A Yankee Belle Tells it Straight


     It’s hard to be a half-breed.  Being comprised of the geo-lingual-socioeconomic phenomenon that is The South (and more specifically Kentucky) and of Down Easters from Maine, I have been set up for all kinds of trouble.  But I proudly claim both sides of my root system – Yankee and Southern Belle – which makes me things more complicated to some folks. I am a Yankee Belle, a curious and wonderful combination of all that is Northeastern and Southeastern, with a little of Elsewhere mixed in as well.

                There was a woman who used to live down the street from us, Pat, who was my mother’s friend. She was the absolute sweetest lady who used to play cards with me and let me partake of that luxury, cable TV (which we couldn’t afford).  Pat and my mom had a friendly competition going on, fought mainly through me and my little sister Katie.  Upon Pat’s delivering us home from an afternoon of Old Maid and Gin rummy, this competition would surface.

Pat would say, “Y’all are Suthern Belles.”

My mom would shake her head. “Nope. You guys are Yankee girls.”

This job as go-between across our neighborhood Mason-Dixon Line was too much for my sister who one day tearfully confessed to my mom that she did not want to be a Southern Belle, she wanted to be a Yankee.  God bless her, Pat passed on when I was in high school, but we remember her as our first lesson in Southern Belledom.

It wasn’t until later in life that I stepped up to claim the full Yankee Belle birthright.

                Let me tell you, if you live in the South you will understand what I’m about to say. People in the north think of Kentucky in any combination of the following: back-water, bunch of country bumpkins, shoeless, uneducated, redneck hicks, another red state, home of Kentucky Fried Chicken[1] and nothing else[2].  People in the South think Kentucky is the North[3] and therefore some kind of Yankee anomaly – no professional sports team, but more uppity than Georgia and the Carolinas and weirder than Mississippi and Alabama[4].  I went to a concert once and the singer mentioned that she was from Virginia and the upright bass player was from North Carolina, but they had never realized Kentucky was Southern. It’s also been my experience that anybody from the Midwest thinks we’re the South, and the West doesn’t really care much at all.

I will address the question of whether Kentucky is or is not The South, as I have noticed some disagreement on the subject. I feel that Kentucky is The South. We have all of the following Southern qualities: copious amounts of the South’s beverages of choice (bourbon and brewed iced tea[5]), ridiculously hot and sticky summers, and more ante-bellum plantation houses than you can shake a stick at.  We say y’all, we sit on the front porch, and we are home to a very old Southern gentleman’s sport (horses).  Now, it could be argued that Kentucky is not as Southern as some states. Kudzu has yet to take a chokehold on the entire state, at least in any sizable quantity.  We don’t do debutante balls en masse, and there are Southern accents that are very nice to listen to (Georgia and the Carolinas) but we’re not one of them.  Kentucky also doesn’t refer to it as “the War of Northern Aggression.” But we are friendly folks in that southern hospitality kind of way.

I have to defend my home state often. Having traveled to many of the states in the Union and some foreign countries, I have encountered many interesting ideas about Kentucky, some of which I will now relate to you. While standing in line at the Statue of Liberty behind a couple and their daughter from Montana, the man asked me what Kentucky is best known for. “Most people know us for horses, bourbon, and Kentucky Fried Chicken,” I said.  He pondered a moment, and then with a look of genuine concern, said, “Kentucky Fried Chicken? Do you have Burger King in Kentucky?”  He was truly, deeply, seriously worried we were missing out on our share of Whoppers. I’ve often also encountered the idea that most people in Kentucky have a stable full of horses and we just ride them about like we’re all on Little House on The Prairie[6].  While visiting a friend in Massachusetts when we were both in college, his friends kept asking me about the snow. There was about a foot of snow on the ground at the time, and they assumed I’d never seen such frozen wonder. I hated to disappoint, but we’d just had seventeen inches of the stuff the previous January…

 In order to claim my Yankeehood, I’ve spent a lot of time in my other root state, Maine.  Absolutely nobody in Kentucky gets my Maine-purchased bumper sticker “GOT MOOSE?”, which I think is only slightly more funny than the other bumper sticker option, “GOT LOBSTAH[7]?”

“Hey. What does your bumper sticker mean?”

“I got it in Maine. Where there are lots of moose.”

(Blank stare.)

“It’s a play on the ‘Got milk?’ ads? Like, Got Moose?”

“Yeah, I know, but what does it mean?”

(Sigh.)

When I was younger, and I said we were going to Maine for vacation, my friends often got this glazed look, but then I told them Maine has beaches and bears, and somehow that made it worthwhile in their eyes[8]. I think a lot of people don’t know what there is to do in Maine, as if people in Maine just stand around staring at each other all day and have no hobbies or interests possible to participate in.  There is a reason they call it the “vacationland.”

One year, we went to the Moxie Festival in tiny Lisbon Falls, Maine. Moxie is the oldest continuously bottled soft drink in the country and every year is a festival dedicated to this beverage. We drank about a gallon of Moxie and we had Moxie ice cream and saw a parade with a 20-foot L.L. Bean boot. You tell me how that’s not fun. We even got on the radio for being the guests from the farthest away[9]

                How did I end up straddling these two states?  My father is from Louisville, Kentucky.My mother, while born in the thriving metropolis of Caribou, Maine, claims heritage from most of that great green state with family in dozens of towns there.  They met on a blind date[12] while my father was serving in the United States Air Force as a B-52 crew chief.   I’ve never inquired into the mysteries of their courtship – my parents are both lovely people, but I don’t know how my father got my mother to move from The Vacationland to the BluegrassState. My mother says she married Dad because he looked like Fess Parker who played Davy Crocket on TV. I will merely note that my mother now carries her tea around the house in a mug proclaiming ‘BORN IN MAINE, LIVING IN EXILE.’

