I just got done watching the film “Steel Magnolias”. Oh, it is a favorite of mine. Over the years, I’ve put lines from that film into my every day conversations, things like “You are evil and must be destroyed”. There are so many wonderful moments in that film, and being as I am Southern raised, a lot of it makes a lot of sense.
Personally, a lot of the film reminds me of my aunts growing up, but more than that, it reminds me of my sister a whole lot. You would have to see my sister to know what I’m talking about. 5’4, perfect skin, the most beautiful eyes you’ve ever seen and a fashion sense that would make any designer sit up and take notes. Growing up, all I ever wanted to look like was my sister, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I still think that too, after all, she’s been my idol all my life. In the looks department, I think she’s got me beat, hands down. Next to my sister, I look like I have all the fashion sense of a warthog. But I’ll just go with saying that our styles are very different. To be honest, I wouldn’t know what my style was if it reached up and bit me in the ass, so at least if I want to see good fashion on someone who looks fairly similar to me, I just look at my sister.
Like Shelby (Julia Roberts character in the film), my sister had a huge Southern wedding, the church decked out with flowers, me in a lilac colored bridesmaids dress (I was 14). The one thing I remember best about my sister’s wedding is that my sister was gorgeous and I got to carry a huge orchid as my bridesmaids bouquet. The rest is basically a blur, after all, it was 20 + years ago. All I remember is that the film came out just about at the same time as her wedding, so it was easy to draw similarities down the line. Like Shelby, we even come equipped with the mother that always pushes and the easy-going laid back father, who sounded just like Tom Skerritt in the movie, when he gave my sister away, that southern twang going, “Her muther an’ eye dew”.
Watching the film tonight, I could have sworn I was back at Central Baptist Church going through it all over again. The thing is, that after it was all said and done, we had the same type of tragedy because her marriage wasn’t meant to last. Neither was mine.
However, when I look at the resilience factor built into both my sister and I, I keep thinking that well, maybe things like that are supposed to happen. They make us stronger. Maybe there’s a reason for it. When I look at my sister and myself now, after both of us came out of being married, I guess our survival instincts kicked in and helped us get back up on our feet on our own. My sister and I don’t talk about our marriages in terms of failure. If we talk about them at all, we talk about them in terms of lessons learned. Somehow I think that’s the best coping mechanism of them all, the ability to dissect the situation and learn from your mistakes. But that’s always me, always trying to learn something on top of picking yourself up by your bootstraps and keep on walking. Bonus to all of it, my sister has the world’s coolest boyfriend. I really do like him a lot.
Then there was the part of the movie that struck me the most of WHY I understand it so well. It’s Southern. Someone from the Northeast, I don’t think, would understand quite as well what the people in the film were saying and how they said it. It’s the cantor of the speech, it’s how it’s phrased, and I have to give props to all of the non-southern people who had to learn our dialect to really be believable in the film. Trust me, the south is hard. It’s a rough place to grow up because between the sugar shock you have to go through for the saccharine sweet ones and the brass tacks that throw you under the bus of the not so sweet ones, you’ve got to be on your toes 24/7.
You’ve got to be fast when it comes to conversation when you’re from the south, because sure enough, you’re going to get a zinger thrown your way and you’ve got to catch it and send it back going the same speed or faster than how it came to you. You want to talk quick wit? My sister is faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. Wow, she’ll knock your head clean off before you’ve got a chance to catch the joke and throw it back. I grew up constantly trying to become faster. Hi, I’m book smart, I’ve got common sense for shit, so I’m not really good at being fast, but to these folks on the West Coast, being just a hair slower than my sister pays off because most West Coasters are slow as Christmas in comparison. I think it’s funny to me when I throw a fast joke and it just whizzes right by some folks out here.
Another part is that an old friend of mine really got on my case the other night because of my accent. Mine is slippery as all get out, I guess it always has been. I remember growing up and kids getting on me because my accent was so thick (we lived in San Antonio and my dad’s family is from Bryan/College Station). In Texas, you have to understand that you can tell almost exactly what part of the state a Texan is from just by their accent. East Texas is Sugar Sweet with crisp diction, West Texas sounds likeallthewordsinthesentencesareallputtogether. (Yes, I just did that on purpose.) Try it, I’m serious! Run all the words together in a mumble with a southern accent and you’ve got West Texas! Now if you talk to someone from around San Antonio, that accent is more neutral than anything else. They can get away with sounding very middle of the road, no idiosyncrasies, just a bit of twang, not a lot though. So being that I was surrounded mainly by the Sugar Sweet of East Texas, I ended up sounding more like my family than the kids at school. The kids always gave me such a rough time about it, that I learned how to hide it as best I could to fit in.
