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October 17, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those who are in need. We have decided to continue our support to the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Hope Center for Children, 202 Hudson L Barksdale Blvd, Spartanburg, SC 29306, (864) 583-7687.

This summer Clare and I hosted a migrant family in our home. Though our guests were uninvited, we welcomed them, nonetheless. After a long, wearying journey from South America, our visitors moved in unannounced and unnoticed. In fact, we were completely unaware of their presence until they welcomed several new little ones into their family. They were small birds known as chimney swifts who had found a place to stay in the flue above the hearth in our family room.

Swifts are first cousins to purple martins and a diverse group of swallows.  All the feathered friends in their extended family are graceful on the wing and voracious feeders on insects, especially mosquitoes. The mated pair in our chimney took turns feeding their noisy youngsters until the fledglings took to the air with their parents.

Once the swift family departed to return to their winter home in the Amazon jungle, we knew it was time to have our chimney cleaned and inspected. Fall was upon us, and winter was on the way. Because we enjoy having an occasional wood fire in our family room fireplace, I knew I needed to find a reliable chimney sweep, someone like the Dick Van Dyke character, Bert, in the movie “Mary Poppins.” Bert was a Cockney chimney sweep and Mary Poppins’ closest friend.

To my surprise, there are many businesses in the Upstate that specialize in this line of work. Some are named to stir the imagination. One in Anderson county caught my eye. The company is called “Bless Your Hearth.”

That name gave rise to this column.

Back in the days before the COVID 19 pandemic, I used to shop at the grocery store.  I would jockey for position in the shortest checkout line. Inevitably, though it may have been the shortest, the line I chose was always the slowest. So, I waited, sometimes conversing with folks or glancing at the tabloid headlines.  I recall the day that the scandalous news was about a young celebrity whose life seemed to be a dumpster fire.  I listened as the clerk and the lady who was ahead of me in line commented on the starlet’s history. Though the details escape me, I remember clearly the closing remarks of their exchange.

“Bless her heart,” the customer said.

“Yes, bless her heart!” the cashier 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. If 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 ran off with that no- ‘count rascal.”

“Bless her heart. She always did make snap decisions.”

“I heard the fellow lost his job because of Ethel. Bless his heart.  He’s on the night shift now.”

“With him working after dark, 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 sufferer’s plight.

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 frequently 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 stock car racing, I suppose there is currently no institution that takes the ways of the South into the North quite like the Cracker Barrel Restaurant chain. From the rocking chairs on the front porch to the Southern Gospel recordings displayed on spinning racks in the store, to the country cooking in the kitchen, Cracker Barrel can make a displaced soul from the South 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?”

I perused the familiar menu, and we ordered a breakfast of 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.

“Well bless your heart!” I said.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, iS available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at

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