When I Became North Carolinian
by Noelle A. Granger
The South seemed like a nice place to put down roots, and those travel magazines can be pretty convincing. My husband and I first thought about moving to North Carolina thirty years ago after looking at pictures of the eye-popping fall colors in the mountains and the crystalline sandy beaches and cerulean blue waters off the Outer Banks, plus we were told that the weather was nice, but mostly we came because we both found jobs here.
During my first week in North Carolina, temperatures hovered around 100 degrees, with humidity that made it feel like a blast furnace, and I dreaded going outside. But gradually over the years, and with the help of whole house air-conditioning, I’ve come to welcome the heat and found it’s the perfect topic to open a conversation.
“It’s a scorcher outside today.”
“Yep, even the flies aren’t buzzin’.”
Shortly after learning to begin conversations this way, I became aware there is a distinctive way of speaking in the South. Part of my transition as a North Carolinian was a gradual discovery that the Southern lilt is soothing to my ears, and some of the more unique terms are downright enjoyable. I’ve even found myself using “y’all” from time to time. But in the beginning, some translation was involved. Telephone calls, for example. When I called anyone, the immediate answer was, “Hey. What can I do for you?” What happened to hello? I thought. I discovered that the Civil War was really the Wahr between the States, that when you go to get your North Carolina driver’s license, you have to bring cash money, and that at the supermarket they sell a fish called sal-mon. When a student once fainted in class, another student came to tell me that her friend had done fell out, and I thought she had fallen down some stairs.
At some point, I bought a book called Speaking Southern, thinking to get a leg up on this new language, but the book really didn’t help for ordinary conversation. My first lab technician, a lovely girl named Laura, spoke Southern. One morning she came in with her hair looking like a hornet’s nest.
“What happened to you?” I asked. “You look like something the cat dragged in.”
“I came in a sod cah,” she replied.
“Mmmmm,” I said and went off to think about a translation. It turned out to be “side car.”
I once called a physician’s office to make an appointment, before the curse of depersonalized, automated answering services. A receptionist answered my call in a honeyed Southern accent: “Hey, this is Dr. Winslow’s office. What can ah do for you?”
To which I politely responded. “Hello, this is Noelle Granger. I’d like to make an appointment.” There was a distinct pause on the other end of the line.
Then she said, “Dr. Granjah? Is there an ahr at the end of your name, darlin’?”
Before long, I found myself starting almost all of my phone calls with Hey, and it sounds just fine to me.
Local sports were also transformative. We were now living in a gigantic hot bed of exciting competition. Betting that Northwestern would be behind by 50 points at half time in a football game with Ohio State was about the most excitement we had had in Chicago. So for the last 30 years, we have been like possums eating honey.
But there’s one thing we’ve never gotten used to, and that’s the fact that racing cars is considered a national sport in this part of the country. Whipping your head from side to side as cars scream by at unimaginable speeds has never appealed to me because it does a number on my neck muscles, but a lot of people do seem to enjoy it.
I am proud to admit that I have become, and always will be, a Tar Heel. When we ventured out to the seething mayhem and bonfires at the corner of Franklin and South Columbia, on a night when UNC won a national basketball championship, and I got my leather coat painted blue and didn’t mind, I knew I was home.
As a former Northerner, I know snow. We had 96 inches our first winter in Chicago and had to carve a tunnel to get to our garage. All in all, winters in North Carolina are mild by comparison, and I would never move back north. I figured I had become a North Carolinian when I found myself heading to the supermarket after just the prediction of a snowfall.
A few years after we moved in, we experienced our very first bad winter weather and discovered that the electricity is never guaranteed, especially if there is any sort of frozen precipitation. Our serious first ice storm left us without electricity for 10 days. Because we didn’t happen to have a generator, which seems to be a standard piece of equipment in every North Carolina garage, we resorted to stoking wood fires in our two fireplaces 24/7 and with some luck, located a kerosene heater. The kerosene smoked belligerently when we lighted it and layered the ceiling in the family room with a coating of soot. We took it back. As we entered the store, the clerk gave us a strange look.
“It’s defective,” he stated, wrinkling his nose.
Even with a working kerosene heater finally installed, it was still cold in the house, and particularly upstairs in the bedrooms. So naturally, we all slept in one bed. The kids took the middle and snuggled in. Once my husband and I got in on the edges and covered up, our cats, determined not to be left out, inserted their bodies under the covers and dug down to the very bottom of the bed. Once there, they rummaged around for a while before settling in transversely across the bed, purring and kneading our feet with their tiny little claws. The last member of this cozy arrangement was my son’s pet boa. The snake, a gentle creature named Anna, simply could not be left in her cage without some heat, so we put her in a pillow case and tucked her in as well. In the morning, she was usually out of the pillow case, coiled contentedly next to my stomach, which was apparently the largest source of radiant heat in the bed. North Carolina has taught us togetherness.
With no power, there was no running water and our toilets became cosmic cesspools, especially since one child was barely toilet trained and often missed the bowl. But we had a great solution – we would haul water in buckets from the pool. Since my husband headed for work at 5 or 6 AM, I became the single member of the bucket brigade, and because of the smell, the toilets had to be taken care of first thing in the morning. I was usually heading out to the pool before the first hints of dawn in the east, wearing my husband’s unlaced leather boots over bare feet, his unbuttoned parka over my nightgown, and my bed-head hair hanging in my face. With me were two buckets and a maul to break the ice which had formed overnight on the pool.
