Although I’ve lived in the South since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and consider it my home, there are still one or two of its customs that leave me feeling like an alien from the planet Yayn-Kee. One of them is the near-obsessive ancestor-worship that starts when you hit Kentucky, but doesn’t really manifest to its full potency until you cross the Macon-Dixon line.
A couple of years back, I was invited to play Margaret Mead and observe the Southern Male ritual of “deer camp”. (“Now, the outhouse is right over there. Here's your flashlight. We made sure to buy plenty of the soft kind of toilet paper when you said you were coming, too.”) Being as this ritual seemed to involve a lot of A) Guns, and B) Lazing about the fireside and drinking, raconteuring, and reading, I figured I’d fit right in. And for the most part I did, too, except for one brief interlude…
We were on a beer run (go figure) to town, and our tour guide decided to help us take in a bit of local color. The truck veered down this farm road and meandered up that highway, all the while with a running narrative about “This was the swimmin’ hole where we got busted with a twelve-pack,” or “There’s the juke joint where Bobby near got his ass whupped.” Then we stopped in a churchyard. A cold drizzle fell out of the South Georgia winter sky and dripped off the live oaks and Spanish moss as our host and the other guests, native Southrons one and all, started exchanging secret handshakes about who was buried where and who might be kin to whom. I mean, you could put a blank genealogical chart on the wall, circle a line at random, and these friends of mine could point at the fifth cousin, three times removed, before their eyes could focus.
Meanwhile, chill December rain dripped down my suddenly-Yankee neck.
They were deep into discussing what made a good burial plot, and where they were going to be planted. I was remembering that my Midwestern Scandihoovian Lutheran kin usually announced deaths at biannual family reunions: “By the way, Uncle Olaf died last August. Pass the potato salad.” I felt completely out of place for the next month or so after I got back from that hunting trip, at least until I was talking with one of my co-workers, who is so Southern that his ancestors had James Oglethorpe for a bailbondsman. He was relating a conversation he'd had with his wife one night, when he had expressed his desire to be cremated. She demurred, saying “What will I do with the ashes?”
“Hell, I don’t care. Dump ‘em out of the car window on the way home. If your friends ask, you can tell them you scattered my ashes; you don’t have to tell them it was along the shoulder of Tazewell Pike.”
If the South has room for him as a Native Son, it sure as hell has room for me. :)