Bringing Southern Back by Julie Nelson

Mary Geraldine "Jerry" at her prime.  

Mary Geraldine "Jerry" at her prime.  

Taken almost straight from a scene out of Steel Magnolias, it was about the time the smell of homemade chicken salad wafted toward me that my grandmother simultaneously greeted me, as the perfect hostess does of course, in which she also appraised my appearance as I crossed the threshold of her door. “Well don’t you just look lovely? Is that what you wear to class?” Being a college student, the dress code consisted more of Nike shorts and a sorority t-shirt with my Chacos. However, without hesitation, I gave a polite “yes, ma’am” as I straightened my hem and smoothed my hair. At 92, she was still the sheer image of perfection when envisioning a southern belle. By my junior year, I had learned to visit her on Sundays. My church wardrobe suited her taste much more than my normal daily attire. What other response would I give to the woman who’d never worn jeans in her life and included the message, “Buy yourself a nice church dress” with every birthday check that came in the mail?

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Nelson's grandmother had the years pass her, however, she didn't let them catch up.  

Nelson's grandmother had the years pass her, however, she didn't let them catch up.  

There is something to be said about southern women. On one of my many visits, my grandmother, affectionately known as “Jerry” (short for Mary Geraldine because “grandma” didn’t quite capture her essence) brought out a photo album. “Whose baby are you holding?” I asked as I studied a picture of her in a knee-length skirt-suit, full makeup, and heels. As I admired the picture, as well as her flawless exterior, she told me that she was holding my mother as a newborn … and that picture was taken as she was leaving the hospital. Of course you were, Jerry. While I have yet to have children of my own, I’m sure I will think of that picture again as I leave the hospital being wheeled away in yoga pants and an unwashed bun. No pictures will be necessary (or allowed, for that matter).

Growing up, I always wondered why such emphasis was placed on the timeliness of my thank you cards and the necessity of my manners (even if the boy sitting next to me in class WAS being a jerk). With each year that passes, I see the level of importance of the things the generations of Southern women in my life passed along to me grow. When did this southern charm start to fade and merely become the title of a reality television show?

Upon first meeting someone who had been transplanted to the South, this Yankee asked me what she needed to know to survive in Mississippi. I quickly explained that just about anything can be said about anyone as long as it is followed by “bless (insert pronoun here) heart,” told her the run-down of the 36 churches within her 5 mile radius, and consoled her after telling her the (good to me) news that Target was only an hour away.

If she’d been introduced to the Magnolia state by my grandmother, she probably would have gotten a few similar bits of wisdom. However, the bottle of wine I’d brought as a housewarming present would have also been gifted alongside a freshly baked pound cake and a casserole she’d made from scratch as soon as she saw the moving trucks pull out of the driveway. While we still radiate kindness like no one else in the world, I wonder what else my grandmother would have done in order to show her new neighbor that warmth exudes from the soul of a southern woman. More than that, I wonder if our future daughters will take the time to show newcomers what gives The Hospitality State its name.

As generations progress, it seems as though with every iPhone update another tradition is lost. While we still monogram everything from our hats to our heels, we don’t seem to focus on the traditions that made southern women stand out among the rest.

With each passing day, I have decided to “bring southern back.” I have decided to reinforce the belief that we are not only as sweet as our tea but also as strong as our hairspray. I will prioritize faith, family, friends, and quality of life above all. I will focus on bringing joy to the lives of others through gifts of service and acts of kindness. I won’t just click the appropriate emotion-emoji on a Facebook status.

I will remember my great-aunt Helen and know that baked goods can’t bring someone back but can ease the pain when shared alongside a cup of coffee and a listening ear. I will not only use my grandmother’s china and silver for when guests come over but will set the dining room table just as my mother does to celebrate even the simplest of occasions. I will use my manners, hold the door, and say please and thank you. I will do as others have done before me and pass along the wisdom, charm, and values that make southern women distinctive.

More than anything, I will think of all the women in my life that took a part in making me into the woman I’ve become and will strive to emulate them for the rest of my life.