Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Y'All Come Back Now

As he was making a typically dramatic exit from the dining room, my three-year-old son informed me, “When people are leaving, they say ‘Be careful.’” And I laughed and said, “Well, yes, here they do.”

The first time someone in Memphis bid me good-bye and told me to be careful, I checked the ground for something I might trip over. It took me years to get over the reflex of associating that phrase with imminent danger. My people say “take care.” Even though it pretty much means the same thing, it doesn’t feel as ominous to me.

But my kids clearly don’t follow my thinking. Here I am, with a little boy who can properly distinguish the subtle difference between “y’all” and “all y’all,” and a seven-year-old daughter who answers requests with “yes, ma’am.” Yet when I say “uff-da,” they look at me like I’m crazy. I have, somehow, raised Southern children.

It’s jarring to realize that many of the things I took for granted about my upbringing are not only lost generationally, but also geographically. The cultural touchstones between our childhoods are hundreds of miles apart. My kids don’t know a Dairy Queen from a dairy barn, whereas the 7-year-old version of me could have identified either from a mile away (one by sign, the other by smell; Name That Manure was one of our favorite road games).

There are much greater cultural gaps to leap, though. I feel torn about the fact that my children are ignorant of religion in a town where asking someone which church they attend is considered a casual pleasantry. I was raised with religion being treated as an academic course, a spiritual history and philosophy lesson that would serve me as well as any other knowledge. We were such typical liberal Lutherans that my teenage rebellion was converting to Mormonism. But approaching Sunday school as just another educational opportunity doesn’t really seem to be an option here.

My kids do have a huge advantage, however, in their awareness of other races and cultures. Even when living outside of large diverse cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, it was rare for me to have more than one or two non-white, non-Christian classmates. I remember coming home in second grade and remarking to my mother that, for the first time, there was an African-American student in my class. My parents raised me to believe that everyone is equal, but that wasn’t a belief that came into much practice. I know that nothing I try to teach my children about equality could possibly be as effective as them living it every day. And, in hard relief, seeing injustice up close. I know they’re going to witness racism more often than I ever did, but I trust that they will be able to balance it with their own reality.

My people are Minnesotans, and their people before them, going back over 150 years. We share a culture, a history, and a language that are all foreign to my own offspring. When I take my children north to visit, I wonder how they interpret references to “the cities” or “the cabin” and everyone’s constant desire to “go up to” them. I take them north at least every year because I want them to know what a big country we live in, and see that there are fascinating things in every part of it. I expect to raise them as Southerners, but I want to spark the curiosity that will lead them to explore beyond their hometown. I hope they will travel all over. I hope they will make friends with people they never expected to. I hope they will learn new things wherever they go.

And I do hope they’ll be careful.

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