Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Southern Inheritance

My use of the Southernism, "Well, I'll swan", in a recent post has dredged up more such good sayin's in my memory. Of course, "I'll swan" is just a short version of "Well, I'll swanee", but I'm sure you know that already.

One of the ones that I anticipated with great glee whenever I visited my Wicksburg, AL, relatives always surfaced when we were fixin' to go to town:

"Are we goin' to go on your car, Myra, or mine?" my Aunt Dessy would ask my grandma (Nanny).

At once the fearsome image of Nanny and her old maid cousin clinging to the rooftop of a Chivolay sedan, gray roller-set hair-dos flattened against the rush of hot, gnat-filled air, delighted my brain, and I would saucily retort, "Y'all go ahead. I'm ridin' in the car."

Why they didn't whoop the tarnation out of my upstart self, I'll never know. Instead, they just blessed my cotton-pickin' heart.

If a gnat or two pestered us inside the car, Nanny would tell me to "crack the winder" to let it out.

"Proud" meant overwhelmingly happy. "I'm just so proud you came to see me!" Nanny would declare, arms outstretched to me as I hurried across the breezeway to her embrace.

My favorite use of the word "hungry" is when it means "to long for." That poor word never got a moment's rest but trotted briskly through the day hauling meaning for my kinfolks.

Aunt Dessy frequently told me the story of my childless Nanny and Papa going to adopt my mama and her twin sister shortly after they were born. The critical part of the story for me began with a description of how "Your Nanny and your Papa were hungry for some babies!"

Nanny never baked biscuits; She "fixed a baker o' biscuit".

Daily conversations were liberally punctuated with "Holy Hannah!", "Lord, help us and save us!" and "Law, law!", which I guess must be Southern for "Lord, Lord!" because there was a variation, "Lawsie mercy!", that I can only decipher as some version of "Lord, have mercy."

The triplets of secular Southern interjections: "You don't mean it!","I'll declare!", and the aforementioned, "Well, I'll swanee!" rounded out the basic vocabulary.

I used to tease my mother that she could hold down her end of a 20-minute phone conversation with my Aunt Sandy (who was born and raised up in Goshen, AL) with just that short list of indispensable Southern conversation spices and extracts. I'm sure that's why Southerners invariably are good listeners. Their pantries overflow with ingredients guaranteed to flavor any conversation with heartfelt empathy.

My Somerset relatives in Troy, AL, nurtured their own little sayings and peculiar words. First, "Pshaw!" was a cane on which my Grandmother Somerset leaned heavily in conversation. Then for really important stuff, she set out her best, "Good gracious alive!"

I loved to "hear tell" of how she miscarried her first baby when she and "some town girls went up on the ridge to pick flowers, and it come up a cloud."

One Troyism that I rarely heard but adored was the word "larapin", used to describe something bodaciously wonderful tasting, like Pauladene's fried apple pies, Aunt Lizzie's sweet potato pie or Grandma's Lane Cake.

Then there was "the river swamp", as in, "We spent the night down by the river swamp, fishin' and settin' around the fire." Hearing it always thrilled tingles into my spine. Surely vicious animals with large, glowing eyes prowled the shadows of such a place.

And that is how my Southern inheritance continues to bless me. I am the beneficiary of a wealth of words that I can never use up, of a love that I still feel from deep in the heart o' Dixie.


John said...

We moved away from South Carolina when I was very small but one phrase has remained in family use all through the years. Any illness short of hospitalization meant that "I've got the miseries." It might be a bellyache or a headache or perhaps just a bad day. The Miseries, like charity, covered a multitude of sins.

I've learned from Herself that a lot of things I considered Southernisms are Irishisms, too.

Wonderful language, English.



Anne T. said...

I think of the sayings of my youth
all the time. Thanks for the memories.

Wendy Haught said...

I haven't heard "I've got the miseries," but my mom has. It's wonderfully evocative.