“Your birthplace is your destiny and it hunts you down in whatever cotillion you’ve run to hide in — it is a bad tattoo that is defining, accurate, and irremovable.”
—Pat Conroy, The Death of Santini
I don’t think of my birthplace, the South, as a bad tattoo, but it certainly is defining, accurate and no doubt irremovable.
I’m thinking what that means, how Conroy’s axiom plays out in the details of my life and how that fits into another tattoo: America.
First, I don’t think I have a Southern accent, yet many folks have commented on my speech, certain words I pronounce: pecan or chocolate. I drop syllables like hot coals, and I drop them as natural as each breath I take. Yet it’s true I’ve always made sure not to leave off endings, except for a cheerful “mornin’.” I am a product of my mother’s insistence.
Speaking of my Mississippi-Alabama-raised mother, full of Biblical platitudes (“A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches”), I did learn from her: manners, respect and an ability to hold my ire, often seen by others as hypocritical or even spineless.
Maybe not letting everyone know how I felt wasn’t healthy, but at times that trait saved me from regret. And because of her insistence, I learned, regardless of the color of one’s skin, people deserve respect, especially when addressing adults. It was Mr., Rev., Mrs., Miss, unless we were close relatives or good friends.
And she had a patriotic sense of being an American. Oh, she could be critical and was very active in politics, but I can’t recall a time she ran down our country in working toward a better community, state or nation. We often stood on opposite sides. Still, say America was a bad country? Never. Neither of us.
I’ve lived in the South most of my life. My images are irremovable: moss dripping from live oaks, the smell of marsh on my tongue, the bursting of fuchsia azaleas.
Add to that the rivers, the Black, Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Sampit, that run through my life. My ocean’s moon rises full and rich from deep far waters, Argentina, maybe China or Iraq. That moon plays no favorites.
Sometimes I hear my mother’s voice come from my own mouth shaping admonition, especially in recent weeks. It grows into a grumbling rant about some politician, speaking to those who think America is no longer great and telling them how right they are. I say, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:28)
Mother says around here we recognize the value of all. While I don’t think she meant to wait for God to act, these quotes would be used in the middle of her child’s tantrum, the offending one hoping for an unneeded toy perhaps. You, reader, might have your own adage that keeps you from acting like a child, requiring you to pull back, think on what leader might best demonstrate the value of equality, constructive thought and action.
If she were alive today, Mother might say, consider how lucky we are in this country, so strongly tattooed on our soul. Place your hand on the plow. Work for constructive change where needed. We have problems, but we are American with many great institutions. We are American with initiative and ingenuity. We are American, open to others when help is needed.
In exploring my “Southern-ness” I find I can’t talk or write about it except in the larger context of my country, the land of the free. My Spanish moss and the amber grains of wheat and purple mountains, all hold a majesty that makes up America. Amid all the rhetoric of today’s political campaign, we are still that country.
It may be that the South, after all, is tattooed on my soul. But so is America, “defining, accurate and irremovable.” That’s my South. That’s my America. Indivisible, and for all.
Libby Bernardin is a former reporter and poet living in Georgetown. She is a lifetime member of the Board of Governors of the South Carolina Academy of Authors and a member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina and North Carolina Poetry Society.