My late grandma was the epitome of a Southern belle. She always wrote thank-you notes, made far more food than necessary, and spoke with a soft drawl that sounded like rain tickling a window pane.
Having grown up in California, I wasn’t the most in tune with Southern culture as a kid. It was my grandma who eventually taught me all about the virtues of Southern womanhood, from delighting others in conversation to dressing for proper social gatherings. And since my grandma was known for her generosity, I thought I would honor her by sharing some of the most important lessons she taught me about living as a Southern belle.
1. Play coy about your love life.
My grandfather died in his 60s, leaving my grandma as a fairly young widow. It only was a few months after his death before her neighbors and friends began to ask, “When are you going to get a new beau?” and “Are you dating yet?” Rather than constantly answer these questions, my grandma simply came up with a catchphrase: “Well I’ve been chasing men, but I just can’t catch any.”
Her catchphrase quickly became the stuff of legend. Everyone in her town of Pass Christian, Mississippi — a Southern version of Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow, Connecticut — looked forward to asking my grandma how she was doing when they bumped into her. They knew she would quip, “I’ve been chasing men, but I just can’t catch any.” There wasn't a single person who wasn't charmed by her slogan, and soon the questions about whether or not she would date again subsided.
Only one time did her catchphrase ever backfire. While sitting on the porch at her nursing home, two men sat down next to her. They politely asked how she was, to which she replied, “Oh, I keep chasing men, but I can’t catch any.” The two men looked at each other, leaped up as though a hot frying pan had suddenly appeared beneath them, and darted away.
2. Always Drink Jack Daniels Black Label (and if allowed, bring your own to a restaurant).
My grandmother was taught to drink by my grandfather, a good ol’ boy from New Orleans who did not have time for namby-pamby drinks. This was a man who took his beers cold, his steaks raw, and his Jack Daniels Black. So, as his wife, my grandmother only drank Jack Daniels Black.
Despite the fact that it only took her about a drink and a half for to get drunk, my grandma always insisted that this was her signature drink. She was so set in this belief that she would often send back the first drink brought to her with the complaint that it wasn’t Jack Daniels.
Since my family only prefers the finer things in life, we often corralled at every redneck’s favorite eatery when we visited her: The Blow Fly Inn in Gulfport, Mississippi. Located out in the middle of a bayou where mysterious swamp creatures snorted in the night, all eight million of us would shout at each other as we picked the restaurant's signature plastic flies off our dishes. On more than one occasion, my grandma would pull out her own bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label during one our meal and proceed to pour herself a glass. Scandalized, I once asked if she was allowed to do that.
“Listen, honey,” she replied, swirling the ice around in her glass, “These rednecks are going to do whatever the hell they damn well please, which means that I can, too.” She then drank her JD like the incomparable boss she was.
3. Don't swear.
Being the lady that my grandma was, I never heard her swear besides her occasional use of "damn," "hell," and the concoction of country expressions she would yell when frustrated. These included:
“You son of a sea cook!”
“Does your mama know you drive like that?”
“Fix your face!”
When stuck in Los Angeles traffic nowadays, I am sure to yell “You son of a sea cook!” at terrible drivers.
4. Go see the world.
As a young child, my grandma would bring me back two things from her travels: dolls and foreign currency. I would stare at the former in awe, imagining the exotic locations they came from. I would comb their hair and toy with their dresses, desperately wanting to visit their homelands. I would line them up and send them on adventures back to their home countries — Mexico, Russia, Turkey, France — wondering when I would one day visit these places, too. When I grew tired of my dolls, I would toy with the currency, softly grazing the numbers and letters that I could not read with my fingers. My grandma gave me these gifts to inspire me to one day pack up my bags and visit every country and city I could.
My grandma did not begin to travel until her early 60s. Once her children were grown and her husband passed, she had an epiphany: she had not yet seen much of the world, but why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn’t the small-town girl from Tennessee go visit the City of Lights? The Great Pyramids? The islands of Fiji? The Sydney Opera House? The Great Wall? So she packed up her bags and took every chance she got to see a different city.
