She said it, of course, with smirk. Those women who really don’t understand the ways of the women of the South seem to always speak about us in words vividly cloaked in disdain.
"The thing about you Southern women," she began as I shifted from one foot to another and instinctively crossed my arms defensively. Whenever someone says "you Southern women," it is not going to be a hymn of praise. "You think you can say anything you want about anyone, then excuse it all with ‘bless her heart.’"
First of all, as I explained to her, if I have something uncomplimentary to say, it is based in fact not opinion. And, normally, it will have something to do with an unkind or unethical something done to me or one of mine. Especially one of mine. I’m serious about protecting those I love.
Secondly, as I told her pointedly, if I have said such a thing, I see no reason at all to be blessing anyone’s heart.
I do use the phrase, but when you hear it from me, it will be with sincerity and compassion not sarcasm. If I hear of someone whose cup is running over with problems and aggravations, I’ll say, "Bless her heart. Is there anything we can do?"
Now, like any self-respecting Southern woman, I do keep a judicious eye on good grooming, but should I choose to comment about it, it will be in the form of a question such as, "My goodness, it looks like she would have run a comb through her hair before she left this morning, doesn’t it?"
At least I’m not like Mama who used to say, "Do you think she has any idea just how bad she looks?"
Of course, in the past couple of years as soon as I say something about uncombed hair, Jesus speaks to me and says, "Let’s just hope no one stops by your house and sees how you look on a busy day."
I do have a conscience.
But I’ll tell you what is much more deadly and more cleverly used by Southern women than "bless her heart." It’s "dear." Oh my goodness, that word can bring anyone to their knees. It is endlessly sniping.
Now listen up: Southern women use "sugah," "honey," "darlin’" and "baby" as their primary sweet words of endearment to those we love and those we only know. "Dear" is generally reserved for the clever put down.
A woman in Memphis wrote to correct me on the spelling of a town’s name that I used in my weekly newsletter. Now, we all know Memphis women are among the best Southern women. They know their black-eyed peas and collards when it comes to Southernism. She corrected me, spelling the name in capital letters leaving out an extra "r" I had put in. Then she wrote, "It only has one ‘r,’ dear."
That’s when I knew I had really been put in my place. I could just hear the condescension in her tone.
Once, a young woman forcefully refuted a logistic I had given her.
"That is not correct," she said rather hatefully.
Since it was my schedule and my flight, I knew for a fact that it was. I was nice the first two or three times I defended it, but when she persisted, I said, "Yes, dear, it is." I heard the edge in "dear" when I said it and knew I had crossed a line. One I had never crossed before.
Someone who heard me say it later asked, "Did you really call her ‘dear?’" As though I had spoken a cuss word.
Dazed by my own mouth, I nodded. But something felt good about it. I had gotten my point across because she finally fell silent. And I had pretended to be sweet about it.
Bless my heart.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including "There’s A Better Day A-Comin’." Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com/ronda.