Y’all be sure and drive slow

Not all trends in the New South are welcomed by traditional Southerners with an appreciation for history. In fact, their voices tend to be among the loudest decrying the increasing recreationalization of Memorial Day. It’s hard to disagree with their case.

Gen. John Logan
Memorial Day had a lot of meaning to both sides of the Civil War when it was first officially declared on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John Logan.

I doubt very seriously that when Gen. John Logan proclaimed May 5, 1868, the first official Memorial Day he had pool parties, hot dogs on the grill and big-budget movie releases in mind. What’s now referred to as the “unofficial start of summer” does not have much to do with the sacrifices of America’s soldiers and their families.

My family’s route to church takes us through Duluth where twice a year the city’s streets are lined with flags. The week prior to and following Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, flags attached to white crosses bearing the names of service men and women serve as a reminder to passersby that there is something real and meaningful happening. It semi-annually prompts interesting discussions with my children.

Because of the flags, I get the opportunity to tell my boys about the service of their grandfathers, my dad in the Air Force and my father-in-law in the Navy, and how my grandfather fought in two wars – World War II and Korea. I can connect the dots for them when we visit my parents’ house in Florida and they see the framed name badge and medals from my grandfather’s service.

Actually, the flags also serve as contemporary reminders that the United States continues to fight wars on two fronts. Americans are still giving their lives in defense of their country, and the day still has meaning for many families. As the World War II generation passes off the scene, we may be in real danger of losing Memorial Day. Oh, we’re not in danger of losing the three-day-weekend that marks the start of summer.  Congress tried to debate that back in 1999, but no representative with an eye toward re-election would take away a working person’s three-day weekend.

Flags at Duluth city hall
Flags lining the streets and adorning the lawn of city hall in Duluth, Ga., serve as important reminders.

No, the real threat is losing the connection with, pardon the cliché, the real meaning of Memorial Day. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Memorial Day. I would argue it’s already happened to Thanksgiving (Black Friday Eve), Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Labor Day and maybe even Christmas.

In connecting the dots from grandfathers to military service to Duluth’s flags for my boys, the picture isn’t complete until the line reaches the conclusion of freedom. Ultimately, that’s what Memorial Day comes back to. Men and women freely offered up their lives, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in defense of their country. We remember them as we enjoy our freedoms.

So maybe there is a way to remember our war dead even as we stand in line at the Cineplex or clean off our grills for the first time since Labor Day. Perhaps as we attend pool parties with friends we can reclaim a sense of gratitude and even grief for the lives lost in the horrors of war.

It will require effort, and we have to be intentional about it, but Memorial Day in the New South doesn’t have to be just another three-day weekend.

To quote singer songwriter James McMurtry:

“It’s Memorial Day in America
Everybody’s on the road
Let’s remember our fallen heroes
Y’all be sure and drive slow.”

The dangerous South

The 2011 Mississippi River flood is a slow-moving disaster.

For an observer of Southern trends, it’s hard to ignore the tornadoes and floods afflicting the South this spring.

I’ve always thought California was the most disaster-prone region of the United States. They have earthquakes, wildfires, droughts, mudslides and traffic. But lately, the South seems to be giving the West Coast a run for its money. Southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana have plenty of evidence for claiming “most dangerous state” superiority over California.

As the cresting Mississippi River spreads out on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, all of the attention on Louisiana is eerily reminiscent of our focus on that region this time last year during the unnatural disaster of the New Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana’s coast. And how can we forget the years-long recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

No, I’m afraid I have to admit that living in California may not be as dangerous as the South, particularly the Southeast.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute backed up my hunch. The South is the easiest place to die from a natural disaster. A 2009 study of natural disaster deaths revealed there were more than 20,000 such deaths from 1970 to 2004, with the majority occurring in the Southeast. The Great Plains and Southwest rounded out the top three.

 In 2009 alone, natural disaster statistics showed California came in fifth with 17 deaths, trailing North Carolina (39), Texas (33), Florida (30) and Illinois (29.)

I’m not sure this is a point of pride for Southerners.

As I combed through the data in that 2009 study, a curious statistic popped out – heat and drought kill more people than severe weather events. This serves as a unwanted reminder that this temporary cool spell in Atlanta belies the heat and humidity on the way.

Here’s the breakdown on what natural events kill people:

  • Heat/drought: 19.6 percent
  • Severe summer weather: 18.8 percent
  • Winter weather: 18.1 percent
  • Floods: 14 percent
  • Tornadoes: 11.6 percent
  • Lightning: 11.3 percent
  • Geophysical events: less than 5 percent
  • Coastal events: 2.3 percent

You notice what comes in at number three? Winter weather. Who can forget the winter storms this year? Here in Atlanta we were immobilized for nearly a week by a snow storm-ice coating. It was, well, unnatural.

Tuscaloosa tornado
An all-too familiar scene from Tuscaloosa, Ala., after April's deadly tornadoes.

