Averyell A. Kessler
As the child of midwestern parents, I was not taught the language of the south. Instead of Ohio, Daddy said Ahiya. Mama attended Northwestern in Chicaga and rode the L – whatever that was. My conversion happened by osmosis, as gentle expressions and soft southern words covered me like a fine mist. Unspoken lessons came from my backyard playmates who explained what an ice box was and insisted on drinking coke, not pop. I also learned to say Biloxi, not Bulocksee, and that it was ok to omit a syllable or two from the name of my home state. My Baptist friends explained that up yonder meant heaven and the minister was really the preacher. Also, that a revival could occur in a tent, a baptism might take place in a cattle pond, or a burial in the middle of a pasture.
My only relatives lived far away in Columbus Ohio, a foreign land. They rooted for Ohio state (treason), grew unfamiliar vegetables such as swiss chard and wax beans, and ate food that even the most incompetent southern cook would have tossed out immediately. They spoke in squawks and beeps that sounded like a jackhammer on pavement. Thankfully, I only saw them once a year, but when that time arrived, I braced for the onslaught. My youngest cousin, Sue, always welcomed me with the same greeting “Eeew, you talk funny.” I tried hard not to say y’all, but it slipped out every so often and she laughed.
“You-all havin’ fun up nawth,” Sue teased.
“Y’all is plural,” I replied. “It’s a lot better that you guys.”
I was suspicious when my aunt and cousin invited me out for a special lunch in downtown Columbus, a ladies’ only affair. My mother and I put on Sunday School dresses and met them at the Lazarus, a massive department store big enough to swallow Jackson’s Kennington’s in one gulp. It boasted gleaming escalators, sold everything from clarinets to canaries, and was taller than the First National Bank building. An elegant lunchroom was on the second floor.
“Guess what?” Sue announced as we were seated by a long wall of windows with a panoramic view of downtown Columbus. “We’re going to be on the radio.”
I smiled but said nothing.
“It’s the Lunch on the Town Show with Robbie Robertson,” my aunt continued.
“Who? Mama asked, rolling her eyes. Certainly, this was not Farmer Jim Neal or Woodie Assaf.
“He interviews people having lunch here every Friday. I thought it would be fun. I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you and Averyell.”
“Oh no,” I thought. “Here it comes. More teasing.”
As I nibbled my way around the edges of a chicken sandwich, I tried to make myself small by an exercise of will. It didn’t work. When Robbie entered the room, he headed straight for our table like a streaking arrow. The next moment he lifted his microphone close to my lips and said, “I understand we have some folks from Mississippi here today.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered. His eyes blinked once, twice. “What a polite young lady,” he said. The interview continued for ten eternal minutes as he asked benign questions about life in Mississippi, nodding and urging me on when I fell silent.
Suddenly, Cousin Sue interrupted, “Don’t you think she talks funny?”
Robbie turned and stared at Sue with searchlight eyes. “Sweetheart,” he answered. “I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. She sounds like honey to me.”
Sue shrank in her seat, her face flamed red. No one mentioned my accent again. I left the lunchroom with a bouquet of roses and a $100 gift certificate from Lazarus. Sue left with a sullen face, and tight, pressed together lips. It was a small but gratifying triumph.
So, what exactly is a honey voice. For starters, it neither black nor white, young or old, or solely in the possession of women. It’s the gentle tone of home. I hear it when a childhood friend calls to invite me to lunch, or the grocery guy says, “You need a hand with that ma’am?” It’s a grandmother singing into a baby’s ear, or a little boy licking his thumb and asking, “when are we gonna cut that pie?” I recognize it when a gospel choir stands for Just a Closer Walk with Thee and tender harmony flows like sweet cream. A honey voice whispers softly like wind sweeping through pine trees and gives respite from the constant noise of electronic clatter. It speaks with a rhythm that can’t be duplicated and tells a tale like nobody’s business.
A small caveat: a honey voice can raise a ruckus when needed. I remember an irritated Delta lady shrieking “Hush your mouth! You’re as drunk as Cooter Brown.” It’s an SEC coach taunting his opponent with “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch.” It was the growling curses of my grandfather when a cadre of squirrels attacked his fig trees at dawn. “Get outta here, you $#+*&% varmints!”
Thankfully, honey voices are still around, despite the efforts of some to neutralize deep south culture and transform us into a vanilla society. I’m not buying it for a minute. Speaking honey is a trademark of my state and a welcome greeting that never fails, especially when I’ve traveled far from home. It’s our southern identity, our poetry, and the quiet trademark of our way of life, slow, open, and come on in. We may disagree, but we still share a cup of coffee on the front porch. Of course, there are rotten eggs, always have been, always will be, but if enough of us speak honey, we’ll drown them out. My remedy may seem simplistic, but it’s a start. “Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”*