I sat outside at dusk, the air hot and heavy with a storm rolling in, sipping whiskey and watching two mockingbird parents oversee their young make their way from the nest in my magnolia tree.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a more quintessentially Southern sentence.
Yet I don’t feel that I am quite quintessentially Southern myself. After all, I’m not the cornbread and pearls type. I’m not the Sundays and pressed dresses type. I’m not even the football and Daisy Dukes type. I’m not sure what I am, but sometimes I think about it while I sit on the front porch growing sticky from the humidity, sipping Side Cars with fresh basil cut from the side yard.
One of the things about me that is indecisively Southern is that I’ve got a big, loud mouth. I speak my mind. I swear. I am firm, but hopefully gracious, in my opinions. I’m not sure if that’s more Scarlett O’Hara or an affront to quiet, demure Southern womanhood. It might count in Fried Green Tomatoes, but only if you have a good recipe for barbecue and grits and produce.
The reason I’m out on the porch sipping whiskey and watching the mockingbirds is that all day I’ve been arguing online with strangers who don’t think women should have a voice. They don’t think that’s what they think, but it’s what comes out in-between their words, which are sticky with condescension and antagonism.
I think back to my childhood, when other people’s parents expected me to say “yes sir” and “no m’am” and were shocked I spent Sundays in the back yard playing pretend. I remembered what I said to these people to placate them, aware at a young age they were judging me and my heathen Yankee parents.
I responded kindly, simply, reinforcing my point, trying never to be nasty. I think of pearls before swine, of putting pearls on a pig. I think of dressing these people’s ignorance in rich robes, like the trails of gold going down my throat.
These people online, frustrated about my feminism, I could tell they were thinking the old Southernism “God love you, but.” I was thinking my own: “well bless your heart.”
I don’t think Southern women have ever been much for shutting up. It’s easy to get us riled up. It’s the Scotch-Irish blood. It’s the heat. It’s the constant tension. It’s the secrets in the attic. It’s the whiskey.
I think that must be it. It loosens the tongue, it frees the thoughts, it cuts the sweat. It’s the nip you have, even when you need to couch it in comfortable terms, calling it “the recipe” like the Baldwin sisters on The Waltons. It’s your hymn if you can’t make it to church on Sundays. It’s your protest against the ties that bind, feeling strong and sturdy for drinking like a man. It’s your medicine and your communion. It’s your history and your herstory.
Here’s the thing. Whiskey is the drink of storytellers.
So often it’s the women who hold the stories. The stories of babies born and families grown and generations past and what the land holds. We bear the stories like we’ve born children, and we have whole worlds of love and revelation tied up in our bodies and our minds. When we drink the whiskey, it lets the stories flow. So when you tell me that women should not have a voice, I sip my whiskey, and I think of all the stories I have to tell.
I sip again, and I begin to speak, not in my everyday voice, but in the voice of women, Southern or otherwise. I begin to speak in the voice of the storyteller, the one who bears witness. The one who has seen, and who tells what she has seen. The one who knows how to drive out haints and heal wounds and fix grits and find stinging nettles and ramps and fiddleheads in the springtime. The ones who know why women need to learn, and discover the stories deep within us, like Shaharazad, like Flannery and Zora and Zelda and Bessie and Ella and Margaret.
You tell me women can not have a voice. The whiskey tells me we already do, and we long have, and we will keep sayin’ and sayin’ and sayin’ as long as their is kin, as long as there are miles to go, as long as the tree frogs sing in summer, as long as the corn grows in rocky hollers, as long as Georgia soil is stained red, and peaches swell ripe and we watch the pollen stain yellow and the mockingbirds birth their babies and teach them to fly in April.
Women have a voice all over the world. And in the South, it’s one that’s bourbon-baked, and corn-fed, and honeyed like pear trees in bloom, and rich like Gospel and sharp like gravel roads on bare feet in July. I take another sip, and I settle into my voice. I settle into my porch. The lightening strikes. The thunder rolls. The rain starts to fall.