On a Sunday morning, I was tucked into bed on the island of St. Simons. This place is where I, at the age of 13, accepted the calling that had haunted me since I was 4 — to become a writer.
And Tink brought me a copy of the New York Times and coffee loaded with cream. There on the front page of this revered Yankee newspaper, I discovered the obituary of perhaps the first Southern woman to write about the region’s people and draw attention to the differences between us and them — them being anyone else in the world who doesn’t possess an ounce of Southern blood or the common sense to understand we are to be celebrated, not mocked.
“Florence King died,” I said quietly. “She was 80.”
“Who was Florence King?” Tink asked.
When my first book on Southern womanhood debuted in 1999, I would occasionally have a bookseller or reader ask, “Have you read Southern Ladies and Gentlemen by Florence King?”
I’d never heard of her, but I bought a copy and read the somewhat acerbic-witted — make that completely acerbic-witted — book by King. It was innovative in that she cannily dissected Southerners and our life, tossed in jokes here and there and summed up us pretty much to a “T.”
Southerners, good sports that we are when one of our own throws a bit of wit at our foibles, embraced the book. We do not behave equally as well when a Yankee does the same thing.
But we bought the book for family and included it in “Welcome South” packages for the unordained who were moving south and into our congregations. Thus, it became a book that was adopted by Southerners for the celebration of our culture while being a learner’s guide for those who moved here but couldn’t interpret our phrases, habits, routines and prickly devotion to what Mama taught us and what her Mama taught before that.
“Sanity holds no charm in the South,” King wrote plaintively.
True. To us, especially the ones who love a good story, sane is boring while crazy is brilliant.
Which brings me to this admonishment to the generation of doctors who have begun to prescribe pills for those Southerners who view life through a slightly off-kilter lens. Shame on you. This threatens our cultural existence as a people who survive the world’s mundane and absurdity by filtering it through our Southern brains before spewing out an observation that is often funny and succinct. And uniquely Southern.
According to the NYT obituary — and I must say few can write a better in-depth obit than those at the Times — Miss Florence worried she would wind up as one of those folks, “sitting on the porch with a rifle across my knees.”
That one line demonstrated clearly to me why so many Southerners touted King’s book when it debuted in the 1970s. She wrote straightforward about our commonalities. Her sentences were threads that weaved together individual Southern lives.
My grandmother toted her shotgun around for the last 20 years of her life. I remember visiting her on Sunday afternoons as she served coffee and remarkable teacakes, her specialty, while she lugged the shotgun from the kitchen to the living room. Daintily, she sipped coffee from a china cup as though she were a well-bred lady — she was not, she was a woman of the mountains — while the shotgun rested in her lap. Her legs were crossed at the ankles and a calico printed dress covered her knees.
Southerners, above all, are paradoxes of different kinds in different ways. We see no shame in that a’tall. Southerners reserve the word “fool” for those who should be brought down a notch or two.
Thus, appropriately, the NYT concluded its obituary for Miss Florence with one of her interview quotes.
“I don’t suffer fools, and I like to see fools suffer.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.