"Mama, am I Southern?" my 11-year-old son asked.
This is the same son who cultivates optimism at the world's expense. Out of the settled silence between us in the car one afternoon, he suddenly said, "You know, there are so many people in world, the odds of something bad happening to me are pretty slim. I mean, of all the people in the world that lightening could strike, why would it strike me?"
The pessimistic, devil's advocate in me wanted to retort, "Because if it's got to strike someone, why not you?" But I didn't. I simply waited and let my mute expression prod the boy on.
"I always think about that, and it makes me feel better," he concluded.
I nodded my head, hoping that feeling better is enough to carry him and that he never tests fate with that theory. The question of his Southern status, however, was also a question of my mothering ability, not simply one of good common sense, and therefore required a response. I needed to be firm but thoughtful, clear but caring.
"Of course you're Southern," I emphatically answered. "Why would you doubt it?"
"I've always wondered if I was from New York, or something, and just moved here to live," he explained, making me wonder if he thinks he was adopted, too, all the secrets of his true identity hidden from him by his devious parents.
"You're definitely Southern," I assured him.
"Okay," he said, and looked out the car window watching the pines zip past.
After a few minutes, he queried, "How do you know if you're Southern or not?"
That's when his exasperated 13-year-old brother piped up, "Say the word C-l-e-v-e-l-a-n-d."
The 11 year-old said it.
"Did you say the d at the end?" asked his brother.
"I said it a little bit, but not really."
"Now," continued the 13 year-old guru of Southern-inity, "say the word m-u-s-e-u-m."
"Good. You dropped the u. Next say the word c-a-r-a-m-e-l," the sensei went on, proud of finding success with his willing pupil. Listening to his student's response, my 13 year-old confirmed, "Yep, you're Southern. You drop final consonants. You drop syllables. And you don't follow directions."
"Huh? I did everything you told me."
"I said, 'Say care-uh-mel. You said car-mle."
Seeing the confusion on my son's face and sure that he was still not convinced of his Southern-ness, I began, "You know you're Southern, with a capital s, by who your people are and where you were born. You know you're Southern by how words drip off your lips, slow and sweet and sincere. You know you're Southern by your ma'ams and your sirs, your dad-gums and your dang-its, your fixin'-tos and your y'alls.
Southern shows in how you hold your fork, stand when your elders enter the room, and take your hat off in the house. It's about knowing the importance of a front porch and how to use it, never questioning your heritage, taking time to talk about the weather at the feed store and dragging out the conversation just 'cause you can. Southern is synonymous with casseroles and . . ."
"Okay, okay, I get it," he cut me off. "I'm Southern with a capital s." Long pause. "Are you and Daddy Southern with a capital s?"
His eyes reflected unbelievable seriousness. "Clevelan," I said. "Musem," I said. "Car-mle," I said.
But this is the kid who contrives optimism at the world's expense and who immediately followed the Southern topic with, "Is it an insult if someone calls me a redneck?"
(Lucy Adams is a syndicated columnist, freelance writer, and author of If Mama Don't Laugh, It Ain't Funny. She lives in Thomson. Lucy invites readers to send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, and to visit her web site, www.IfMama.com.)