Who is “Southern”? It depends on who you ask, and while Southerners may consider ourselves de facto authorities on this mythic subject, people outside of the South have their ideas, too. In this essay, a Seattleite uses her marital connection to the South as an example of narratives about Southerners that come from outside, rather than within, the region.
by Lynn Magill
In the general hierarchy of things, I was born in Iowa and raised in Seattle from the time I was a toddler. However, Seattle people don’t consider you really from Seattle unless you’ve been here since the minute you were born (and not a single solitary minute later, either). In their minds, anything below Minnesota is “the South,” so basically Iowa is Texarkana Lite up in this corner of the continent. I could dispute that: but on what grounds?
Even more amusingly, the Iowans consider you an Iowan forever, even if you’re a really odd one that lives up North and writes weird things that nobody understands.
As fate would have it, I ended up in the modern version of a “mixed” marriage, which hitherto in my family had been between those of the John Deere and Farmall faiths respectively: I married a Texan. Not just any Texan, mind you, because I do nothing half-assed. With all due respect to my husband Ross, I whole-assed it and married a career military Texan from a small town that hunts deer, wears camo, loves football, and lives and breathes BBQ and Mexican food.
My Seattle friends were aghast. He wears camo. He has that accent. You are . . . you are Seattle. You drink coffee, are all artsy-fartsy, you hike, you could live in a bookstore and basically worship at the altar of Pearl Jam. You have been to all of Kurt Cobain’s houses. A Texan?
I will never forget the night it became apparent that I had crossed the Mason-Dixon line without due process. It was my first Christmas with my in-laws, and they had been nothing short of gracious and welcoming, despite my suspect origins. Their family traditionally celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve, and the entire passel of aunts, uncles, siblings, nieces, and nephews had come from as far as Oklahoma to be together and open gifts. The younger children were gleefully ripping open wrapping paper on the floor, while I sat on the living room couch with my husband’s lone aunt, Margene, smiling at the fun. Margene had been at her job at the West Texas Lighthouse for the Blind for roughly forty years, an amount of time as formidable as the woman herself. Changes at work had been giving her some fits, and as we surveyed the piles of paper and squeals in front of us, she turned her perfectly coiffed red hair towards me, fixed me with a pointed gaze, and said, “I have a new younger boss, and he sucks. The only thing worse than a new boss is a damn Yankee.”
Now, I’d spent a considerable amount of time in the South for both business and pleasure over the past couple of decades, and this was the first time I became aware of two things: 1) that I, in fact, am a Yankee, and 2) that people since the time of Mark Twain are still actually using that term (outside of the famous play and the ’80s band, of course) and not in a good way. I wasn’t even entirely clear what was bad about being one. Internally, I supposed that not all new bosses were terrible – I’d been awfully glad to get a few good ones – and I expected that applied to us Yankees too, but being a newly minted wife at my first holiday gathering with my in-laws was not the time to pick this battle. My educated guess also told me that getting into a spat with a much-beloved family member on Christmas Eve likely wouldn’t change her opinion about Yankees much and might even incite a few more. So this Yankee laughed as if I was in on the best inside joke ever, because by gosh, aren’t new bosses just the worst? And isn’t this wine a nice compliment to a night like this?
Despite my husband Ross’ Southern roots, we chose to stay in Seattle indefinitely in order to keep our careers (and income) stable for a while, as well as for his daughter’s schooling. After a while, it became apparent that I had underestimated my fellow Seattleites, who are famous for their diversity and open-mindedness. My husband has an open and adventurous heart, and gamely tried All Things Northwest that my friends and I extolled with religious fervor: good coffee, live theatre, hiking, books and more books, salmon fishing, soccer, etc. Some he liked (sushi) better than others (tofu).
Audiobooks became a staple on our commutes, and Ross found that he really enjoyed listening to them in general while he was working or doing chores. Being dyslexic, audiobooks were an epiphany for him, and his reading comprehension and vocabulary skyrocketed: it wasn’t unusual for him to go through ten to fifteen books or more each week. To understand the import of this, you have to picture Ross himself: an even six feet tall, military buzz cut, a perpetual wearer of RealTree Oak, Carhartt, earth tones (except for hunter orange, of course) with an accent so thick that I can tell whether or not he is talking to family on the phone based on how intelligible it is. I spent the first two years telling my bewildered friends, “Don’t listen to the accent, listen to what he’s saying. He’s not racist, he loves animals, he’s into gardening and canning. He’s a hipster with a twang is all. Because really, aren’t ranchers and farmers the original locovores? Do you think we invented backyard chickens or something?”
The more he became acclimated to the local creature comforts of Yankee life – the occasional spa day, winery hopping – he developed an affinity for crazy socks and strong coffee. We even had a word for it: he’d become a MetroTexual.
Sometimes, people’s reactions were amusing. Our neighbor caught us in the driveway one day on our way downtown to see a play and said, “A play? Wow! I never pictured you as the type who would go to a play.” Another time, Ross was in the commuter shuttle van on the way to work, and a Coast Guard coworker remarked, “Wait, you know that book too? You read?”
Which begs the question: why wouldn’t he?
The most memorable moment was at a party; a random get-together thrown by an old high school friend of mine – attended by a couple of other high school friends – who was dating a stereotypical Seattle techie at the time. It was the adult version of a bad high school clique sitcom, with a few of us decidedly older Gore-Tex and flannel wearing web-footers huddled in one corner catching up, and the software engineers standing awkwardly in another. We hadn’t seen my classmate Aaron for a while, a boisterous redhead of a man who has a small working farm out on the Tulalip reservation who is prone to wearing fleece hats with earflaps un-ironically. A tall young man, not long out of college, broke from the herd and made a beeline past us to grab a beer out of the fridge. Overhearing our conversation about movies (of which I was contributing absolutely nothing, not being a big fan in general) he suddenly stopped, looked Ross and Aaron up and down appraisingly and threw out the bait: “Yeah, but the book for No Country For Old Men was much better than the movie.”
Pausing expectantly, he stood, beer in hand, smirking, pleased to have one-upped the redneck misfits in some social hierarchy game we hadn’t known we were playing. Ross the Newly Crowned Audiobook King smiled broadly and boomed in his affable drawl. “You are so right! That book is awesome! And do you know what the crucial mistake that Moss made was?” Another pause— this one was much less self-assured. And without another word, he turned and was gone: having judged a book by its cover, he came up far short. Aaron later said that it was the best part of the entire night (although the homemade Korean food was fab).
Fifteen years of wedded bliss later, it is still a novelty. People have surprising difficulty comprehending that I am a non-Texan married to a Texan. They meet my husband, and from there on out, I am Texan by association, despite repeated protests. “Did you grow up in the same part of Texas as your husband?” and “Is your family all in Texas too?” Gentle reader, I have lived in Seattle for nearly all of my fifty-three years. I am as Texan as a polar bear (the resemblance is getting stronger all the time), although I have come to appreciate good Mexican food and fried turkey, and most definitely the wide open spaces.
If my long-suffering husband can go a decade and a half with people assuming he is functionally illiterate based on his accent alone, this damn Yankee can easily overlook the misgivings of a wayward aunt and bridge the cultural divide.