Plus, at 18, I worked at Disneyworld. When you’re talking to a whole room full of people, you have to make sure that your diction is precise and you sound like the lady on NPR or on the local “easy listening” station. It’s a voice that is sure to put you to sleep like nobody’s business. A couple of sentences and you’re out like a light. But, for the sake of clarity to folks who came to Disney from all over the world, having an accent became more of a liability, if people couldn’t understand you, how could they follow your instructions? So I learned how to bury my accent even further. I taught myself how to talk with no accent whatsoever. I gave myself a “radio voice” that most people just get the fattest kick out of when they hear me relaxed. I guess that is what, in the end, gave me the ability to do different voices, from my 105 year-old Grandfather “hellow mah little sweetie”, my Aunt who refers to her husband by his middle name “Eugene” (which comes out U-geene) when he’s in trouble, my aunt who after a few sentences and asking you “what do you want for brek-faast” will put you into sugar shock, to even my sister with her crisp diction that asks, “Did you wash your hands” to when she doesn’t want to talk about things “let’s. just. droppit”. Heck, I can even do the body language for most of them. I can do the voice of Mickey Mouse, I even came up with one for the stuffed-up (or nasally-challenged) dragon “Elmer” for a fairy-tale play I wrote called “The Littlest Dragon”, the story of a dragon who just didn’t fit in with his kinfolks (He liked to eat Burritos while the rest of the family ate Jelly Beans. Well, I won’t go on with the rest of the story except to say that well, Elmer’s family blew fire out of their mouths, Elmer blew fire out of his backside. Long story there, but I’m not going to go into it. Sufficed to say the play was written for a group of actors on what’s called a “Hoverboat” in There.com.) The thing with Elmer and the Littlest Dragon is that I was the Narrator AND the Voice of Elmer, so I literally had to switch voices at the drop of a hat, neither one being my “real voice”. It was jumping from my “radio voice” to “Elmer”. It was tough stuff and my throat got a little sore after 3 days worth of performances. However, give me time and I can master most people’s speech patterns and get a similar accent going. I can do PERFECTLY the female draenei and female gnome voices from World of Warcraft, you should hear the laughter when I tell the Draenei joke/flirt, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Good. Bring ample supply of butter and Goblin Jumper-cables” and “Stop and ask for directions I said, but NO “It’s inter-dimensional” he says, “What can go wrong?” (Inside joke, the Draenei crashed into a planet.)
But like I said, my accent is slippery. When I know I’m having to talk to a bunch of people and I need them to understand me clearly, unconsciously, the accent drops away. BUT when I’m relaxed, pissed off or just around my father, my accent comes out in full bloom. You should have seen the people up in Montreal when I had to live in that frozen hell, they understood English, but they had a hell of a time understanding me because of the speed at which I spoke combined with my southern drawl. They stood mystified a whole lot of times. You should have seen the looks on their faces when I used sayings like, “Didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground” or “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn”. I mean, things like that are normal to me, but you put them in a culture that says “Didn’t know their ass from their elbow”, yeah, they had trouble with it, so at that point, I had to really hide my accent. But, I took the time to really get to know theirs so now I can do not only a French accent but a French-Canadian one too. One of the biggest reasons that I think I hide my accent now is because I’m afraid people will think I’m ignorant or won’t take me seriously because of it.
This takes me back to when I went out with my friend yesterday for drinks. After I had finally gotten to a point where I was relaxed (no, I wasn’t drunk, so don’t even go there. What most people don’t know is that I have a lot of anxiety in social situations and I’m really very shy and worried about people’s perception of me, so it takes me a bit to wind down and feel comfortable enough to be myself, even around family). Unconsciously, my true voice came out. My buddy looked at me and said, “where the hell did that come from” and I realized at that moment that he was hearing ME, not a produced voice that I’d worked years on to hide my accent. He stopped me dead in the middle of a sentence and pointed it out, and he said, “Sheri, I’ve known you for 10 years, and never have I heard the real you until right now. I appreciate you being able to be around me as yourself, not as what you want people to see or hear.” He went on to tell me that if he ever caught me hiding my accent again, he was really going to give me a hard time. He said that I sounded more genuine than I already was and that it was a feat he didn’t think was possible.
I guess it’s all a coping mechanism, a way to camouflage myself so I’m like everyone else. But, the one thing I got out of it all is that I’m a Steel Magnolia in my own right, except I’d have to be a Steel Bluebonnet instead. I know how to pick myself up by my bootstraps and keep on walking, and I’m sure that I can fit in with most accents from anywhere in the world.