Southern charm. The words often are spoken with a kind of reverence. And the feeling they evoke is as pervasive as the air we breathe, and as elusive as a firefly on a summer night.
Mark Twain’s work reflects it. James Taylor’s songs glorify it. And Greg Smith and Steve Naifeh ran headlong into it and lived to tell the tale in “On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye.”
But what is this thing we call southern charm?
It’s learning from the time you’re old enough to talk that “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” are not options when addressing your elders. It’s Easter dresses, bow ties and new Buster Brown shoes.
It’s chicken frying for Sunday dinner and banana puddin’ — not pudding — for dessert. It’s all-day singings and dinner on the ground. It’s visiting grandmama and granddaddy’s house, because there’s no better place in the world to visit.
It’s a buggy ride along a shady lane under a canopy of oak trees, or the smell of honeysuckle in May and the taste of a crisp Rome apple in October. It’s homemade vegetable soup in the winter, Brunswick stew in the fall, and the heady steam from a low country boil when the seafood’s fresh.
And it’s grits any time.
It’s sweet iced tea by the pitcher, biscuits and red-eye gravy, and thick slices of country ham rubbed with salt and brown sugar and cured in a smokehouse.
Southern charm resides in the architecture; it’s evident in the simple elegance of Charleston row houses and the elegant simplicity of cozy country cottages. It’s grand old houses with names like Banksia, Rosemary Hall and Let’s Pretend. It’s at home in the gables that overlook the neighborhood and on the porches that invite neighbors to stop and visit.
But it’s not only the pitch of a roof or the curve of an arch that gives us pause. That’s design. It’s an intangible something that stirs within that skin of wood and stone, brick and mortar; the remnants of our antebellum history combined with the best of the modern era.
Southern charm is not just a sense of place, but also a sense of the heart of a place.
It’s being able to walk downtown surrounded by tea olive, sage and bougainvillea instead of concrete, steel, and glass. It’s a place where flowers add character and trees are considered part of the streetscape.
Southern charm is band concerts in the summer and hayrides in the fall. It’s found in the pews of little white clapboard country churches and in the carillons of high-steeple churches. It’s as constant as revivals in the spring and tent meetings in the dog days of summer.
Southern charm is evident in our work and in our play; hands that coax the bounty from the earth while guiding a plow or creating art from clay on a potter’s wheel. The heart of the southland is in that bounty. The fruit of her soil feeds the body, while the fruit of her soul feeds the heart.
Just a taste of that bounty is heady stuff: Ragtime and jazz, bluegrass and country, Welty and Wolfe, O’Connor and Sandberg. It’s guitars and fiddles in the parlor, and horns and strings in the concert hall.
It’s watermelon on the Fourth of July, fresh corn on the cob right out of the field and sandwiches made with tomatoes so fresh that you have to eat them over the kitchen sink.
What is southern charm? That’s easy. It’s just a little taste of heaven here on Earth.