We moved south from Michigan nearly thirty years ago. We spoke the native language—English—so it wasn’t going to be difficult fitting in, right? But “Southern” threw us now and then.
The four-year-old girl from next door said something sassy, and her mother said, “Kristen! Don’t be ugly!”
I thought, “How could that beautiful little girl ever be ugly?” Then I realized that “ugly” meant sassy or mean.
Another neighbor girl was trying to explain what her little brother’s name was. “It’s Lahn,” she said.
“Line?” I repeated.
By now she was a bit frustrated with me. “No! L-A-N-E, Lahn!” she said.
“Oh, Lane!” I said.
My first experience with a southern PTA meeting was enlightening. A local pastor came to give a short sermon before the meeting. He mentioned “them whales in the desert” and my mind skittered off, trying to make sense of the phrase. I wasn’t really strong on the Bible at that point in my life, but I had heard the story of Jonah and the whale. Had I missed some connection to a desert? No, probably not. Maybe he meant wails. Deserts were inhospitable places. People probably were known to wail sometimes.
Then the pastor said, “And there was WATER in them whales!”
Water in them whales? I finally got it. I turned to the people around me and said, “He means ‘wells.’ Water in wells.”
You can imagine the looks I got.
In the days before GPS, I visited Greeneville, TN for a writer’s conference. I drove 260 miles on my own and found my hotel, both of which were astonishing to me and everyone who knew me. (My own daughters said, "Mom's growing up!") Not too far away from the hotel was a strip mall, so I stopped at a dress shop to find something a little fancier than my usual ratty clothes. At checkout, I asked the young cashier if she could tell me where Main Street was.
Her entire face turned frowny and wary, like I’d slapped her grandma. “I don’t know that street.”
She didn't know where Main Street was? I said, “Main Street? You don’t know where Main Street is? The main street of town?”
She shook her head no, eyes wide.
An older woman behind her said, “I think she means Mine Street.”
The girl said, “Oh, I thought she said Mean Street.”
So, my Yankee friends, Main means Mean and Mine means Main. Have you got that?
No, neither have I. But they seem to put up with me anyway.