kinds of drama that sometimes goes along with being a stepmother. She went on to have a child of her own who shares her DNA. I don’t. I don’t have her nose. I don’t have her body type. She’s short and I’m tall. But she is my mother. And in more ways than not I’m proud to say I’m just like her. She knows me better than many biological moms know their daughters and has taught me that you don’t necessarily have to give birth to be a real mom, something I’ve needed as I co-mom my own stepdaughter.
I may not have my mother’s blood in my veins but that matters bupkes to me. I may not have her hair or her eyes or her ample bustline, but I have her heart, her values… and maybe even a few of her Southern ways.
So, the next time you ask me what I think about something you want to do and I respond with “Honey, you need to do that like a fish needs a bicycle”… you’ll understand.
Her children stand and bless her.
Sylvia Lange is a Christian women’s speaker who lives in Southern California.