“Virginia is the South.”
It’s a playful argument that I made over and over in my first years of marriage.
My husband is from Mississippi, and, well, he had pretty strong opinions about fried catfish and hospitality. But, still, I persisted with my claims of sweetened iced tea and the pervasive use of “y’all”.
Among other things, I have learned that New Year’s Day in the South means black-eyed peas, and, if you are served food in someone’s home, you eat it. No question.
But delicacies aside, my lessons in Southern living have not always been easy. I think, however, that’s the beauty in cross-cultural experiences: The wisdom grows you in challenging ways.
Four and a half years ago – when I was eight months pregnant – my husband and I moved to Southeast Georgia. This is when my Southern education truly began.
And my amazing teachers were the Southern mamas who adopted me not only as a friend, but as a sister.
Lesson #1: Love people with food.
My husband and I weren’t even unpacked when our son was born. The only thing we had checked off our mental to-do list was join a church. But I had no idea what that actually meant when you’re about to have a baby in the South. What the heck is a meal train?
For the first two weeks of our son’s life – night after night – church families delivered food to our bright pink door (there are some things you just can’t get done before baby). And I’m not talking about fast food – I mean hearty home-cooked meals; Olive Garden entrees; and enough leftovers to feed a small army.
Do I need to pay them?
How do I say ‘thank you’?
My husband’s response was simple: “This is how people show you love in the South.”
To be clear, I am not the cook in our home. But, over time, my own hospitality muscle grew, and I bravely shared my own culinary vulnerability. And it was received with the most genuine gratitude.
This motif of “food as love”, of course, didn’t stop at early parenthood. Southern mamas have taught me that food is a tangible reminder of hope on the counter of life:
When tragedy strikes.
When marriage quakes.
When stress threatens.
And, whenever possible, deliver it with your own hands and a warm hug.
Lesson #2: Family is the center.
Moving to a Southern city several hours away from family members takes guts – and patience. In our first year in Georgia, I quickly learned that – with the exception of 1-3 birthday parties – weekends are for family.
At first, it felt lonely to not have that built-in support and, let’s just be honest, free babysitting. But the reality of deep family values shifted something I never expected within me: It taught me how to protect family time in my own home.
Now that our family lives in Mississippi just two hours from my in-laws, I appreciate them as I never have before. For what Southern mamas have modeled for me is the necessary recharging that family offers – let yourself be filled with love and pour it into your children.
Lesson #3: Take your kids to church.
Does anything produce more anxiety in a mother than her child crying loudly in a public place? I was terrified at the thought of taking my babies to church. I remember my first pep talk:
Leave when he begins to cry.
Leave as soon as you need to breastfeed.
Leave if anyone in the pew looks offended.
But, amazingly, a very different church atmosphere surrounded me on those early Sundays of motherhood. Older parents joked about the puns on my son’s onesies; new mothers showed me the cozy nursing room; and college students simply smiled when my baby boy cooed his way through the sermon – because they, too, had been taken to church all those years ago.
In a world where almost every parenting action seems open to public debate, Southern mamas have taught me that church is a safe refuge – for mother and baby. Now that my children are 3 and 5, I can speak to the miracles of weekly Jesus lessons in their lives:
Bible songs are their default.
They practice the Golden Rule.
And they know they are deeply loved by God.
My husband and I have reached a bit of a truce in our “Is Virginia really the South?” argument. We both agree that there are similarities, and I am grateful for the glimpses into Southern womanhood afforded to me in my childhood.
But perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned from Southern sisters is this:
Use what God gave you. And love others with it.
Lauren Fortenberry is a passionate educator, storyteller, and public health advocate, who has published and presented nationally and internationally on special topics in maternal and child health. Her work has also been featured by NBC’s TODAY Show, Her View From Home, and Kidspot, Australia’s top parenting website. Currently, Lauren is a freelance writer.
When Lauren isn’t writing, she can be found running, traveling, and chasing after her two little ones!
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