My grandma’s nomadic nature rubbed off on me. Inspired by her gifts, I have now traveled to four different continents (lived on two) and plan to continue traveling until the day I die.
5. Love is all that matters.
My grandma was the most caring and loving woman on the planet. She not only loved each and every one of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, but also their friends, spouses, and the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of all of her friends and their spouses. She signed every letter she ever wrote, “Remember I love you,” and frequently reminded us that love would always trump hate.
The last time I ever saw my grandmother, she gave me a bit of advice. After speaking to my boyfriend via Skype — she held the phone up to her ear, not understanding that he could see her — she listened as I lamented the pressure we felt to hurry up and get married. I feared that we were not ready and that a marriage would end in disaster.
“Don’t let someone else tell you how to plan your own wedding,” My grandma told me. “Don’t worry about what other people think. When it comes to relationships, all that matters is that you love him, and he loves you. If Paul loves you and you love him, then everything else will fall into place.”
6. When picking out a movie to watch, always chose the one with the naked men.
After Hurricane Katrina, my grandma came to live with us. My friends were delighted by our new resident. They adored her wit, charm, and stories of the South that rivaled those in To Kill a Mockingbird. One Friday night, my friend Keri and I decided to watch a movie. While discussing the plot of each of our options, The Full Monty was brought up.
“What’s that one about?” my grandma drawled.
“It’s about a bunch of British men who decide to strip in order to make money,” I replied.
“Let’s watch that one! The one about the naked men!”
Keri howled with laughter, not entirely realizing that my grandma was serious. (For the record, we did end up watching the one about the naked men).
7. Always feed everyone.
Like a proper Southerner, my grandma would attempt to force-feed you the second you stepped inside her house. She always kept her guests well fed, even when they didn’t necessarily want food, and never ran out of fare, making gargantuan meals even if was she was only serving three people.
One Fourth of July, my grandma insisted that she make potato salad. We assumed that she would make a small container, as there were only four of us who would be eating it, but lo and behold, my grandma showed up with a whopping four pounds of potato salad an hour later.
“Grandma!” I cried, staring at the mass in front of me. “We really didn’t need four pounds of potato salad!”
“Well, it’s better that than you go hungry.”
To this day, when guests come to my home, I feel the need to feed them (although I reserve the potato salad for the Fourth of July).
8. Sometimes all you need is ice cream.
Although our grandma normally stuffed us, there was one occasion where she came up a bit short in the food department. My sister Nadia opened her freezer one day and peered in, finding nothing but a sole tub of chocolate ice cream. It was the only item in her entire refrigerator.
“Grandma,” Nadia asked, pulling the tub of ice cream out. “Is this all you have to eat?”
“I’m sure to keep the important things in life,” she replied.
9. Pray with a glow-in-the-dark rosary.
My grandma was the most devout Catholic I've ever met. She took us to Mass every Sunday, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to go solo a few more times during the week. She always made the sign of the cross when we drove past a church and would tell us who needed our prayers. Every year, she gave up chocolate for Lent; every year, she would rip the ears off a chocolate bunny on Easter.
I would crawl into bed with her on chilly nights. She would turn off the light and bid me goodnight, then pull out her rosary, which glowed a bright, translucent green. I would watch, fascinated, as she would say her prayers in the dark. She told me that her rosary glowed in the dark so she always knew which bead she was on, and that the Lord was close to her.
10. Remember to laugh.
My grandma did not have an easy life. She survived the Great Depression, a World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the death of her child, and Hurricane Katrina. The latter hit when my grandma was in her 80s, after she had settled into Pass Christian. She had her routine, her friends, her restaurants — she had no reason to move had Katrina not hit. But after the storm arrived, she was forced to resettle in Memphis, leaving behind her routine, her friends, and her restaurants. The move was not easy for her.
While sitting on the couch one night my grandma took me through a series of photos of her life before Katrina. As she showed me the various pictures, she would stop and laugh at a picture of her friends gathered around a bridge table or a shot of my uncle making a goofy face.
“Grandma,” I asked, looking at a picture of her wearing a bright purple dress, “you have been through so much. How have you gotten through it all?”
She took the picture back and ran her fingers over it.
A single tear ran down her cheek.