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August 20, 2017

When I shop at the grocery store, I jockey for position in the shortest checkout line. Inevitably, the line I choose, though it may be the shortest, is also the slowest. So, I wait, sometimes conversing with folks I know, sometimes glancing at the tabloid headlines. For example, just recently I overheard an update on Britney Spears, one that I was not seeking. I just wanted to pay for my groceries and exit the store.

Ever since bursting onto the scene in in the movie “Oops, I Did It Again” Britney’s life has been high drama. She had a quick marriage to a boyfriend in Las Vegas followed by an equally quick divorce. She then married and divorced Kevin Federline. She famously shaved her head and kissed Madonna. It seems she has gotten her life in order and has been working out with a personal trainer. Not long ago at a Las Vegas show, a fan rushed the stage. Britney feared the man might have a gun, and she fled the scene. More high drama!

I listened as the checkout clerk and the lady who was in line ahead of me in line comment on the young celebrity’s history. I am not at all sure I have the details right.

“Bless her heart,” the woman said.

“Yes, bless her heart!” the clerk replied.

I wondered, “Bless her heart?” What exactly does that mean?

Southerners use the expression for several reasons. It can be used to soften or even disguise an insult. As long as the degrading comment is prefaced with “Bless her heart” or “Bless his heart,” the insult may seem sympathetic. “Bless his heart. He’s just not playing with a full deck.”  Or, “Bless her heart, I’m sure she thinks that dress looks good on her.”

The phrase can be used to buffer gossip, somehow making it seem more palatable. “You know, Ethel left her husband and then ran off with that highway patrolman.”

“Bless her heart, she always did make snap decisions.”

“I heard the patrolman lost his job because of Ethel. Bless his heart, he had to take a job as a night watchman down at the cattle barn.”

“With him working at night, there’s no telling what devilment Ethel might get into, bless her heart.”

As long as the person’s heart is blessed, the rumor comes across as less severe.

“Bless his heart. You know he does try to control his drinking problem.”

A friend announced to a church group, “My dentist told me I have to have a root canal and a crown on this broken tooth.”

As if they had rehearsed for a choral anthem, the group responded in unison, “Bless your heart!” It was a genuine expression of sympathy by caring people who could identify with the plight of the sufferer.

In its purest form, “Bless your heart” is a simple prayer.

The phrase “Bless your heart” seems to be most creatively used by a person from the South when speaking to or about a person from the North.

When I was a freshman in college, there was a fellow who, bless his heart, was from New York. He was a fine-looking young man except, bless his heart, he couldn’t do a thing with his hair. He had never even heard of a cowlick though, bless his heart, he carried a classic one on the back of his head.

He was smart enough. He did fine in languages in the classroom, both with English and with Spanish, but, bless his heart, he could not understand ordinary conversation. Y’all was a new word to him. He constantly said, “You guys.”

Simple sentences were a mystery. I once asked him to cut off the light, and, bless his heart, he started looking around for a pair of scissors or a knife.

He drove a nice, late model automobile. I did not have a car, but I would sometimes borrow one from my uncle. When I asked the New Yorker if he could carry me to my uncle’s place of business, bless his heart, he thought I was expecting him to give me a piggyback ride. Bless his heart, he didn’t even know what piggyback meant.

He had no hesitation about cursing, though he didn’t know a thing about cussing. Bless his heart, he thought nothing of taking the Lord’s name in vain. My mama would have washed his mouth out with soap. Though I had grown up on a lumberyard, my mama had tried to teach me not to swear. Instead, I would say, “I swanee,” a euphemism for “I swear!” Mama, bless her heart, was not even sure if I should say that. She thought it might be a cuss word, too.

Other than country music and NASCAR, I suppose there is currently no institution that takes the ways of the South into the North quite like a company that was started in Lebanon, Tennessee. Not since General Robert E. Lee took his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia across the Mason-Dixon Line to fight General George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, has there been a southern invasion quite like the peaceful one that the Cracker Barrel Restaurant chain has pulled off. From the rocking chairs on the front porch, to the Southern Gospel CDs displayed on spinning racks in the store, to the country cooking in the kitchen, Cracker Barrel can make a displaced soul from Dixie feel right at home. I swanee they can!

Several years ago, Clare and I were driving to Michigan to visit one of our children. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel in central Ohio tucked in between two of the hundreds of large cornfields. Everything about the place made us feel right at home, except for the waitress, bless her heart.

I knew we were in trouble when she said, “What can I bring you guys to drink?”

I perused the familiar menu, and we ordered breakfast; scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, buttermilk biscuits with sawmill gravy, and grits, all low carb, of course.

“What was that last thing you ordered?” she asked.

“Grits,” I said.

“I don’t think we have any of that,” she said, scratching her head with her pencil.

I thought of all of those Ohio cornfields, stretching as far as the eye could see. We had just driven past miles of corn. So much corn, so few grits.

“Ask them back in the kitchen to fix me a bowl of grits. They’ll know what I mean.”

Sure enough, she brought grits with breakfast.

“Here they are. I’ve never heard of them,” she said.

“Bless your heart!” I said.

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