Celebrating Our Culture  

Bless Your Heart, Tramp
The Lighter Side of Southern Culture with Columnist Celia Rivenbark
by Joyce Dixon


Erma Bombeck meets Lewis Grizzard is one way to describe the whimsical style of Celia Rivenbark.  She writes about home, local people, and how the world at large touches small town America.

Recently in her column "From the Belle Tower" for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, Rivenbark gave tips on how to look busy during a book signing.  Sometimes there will be a long line waiting for a signed copy, to which Rivenbark smiles thinking there's a new southern humor queen -- "Sweet Potato Queen THIS!"  Then the next day the customers are so few, that she finds herself painfully stretching out each part of the signing from the autographed copy sticker to the small talk.

A news reporter and columnist for over 20 years, Celia Rivenbark’s columns have been syndicated by the New York Times News Service and the Knight-Ridder-Tribune News Service.  Her column “From the Belle Tower” appears Thursdays in the Myrtle Beach Sun News. Rivenbark has won national and state press association awards.  She has represented the New York Times Company as a Visiting Media Fellow at Duke University.


What's the power behind "bless your heart?"

There's tremendous power in being able to say exactly what you want to without risking someone thinking you're rude, or worse, a Yankee. "Bless your heart" enables you to say the very nastiest thing you want to, all with a smile on your face. "Bless her heart, she's ugly as a mud fence daubed with tadpoles." Now that wasn't so bad, was it?  

What adjustments do actors make when they come to Dixie?  

Good question. For a brief and dark time in Wilmington, N.C., they stopped serving sweet iced tea at several of the better local restaurants. Since this coincided with the influx of Yankee tourists and famous Yankee actors, I know perzactly who to blame. Fortunately, there was a great outcry, and sanity and sugar were restored within a few months. Actors are from all over the place, naturally. Few were born and raised in Hollywood. Generally, they've embraced local customs and seldom complain as long as Buford and his posse don't pester 'em for autographs while they're a-dipping their bread in that silly balsamic vinegarette instead of slathering it in butter like God intended.

Why are Southern women so obsessed with appearance?

It's who we are. I have a friend who says she would go without food before she'd give up her weekly manicures and I'm not sure I disagree with her. Shallow and vain? Perhaps. But we smell better and none of us has armpit hair. So there.

What's with the cooking terminology (smidgen, mite, etc.)?

It's NOT to confuse judges from the James Beard Awards, although that's an awfully good guess. It's just more evidence of the colorful Southern speech that's disappearing faster than devilled eggs at the church picnic. We grew up with these expressions and it is in our very marrow to know the perfect definition of "passel," "mite," "teense," etc. Its' God-given; you can't learn it.

What's with those womanless wedding fund-raisers?  

Unkind folks (usually those who have had at least a semester of abnormal psychology at some silly school or the other) often speculate that rural men who dress as women for pageants and mock weddings are enjoying it just a LITTLE too much. I don't agree. I think it takes a man very much secure in his masculinity to wear a Nerf football bra and Family Dollar Store high heels in front of hundreds of his friends and neighbors.

Why does snow turn a Southerner into a fool?  

Because, as I state in my book, we don't have enough experience with it. Hurricanes are the devil we know. Snow? We don't have anything to get the stuff off the road so we just hunker down and hope the designated Family Bread Buyer made it to the store in time. Having enough white bread on hand will see a Southerner through any catastrophic event, whether it's snow or new neighbors from the North who begin every sentence with, "Back home, we did it like this. . ."

Who's the most eccentric person you have interviewed?

I would have to say the man I interviewed one time in a nursing home. I asked him how he liked to pass the time and he said "I really love to beat my meat." I was young and tender and didn't even know what he was talking about until the photographer who was with me explained the phrase to me. At which point I (A) blushed and (B) fainted. On second thought, the most eccentric person I ever interviewed was probably the man in my hometown who killed a cat and drove the poor dead thing all around town strapped to the hood of his truck "offering it as a sacrifice." I believe he later became mayor.

What do you like most about writing essays on local people?  

Seriously? Listening to the true locals, especially the old ones, makes me feel like a kid again. When I was growing up in my hometown (pop. 200) I would buy a baby Coke and a huge Jack's butter cookie and sit and listen to 'em swap stories all afternoon in a store that smelled like chewing tobacco and Ivory soap. It was heaven.

Will our culture fade as more non-natives move South or will newcomers conform?

I've seen a little of both. We now say "you guys" a lot which distresses me greatly, but, by the same token I've seen Yankees move here and immediately ask for help having a pig pickin' which they pronounce "pig picking." They crack me up. 

Bless Your Heart, Tramp. By Celia Rivenbark
Coastal Carolina Press, 2000
            Southern Scribe Review


Contact Celia Rivenbark at celiariven@aol.com

© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved