I used to be a chameleon. Not in a former life. NOT a real one on a branch in some petrified and camouflaged pose to survive. Survival might have been my alibi back then but it is doubtful that I would’ve ever admitted to it during my chameleon fling. The story is that I used to be one of those people who changed ever so slightly based on my surroundings. Maybe we’re all guilty of it at some point in our lives. Pretending to be someone we aren’t isn’t hard. In fact, I would argue that it’s too easy. Look at what happened to Jessica Simpson when she dated John Mayer. It was so obvious. Chameleon. Dark brunette trying on existential for size and some unconvincing cerebralish, angsty rocker tees. Poser. And we all saw how that one panned out. Not well.
Being Southern hasn’t always been a source of pride for me. Just take note for a moment of some of the events that earned us spots as national headliners in history. It is not an excuse for my seditious ways. Just an explanation. It was my first stint in the real world as a 20-something. I was surrounded by sophisticated transplants from about the globe. Every job I landed celebrated a great geographical mix of people. My parents always put education first and it opened doors to some great experiences. I am certain that was the idea behind all of the sacrifices they made in order for this to happen. I eventually arrived in Colorado on a self-dare with every intention of making it home. And the question would invariably come from each new acquaintance or colleague: So where are you from? It is the unfailing 20-something inquiry. The novice’s most monotonous and predictable of pick-up lines.
30- somethings ask so-what-do-you-do?
40-somethings perhaps will ask so-who-do-you-do? I don’t know (not there yet).
But 20-somethings living in a town of transplants always ask so-where-are-you-from?
I can remember flashing an extra toothy grin before and during the hometown interrogation. This was an effort to demonstrate that not only did I have a mouth full of teeth but they were perfectly, ridiculously straight (orthodontia, be blessed). Preemptive strike against the banjo jokes. God forbid that my answer,Tennessee, frighten a potential suitor away.
I grew my vocabulary intentionally and religiously during those formative years in an effort to thwart the stereotyping. I highlighted words in books. Kept a nerdly little list of my favorites and found ways to slip them into conversation in an attempt to appear at faux Ivy League from a distance.
It was a subtle and forgivable snubbing of my origins from the bystander’s perspective. But let me tell you, the first time you downplay ownership of your home fires, it stings your very heart if you have one. It is a betrayal on some deep-rooted level. Most of the people I grew up around are salt of the earth people. They work hard. They’re loyal. They’re honest. But suddenly, it seemed that people from elsewhere were judging. They thought that I was just getting lucky during conversations when my subjects and verbs agreed. Consistently. I am not proud of the period in my life in which I downplayed my origins.
For many of those disillusioned years, I had no idea that I was sitting on a goldmine of my own sophistication. Literally sitting on a quilt hand sewn by my great-grandmother. Or thumbing my grandmother’s recipe books, for instance. It takes years to cultivate the knowledge that comes from knowing what you have when you have it. I know how to fold a linen napkin. I know where the dessert spoon goes. I know thank-you note protocol. I know the love that goes into a good casserole and why Flannery O’ Connor described herself as a pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you-complex. Because that is exactly the way I feel about my southernness now. I will knock out a doubter with a cast iron skillet these days before I will ever deemphasize my southernness again. I mean you won’t find me flying the Stars n’ Bars from my car antenna but I can get down on some peach cobbler. Down here, we regale you with our imperfections after we make peace with them ourselves.
Growing up, if you needed to find me, you might follow the trail of muddy footfalls inside or out. But even back then, I would not listen to country music. Country was not cool among my teenage company. A full decade before I even came into this world, southerners were already making it clear that being-from-the-south is an identity to be owned and appreciated. Look at 1969. Mere Haggard was already proud to be an Okie From Muskogee. Three decades after Okie hit the charts, I was living in Colorado making it my second job to suppress any nuances of my southern accent (which, for the record, played a small part in my husband asking for my digits the first night we met in Boulder. God bless you, persistent accent).
At some point, this southern identity crisis sorted itself out. Enough that I hit the knees and begged my husband to relocate us back to Tennessee so that my kids can have this stop on their passport for a few years. I feel that strongly about it. Around the same time that I molted out of my chameleon skin, country also got really cool. And I don’t blame it. But the cat’s really going all feral crazy out of the bag lately with Hollywood infiltration around here. I don’t know how I feel about that. For years, I wanted it to be cool but this is not what I had in mind. Ashton Kutcher did not need a front row seat at the Country Music Awards.
I’ve come to the realization that the South is like a family member with whom there are no crimes beyond forgiveness. Even if you turn your back on it for a period of time, it is still perfectly happy to see you when you come back. Most all of us always come crawling back to our native foundation. A good ole’ piece of bedrock where even chameleons are welcome. Especially one with a good pair of cowboy boots. Oh, and there’s a vocabulary word that I can introduce you to. Lucchese. As in the boot. Take that, Italy. Hand crafted in Texas since 1883. Get (I mean git) ya some.