In the far distant past, my childhood memories resound like the thunder of an approaching storm. There were summer days heavy with the smell of a newly cut hay field ready to bale mixed with the perfume of a Honey Suckle vine. In the twilight of evening the cicadas charmed one another with their raucous songs, such sweet music. My grandmother Little Ma would spread one of her quilts on the lawn so my little brother and I lay in the grass watching the Dragon Flies dart about. You could smell the fragrant bliss of fresh caught bream in the frying pan being cooked for supper. Mingled with the sounds and smells of an Arkansas evening was the gentle laughter of Momma and Little Ma. I dearly miss those gentle Southern moments of life.
I never envied my cousins that lived in cities of concrete and steel. I never cared for the smell of exhaust fumes, the roar of engines, or the hurried stampede of crowds. I was raised in the comfort of love and the security of my kin. I was raised among the pine, oak, cedar, and tupelo trees where the smells and sounds of life still play their music in my heart. As I grow older I welcome the sharp vision with which I view life for these are the observations that have stamped my being with the soul of a Southerner.
There are times when I wonder how my brother and I survived childhood on an Arkansas farm. Our land was on a rise above a slough and creek. The area was called Snake Holler. When spring rains came the snakes headed to the only high ground around, our yard. We didn’t kill them. We just took a stick and moved them out of our way. For fun we rode our two sows Sally and Cook. Chores meant milking cows, gathering eggs, slopping the hogs, and pulling ticks off the dogs. It never occurred to us to wear shoes; none of our other friends did, until we went to school. After the first autumn frost we would butcher a hog. There was always fresh crackling for the kids and a fine pork roast on Sunday. We had cows, chickens, turkeys, bees, and a wonderful garden. Food was always plentiful although we worked hard to be able to enjoy it. Being a Southerner is a treasure trove of memories about learning and events fading from time. To this day I remember the names of all our cows, dogs, cats, and hogs. Although we never named the snakes I can still see that big black six foot long Indigo snake that visited for several years. I wouldn’t have wanted to survive childhood any other way.
There are so many things that make up the character of the South that one cannot begin, with any sensibility, to adequately describe it. Oh, you can try, but to really describe Dixie you have to live it, you have to live in it. When I look for the influences that gave me the love of where I was raised, I find they are beginning to disappear. They are not fading from memory for in memory they will always exist. I see my South being changed by the wearing down of the culture that has given this nation and the world such a marvelous tapestry of life. The beliefs, anyone not a Southerner cannot really understand, are the threads that have woven the fabric of the Southern character. If one is raised in the South it is a privilege to enjoy and for others to envy.
On the back of a pickup truck I recently saw a bumper sticker with the Confederate Flag displayed and the words “Not hate but heritage”. I know there are people that cannot get their minds around that statement: “Not hate but heritage”. This is because of a narrow definition of the South framed by historical events and the incessant denigration of its values. Thousands of men and women died standing under that flag, not because of hate but rather because of heritage and beliefs. In today’s time we celebrate various holidays brought to our nation by persons of many nationalities and that is a good thing. For example there is Cinco de Mayo which celebrates the Mexican defeat of French troops at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It is a celebration of Mexican heritage and the belief in their heritage. Heritage and belief in it is the crux of being a Southerner. That’s what it’s all about. Heritage cannot be acquired simply by moving to the geography of the South. Heritage goes back over years. It is imprinted in the DNA of those lucky enough to have a Southern genealogy. It is grown from the soil of cotton fields, pine forests, the sound of a blue tick hound baying, or smell of turnip and mustard greens cooking on the stove. A Southerner’s heritage never leaves; it tugs at your heart pulling you back to your roots every day of your life.
When I think about childhood in the South I know that I did not have a lot of material things. I did have the love of my parents and all my relatives. That cocoon was a steady molding that shaped me into the man I am today. Men in my family didn’t speak about loving one another; you just knew you were loved. They didn’t talk about their girl friend or wife like men do today. All the men in my family took an interest in all the children.
My Grandfather Otelius Holst was a raw bone of a man. Six feet tall of Danish decent with broad shoulders and strong hands but with legs broken down by walking behind a team of mules plowing fields. One day my grandfather called me out to the back porch and said, “Come on son, poppa is gonna teach you to fish.” Using a walking cane and in pain, he shuffled his almost useless legs out to the creek, sat on a stump, baited a worm on a cane pole with line and bobber, and taught me how to catch a mess of bluegills. And, when I was sick with pneumonia, he went to the pantry and from sacks on the top shelf took dried leaves he had collected in the woods and fields making a poultice to ease my suffering. He taught me how to make a corncob pipe, how to read animal tracks, how to take care of mules, and how a man shakes another man’s hand. There is so much more I learned at his knee but most of all he taught me about my Southern heritage.
My grandmother was a spit of a woman, ninety pounds dripping wet. She always wore her hair in a tight bun on the back of her head. Lord, that woman could cook. There was always on a plate sitting on the kitchen stove with some biscuits, cornbread and fried bacon for the grandkids. She had a little dog named Peaty. I hated that dog! Whenever I went into the kitchen to grab a biscuit Peaty seemed to sense my hunger and would stand on a straight back chair next to the stove. When ever I reached up for biscuit he would growl and nip at me and every once in a while he would get a piece of my flesh. When I was six years old I took a fly swatter and hit him pretty hard. He started yelping and ran to granny. I ran out doors and climbed up in a tree with low hanging branches. Granny came out with the swatter and asked me if I hit Peaty with it. I fest up to it and she told me to come down out of the tree because she was going to swat me so I could see how it felt. I said no and climbed higher. Well, granny climbed in the tree too! I went as high as I could with granny right behind me. When she reached me she whipped the tar out of me and climbed down. After a lot of bawling and bruised ego I got out of the tree. When grandpa got home he was informed of what I did and he whipped me. When mom came in she whipped me. When dad got home work he whipped me. All of this spanking was not because of hitting the dog, it was for not minding my grandmother. It was about honoring your elders, it was about being man enough to take your punishment, and it was about a lesson in my Southern heritage.
A Southerners heritage has no form, it has no weight, and neither can it be bought or sold. To possess it will define a human being for the rest of their life. I could go on and on about all the lessons learned, about the unspoken way I was taught how a man should handle himself, but there is not enough space here to do that.
What I want you to take away from this brief moment together is one small thread of the tapestry that is part of being a Southerner. If you can gain a better a better understanding about the South from these memories and the content of their meaning, you will find yourself a better person. If you can look at the strength of the symbols and beliefs of the South in a different light, if you can begin to understand that being a Southerner is not just a word defining ones birth, then, maybe you can find a little bit of Southerner in your own life.
God, how I love the South!
“Being a Southerner” is a compilation of memories in short story form. Some are just a paragraph, some pages. I have over sixty years of living in my past from which to draw in explaining about being a Southerner. Southerner, it is a title of which I am proud to wear and a heritage of which I am grateful to have been a part.
Some of these antidotes, musing, and stories are funny. Some are heart rendering! Many are observations of growing up after World War II in a small Southern town and farm. I do hope you find pleasure in reading them.