Using all my strength, I would lift the maul and attempt to smash a hole in the ice big enough to admit a bucket. One particularly difficult morning, after several unsuccessful tries at bringing the maul down with enough force to make a hole, I remember yelling, “Give me the strength to lift this god-damned maul or I’m moving to Florida, Lord. Crap, I just lost the maul in the pool.” A moment later, one of the buckets disappeared, too. As the sun finally rose, it revealed a woman with just one bucket, slopping a lot of water into her boots as she made her way back to the house. Living in North Carolina has taught me that I am not made of pioneer stuff.
And of course, there is always the problem of driving in winter weather. I understand it’s the same in the rest of the Southern states, so I can’t speak negatively of just North Carolina. Southern drivers should stay home, I repeated for the umpteenth time, as I ventured out in my van to deliver my kids to daycare on a day of snow and ice. When we got to the daycare center, I was surprised to find it closed. It had never occurred to me that it would close because of a little snow and ice. I headed home, the kids in car seats in the back yelling “SNOW DAY” at the top of their lungs. When I got to the top of a long hill that I had managed to drive up without difficulty on the way out, I was greeted by a wrecking yard. An empty school bus and a caravan of cars, some with significant dents, littered both sides and the middle of the road all the way to the bottom. I stopped, got out of the car and surveyed the problem.
At that point, I made the mistake of taking a step, did a glide, and landed gracefully on my stomach in the snow-covered grass alongside the sidewalk. I stood up and took a bow to the impatient drivers in the cars now piling up behind me on the slope of the hill. There are no cars on the sidewalk, I thought, and there is grass for traction on either side of it. I skated back to the car, got in and pulled the steering wheel to the left while releasing the brake. With an ever so tiny goose to the gas, the car started inexorably toward the sidewalk. “Hang on kids,” I yelled, thinking we might just sail off the other side of the sidewalk. Surprisingly, we got up and over the curb with only a small bump and a loud scraping noise. The tires bit into the grass, and a long line of cars followed us down the hill.
Since that day, I have learned to tune into the TV or radio before I leave the house and have come to relish the days when snow or ice leave us housebound, with the opportunity to enjoy the silence and beauty of a new snowfall or the sparkle of the sun on the ice pendants hanging from the trees.
And we now have a generator.
Any discussion about becoming Southern has to consider that there is clearly Northern time and Southern time, and it has nothing to do with latitude or area codes. This fact was pounded in with every service call we ever made. Huge arguments inevitably erupted over which working parent would be the one to stay home to wait for the service person, whom we were told would arrive at anytime between 8 AM and 5 PM. And 8 to 5 is just an approximation. It could be 8 to 5 on any day up to three after the appointed one, but we were assured that they were doing everything they could to get there. Over the years, we have learned to relax. There are things that can be done at home, if only enjoying some time when your life slows to the rhythm of the day. Hey, it’s Southern time.
Dealing with insects of all shapes and sizes is part of life in North Carolina, and usually entails spraying or swatting them. My first introduction was up close and personal. I had decided to weed the walkway leading from the drive to the front door of our new home. Since it was made of flagstones set in gravel, the weeds had had a field day since the former owners moved out. So I put on a pair of shorts, a T shirt and sandals and went out into the inferno of the afternoon sun. I managed to get about a third of the way along the walk before I succumbed to the heat and went back inside to the blessed air conditioning. That night as I got out of the shower, I noticed some tiny red spots around my waist that were beginning to itch like crazy. I called my husband.
“What have I caught? Measles? Chicken pox?” I asked in a panic.
“Look at your ankles – see anything?”
“Yikes.” I had bracelets of red bumps around each. “What have I caught?” I asked again, fearing the worst.
“Chiggers,” he said confidently, based on vast his medical knowledge as a newly minted physician. “Just paint them with nail polish.”
I was determined to finish weeding that walkway, so the next day I ventured out thoroughly equipped to fight chiggers: socks and shoes, long pants nipped at the ankle with rubber bands and a long sleeved shirt tucked in. I may have been sweating like mad and smelling like a nail salon, but the chiggers were not going to get me.
Despite the chiggers, there are other insects that have delighted us over the years – the lady bird beetles that painted the side of our house orange one fall day and the Painted Lady butterflies that made a fluttering carpet on our driveway on summer morning.
So when did I come to the realization that I had finally become a North Carolinian? Perhaps it was when I flew into my home town of Boston, over white-capped water and the harbor islands, and it no longer felt like coming home, but coming in for a landing over the brown water of Falls Lake actually did. Maybe it was when I found that the constant, smooth rhythm of waves on the coast has a hypnotic effect and that the beaches here soothe my psyche as no other place can. But just maybe, it was on a Fourth of July night when my son was setting off firecrackers and the tree toads stopped singing while the lights and crackle and colorful spirals in the night sky continued, and then silence fell and the frogs and crickets began their symphony again, with the stars bright, and the soft, sweet air dancing just enough to keep us cool.
Noelle A. Granger is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she did research on a native North Carolina insect population and taught human anatomy to medical students and residents. The insects that were used in the movie, The Silence of the Lambs, were raised in her laboratory. During the years when she was becoming a North Carolinian, she raised two children with her husband in a household of varying numbers of dogs, cats, ferrets, snakes and lizards. As an academic, she published many technical papers, chapters, books and book reviews, but since semi-retirement in 2009, she has been doing what she loves most and somehow never had time for: writing short stories and a mystery novel.