As the images of residents abandoning flooded homes in boats and the remains of tornado-splintered homes being bulldozed continue, my heart goes out to the victims.

So maybe it’s time for you Southerners to pick up a weather radio, put new batteries in your flashlight, get a few jugs of water and shop for generators. Remember, hurricane season starts in two weeks.

From last week

The winner from my “contest” on best examples of “I’m just sayin’” or “bless her heart” goes to Meredith Shaw with a classic: “She can’t carry a tune in a bucket, bless ‘er heart.” Your prize? Internet fame. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

I’m just sayin’ bless his heart

The not-so-secret code of Southern passive aggressive speech is most fully realized in the simple phrase “bless his heart.”

This quintessential put-down has become so cliché that every Southern sit-com from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Designing Women” to “Evening Shade” has referenced it.

Bless Your Heart
Real or insincere sentiment? You decide.

What’s interesting is that “bless her heart” is being replaced. In our modern, overly familiar and overly casual way of communicating, the lilting mockery of “bless his heart” is now summed up in the phrase “I’m just sayin’.”

According to the authoritative source on contemporary colloquialisms, urbandictionary.com, “I’m just sayin’” is “A phrase that is used when someone is offended by something you said. This phrase then removes all the offensiveness of the previous statement, making it all good.”

Sounds like the equivalent of “bless his heart” to me.

Time to update the wardrobe with a new cliche T-shirt.

I don’t know why this is happening, but perhaps it’s a secularization of Southern language. It’s no secret that more folks attend church in the South, and religion has been intertwined with Southern culture since the 1700s. Words like “bless” were naturally part of the vernacular when so many shared a common religious heritage.

But as contemporary Southern culture becomes less and less religious, so does the language. Blessing people’s hearts, whether in a patronizing or sincere way, is just not done much anymore because we’re not as conversant in the language of blessing.

What are some of your favorite uses of either phrase? They can be from real life or completely made up. In fact, let’s make it a contest. Comment below with your entry, and I’ll announce the winner next week.

Here are some examples to prime the pump:

“He plays the recorder so well, bless his heart” (real).

“She DOES NOT need to be wearing that.  I’m just sayin’.” (completely made up and not about my wife, ever).

And finally…

“That was such a lame Facebook status update … bless his heart” (modern usage of dated phrase).

Call your Mommer ‘n ’em

Mom, a.k.a. Sharon Wallace, showing off a prized photo.

As long as I can remember, my mother has been “Mom.”

I’m sure when I was just a babbling little baby she started out as “Mama.” There was probably even a “Mommy” phase that ended at about the age of 8.

It wasn’t until I got to college in Troy, Ala., that I routinely heard adults refer to their mother as “Mama” and for the first time heard the phrase “Mommer ‘n ‘em”. There were the “yo momma” jokes back in the 1980s, but otherwise, “Mama” or “Momma” weren’t appellations I encountered until after I left urban Texas and central Florida for the deep, traditional South.

Shakespeare wrote in “Romeo and Juliet” the famous line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but what do all the derivations of “mother” mean? In analyzing my own speech patterns, I think I did have different meanings behind each form.

For example, “Mom” was common, everyday usage. It was conversational, and in a lot of ways, for my two brothers and me, it was her name.

“Mommy” was employed when I faced life’s scariest moments, usually involving blood coming out of me somewhere.  It was used when there was great need or when I was just greatly needy. It could imply urgency, depending on the volume and pitch, but mostly it was just whiny. I’m sure Mom didn’t particularly enjoy it in either case.

“Mother” was too formal to ever be used. It just seemed too detached. There was no affection in it. I can’t remember a time I have ever called her “Mother” during a conversation that wasn’t an attempt at humor.

“Mama” just sounded so country, that for a city boy, even from Texas, it was out of character. I guess in my glossary, it means the same as “Mom” but with a more down-home, primitive feel. “Mama” sounds like a big hug to me.

Mama, a.k.a. Cynthia Barron, showing off prized artwork from her grandsons last Mother's Day.

Now that I have two mothers – the woman who gave birth to me and my mother-in-law – I have grown comfortable with adopting my wife’s name for her mother. It wasn’t even that big of an adjustment. “Mama” just rolled off my tongue. Maybe it’s because the name fits her so well or maybe it’s a throwback to my first vocalizations as a child.

In my case, I’m blessed to have a supportive and encouraging Mom, a compassionate and considerate Mama and a wife who is living into motherhood for our three boys in a beautiful and nurturing way. While they call her “Mom” sometimes, it seems that right now, she’s mostly “Mommy” or “Mama.” I wouldn’t dare call her any of the names for “mother.” I know plenty of husbands who do, particularly as they age together with their wives. I just don’t think my wife wants to be my mother.

So, on this special weekend dedicated to remembering the contributions and sacrifices of our mothers, it doesn’t really matter what you call her, just be sure to call her, especially on Sunday.

Happy Mother’s Day!