During those gray, cloud-filled days, figuratively and literally, I wasn’t exactly imprisoned but two years of consented captivity in the unfamiliar North was one of the greatest burdens my Southern soul has ever carried.
In those troubled days, there was little relief, it seemed. From early November until late March, the sun seldom smiled, the wind always chilled and the snow often fell. Grits, amazingly, could not be purchased at the grocery store and my Southern accent tinged with an affinity for Scotch-Irish words like “fixin’ to” and “drekkly” was daily mocked. Tears were my closest companions for I was homesick for Mama, home, Sunday dinners and all the sweetness that sprung up from my native soil.
Those days, I was kept alive — barely breathing though it was — by Mama’s letters, Daddy’s calls, my best friend Debbie’s prayers and Monday nights spent with four of the finest, most hilarious Southern women the world has ever known.
On the way home from work, I stopped for take-out, hurried back to my one-bedroom apartment, lit a fire, crawled under an afghan I had crocheted in high school and settled in to watch “Designing Women.” Those evenings refreshed my soul, lifted my spirit and gave me enough gumption to survive another week in a place where those people were not like my people.
In the beginning, I did not recognize the brilliance of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who wrote the show while creating four of the most memorable characters that television has ever known. But over the years, I have seen every one of the 167 episodes at least four times and I am simply awed by such remarkable storytelling. The dialogue is brilliant and witty, each character is unique and every show has a moral to it, a lesson learned and one shared.
Recently, I sorted through the mail, pulled out a package, opened it and was delighted to see that it was the complete first two seasons of “Designing Women,” just released on DVD. I smiled. It’s always good to see such dear friends again. I shall always be grateful for the helping hand that the two Sugarbaker sisters, Julia and Suzanne, Mary Jo and Charlene gave me when I was alone in a foreign land and needed to be reminded of the kind of Southern women from which I had sprung: independent, feminine, hospitable, witty, feisty, bold, smart and memorable. Women who pledged allegiance to hairspray, lipstick, dresses and high heels while bowing to no man.
My favorite was politically incorrect Suzanne, whose beauty and allure to men were legendary.
“I’m sick and tired of just being known as the good-looking one around here,” she lamented while fluffing her hair.
“What is it about me that attracts every man with a pulse?” she once asked.
My favorite episode was when Dash Goff, Suzanne’s ex-husband who was a novelist, showed up and she coquettishly asked, “Do you ever wonder why you married me?”
“No, Suzanne, I know why I married you,” he replied. “I wanted to be a great writer and I felt I had not suffered enough.”
The show boldly took on social issues like harassment, discrimination, AIDS awareness and women struggling with self esteem issues including obesity. Yes, there was always a moral to the story.
I opened the DVDs, watched a couple of episodes and found myself strangely reminiscent of those days when I prayed so fervently to escape and return South. I thought of the good times and how that rocky journey had beautifully led me elsewhere in life. As I pondered why I was feeling such affection for a difficult time, I realized that if we emerge from painful times having grown in maturity, integrity and faith, then hard times can be softened by the memory and embraced by the heart.
I guess, just like an episode of “Designing Women,” my story has a moral, too.
Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of the new book, “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter here.