                When my parents met, in my mother’s version of the story, my father had all kinds of verbal atrocities mucking up his speech.  “Your father said ‘cain’t’ instead of ‘can’t’ when I met him,” she says, “but I got rid of that.” Mom denies it but she really does say, “Go ask yuh FAAthuh instead of “your father[13].”  My father will tell you about the time he and my mother went looking for a house.  “Your mother asked the realtor if they plough the dooryard[14] in the winter.” He rolls his eyes when he says this. “The realtor just stared at her.” 

                The pronunciation wars didn’t start with my parents, naturally.  My grandmother, Ma T,  so named by my cousin who is older and already had a Ma B and whose lead I was destined to follow, lived in Bangor and came to visit us every winter, had dozens of interesting words and phrases in her working lexicon.  “’Kout!” was the abbreviated version of “Look out!”  Anytime she was going somewhere, she was “gonna g’down to the” store/school/beauty salon.  My father’s personal favorite was my grandmother’s tendency to refer to anything not homemade as “store boughten[15].” Of course, there’s always the Maine version of “yes” or “uh-huh” – an emphatic (but not too emphatic) “aay-UH.” It doesn’t translate well onto paper, but that’s the best approximation.  The Maine relations also refer to my dad, George, as ‘Jaawwge,’ emphasis on the nasal ‘a’ sound.

                Now, dear reader, imagine my humiliation at pronouncing my own hometown differently than my peers! Not only have I always said ‘aunt’ not ‘ant’ to refer to my parents’ sisters or sisters-in-law, I say, “Louie-ville” or sometimes “Louie-vull” if I’m feeling lazy. In school, my classmates found endless reasons to get me to say ‘Louisville’ for the sheer pleasure of snickering at it. Oh, the humanity!  But as my mother will triumphantly tell you, “There was no King LOU-AH!”  The truly native way to say Louisville is actually a gutteral, nearly incomprehensible mumble that I cannot possibly represent alphanumerically. The further back in your throat you can say it, the better.  We have t-shirts available flaunting the most popular ways to pronounce the name: Looavull, Looeyvull, Loueyville, Louisville. It’s similar, I think, to the problems faced by people from Missouri and New Orleans.

                So now I am a grown-up Yankee Belle and someday I’ll pass the tiara to my daughter, if I have one. I like fried chicken and mint juleps, I like fresh lobster and I can actually drive on the ice in the winter.  I think this is the best of both worlds.  However, last year I married an Illini and I can see that my children will endure a similar story to the one I heard from my mom. Only this time I’ll say, “Your father used to say ‘Ellenois instead of Illinois!’”      

                               


[1] The Colonel himself kissed my hand when I was two. My first brush with celebrity.

[2] For the record, Kentucky has given the world not only bourbon, chicken, and Hot Browns, but we claim Bobby Ann Mason, George and Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Depp (I was camp counselors with his cousin), and all the Judds.

[3] Which is true, geographically. Kentucky is north of most Southern states. But we don’t act like people from the north.

[4] My sincere apologies to those wonderful states in my example, all of which I have enjoyed immensely. Please do not shoot the messenger. I am hoping something in the next paragraphs will allay your indignation.

[5] There is a distinct difference between brewed tea and that horrible instant powder and water concoction, the former of which comes in varieties of sweet tea goodness and the later of which is just disgusting.

[6] We don’t.

[7] ‘Lobstah’ being a close approximation for the Maine accented ‘lobster’ of which there are almost as many as moose, in Maine, I’m told.

[8]  I have never seen a bear or a moose in Maine. I have been to Maine countless times, and I have yet to see a moose. I feel it is a conspiracy purveyed by the Tourism Board of Maine to get tourists to believe they might see a moose if they come to Maine.

[9] This was also the trip when my sister, 19 at the time, made friends with a stuffed red lobster purchased as a souvenir, but who quickly became “Larry the Lobster” and who was consulted on all major decisions affecting my sister during that trip.

[11] My grandfather worked for the Army.

[12] They actually broke up for a while, but my father apologized with a dozen red roses.  Thank goodness.

[13] In Kentucky, it might actually be “Yer daddy.”

[14] In Maine, this question asks if the streets in front of the houses are ploughed when it snows. Of course, we don’t get so much snow that this is the same kind of issue as it might be for a homeowner in New England.

[15] I tried to use that one on a regular basis, but my husband put his foot down.

9 Comments

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  4. Awesome. I will refer ignorant Yankees to this essay when they ask me offensive questions about KY.

    And it must be said that Dave and I LOVE Maine. We speak often of moving there. I’ll keep on the lookout for moose.

  5. Hey there. I am a Doc from N.C. As far as I know I am the only physician bluegrass fiction writer around. I am Southern from way back.

    There is so much cool material in this post I don’t know where to start. Yankee Belle sums it up though; all kinda contradictions rolled into one there.

    Fine post. I am going to come back and re-read this one.

    drtombibey.wordpress.com

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  8. When I was in Japan for a few months, people seemed to kind of vaguely know about Kentucky (or at least no one ever asked “what’s that”) but no one seemed to ever hear of Louisville. I thought it was a combination of the Derby (horse racing was popular in some spots) and the presence of KFC in big cities there. One day I learned that the KFC by the lab I worked in just seemed to be called a transliterated version of “Kentucky”, and I finally realized everyone was just confused why I kept saying I came from a fast-food restaurant.

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