Ah, the South… there is no other place like it.
We have beautiful skies, changing seasons that turn the trees into shedding masterpieces and roots that go as deep as their branches grow high.
There’s a church on every corner and if you go far enough South, a porch on every house.
For those of us from the South (at times affectionately referred to as the ‘Bible Belt’) or who have been here for any length of time, the phrase “Bless ‘er heart” is all too familiar.
Southern women have been saying it since the beginning of time.
There is no discriminating against genders. It’s just that “Bless ‘er heart” is used more often than “Bless ‘is heart” or “their heart” for that matter. Young ladies get called out far more than boys because it is assumed that boys will act out for the simple fact that they are, well, boys.
Girls, however, are held to a far higher standard. They must always give the appearance of a sweet, innocent young lady. This means never drinking directly from a bottle, always having a fresh coat of lipstick and never being caught in public with nail polish that’s chipping or messy hair.
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself while counting how many times my mom said this phrase while in a conversation about a gal in Alabama who had lost her way. Meaning, she was sleeping around, drinking too much, cussing like a sailor and seemingly enjoying it.
Conversations like these with judgmental Southern “Ladies” used to evoke anger. I would feel it rise up from the pit of my gut to the top of my throat.
Now, well, now, it’s nostalgic.
Immediately I am taken back to a time when I would spend Summers at my grandmother’s house in the deep South. We would sit on the front porch shellin’ peas. Well, I would be shellin’ peas while she sat fanning her face and saying, “This is the hottest Summer I can remember.” She said that every year and now my dad says it.
I called my grandmother “Mamaw”. She was not a “bless ‘er heart” kind of woman. She was a hard ass. She worked most of her life as a school teacher when segregation was the norm. Boy did she have some stories. If you knew what was good for you, you would not cross her. Everyone in town knew this. They called her Annie. Which was appropriate since her name was Annabel.
I loved to listen to her. I also had a healthy fear of her. Being the youngest of three girls I had seen what happened when my sisters disobeyed or talked back. It had to do with a paddle my dad had made when he was in a fraternity in college.
There is only one time I can remember her picking up that paddle with the intention of “wearing out my backside”. I ran and hid in a closet. I could hear her saying, “Joy Beth! You better get out here!” I don’t know how long I was in that closet, but by the time I emerged, she had cooled off and the paddle had been put away. She laughed and said, “You got away with it this time, but next time…”
I did not give her a next time. As Sally Mae would say, “That learnt me!” Sally Mae made the best cornbread and dressin’. If I close my eyes, my mouth waters as I can still smell and taste it.
Any who, back to the front porch on that hot Summer day…
My mom and aunt would be in the sitting room and the screen door was open. (It was always open in the front and the back of the house so that the non-existent breeze could move through the house giving us a false sense that it was cooler).
During that conversation there were “Bless ‘er heart’s” flying everywhere.
It usually sounded something like this, “We need to pray for Betty, bless ‘er heart, I heard her husband is sleeping around.” Or, “Keep Charlene in your prayers, she just can’t seem to lose weight, bless ‘er heart. She is bigger every time I see her.”
You get the gist. Now if you ever heard a double “Bless ‘er heart”, look out! There is no juicier gossip being said under the guise of a prayer request than that worthy of a double “Bless ‘er heart”.
An example of this would be something that resembled, “Poor Katherine! She drove to the city to have her hair done and they cut too much off. Bless ‘er heart, her face was not made for short hair. I’m not tryin’ to be ugly, but the color, oh, well, it will take weeks to look like anything close to a believable shade. She paid a lot of money too, bless ‘er heart. I hear her husband is not happy.”
Yes, watch out for the double whammy!
Mamaw would smile and look at me. We always had the kind of relationship where we didn’t have to speak to know what the other was thinking.
She would then say, “Joy Beth, why don’t you go pick up some pecans and bring them back here to shell, while I run in and refill my tea?”
I knew that she was going to tell the ladies to move to another room or talk about something else. Otherwise she would have asked me to refill her tea, stating, “Well your legs are younger than mine!”.
(I would have gladly done it. No one I have ever known worked as hard as my grandmother.)
When I came back with my bucket full of pecans there was no more talk from the other room. I could write an entire book just about my grandmother. She was an amazing woman. When she said something, that made it so. There were no questions asked.
I don’t know if she was guarding me from the gossip or if she herself got sick of listening to it? Either way, she put an end to the “Prayer requests circle”.
For those of you who haven’t grown up hearing this phrase, hopefully you will walk away with the not so secret knowledge that when a Southern lady is using the phrase, “Bless ‘er heart”, she might as well be saying a four letter word.