Monday, November 9, 2009

Blessings of the Heart

Urban Dictionary (the web site where you look up all those text message acronyms you can’t figure out) defines bless your heart as “a phrase used by Southern women to excuse themselves for speaking ill of someone else.”

I first heard a commentator address it several years ago on NPR. As he extolled the virtues of a Southern heart blessing in a soothing Mississippi drawl, I had to pull over and listen because I was laughing too hard to drive.

While the subject has been milked by writers more gifted than me, I do feel called to pay proper tribute to two queens of the genre – my mother and my Aunt Evelyn. Both lovely women, perfectly lovely.

My mother was a gentlewoman. Beautifully mannered. Perfectly coifed. Wonderfully compassionate. Infinitely wise. But heaven help you if she blessed your heart.

Whenever an amply endowed female crossed our path, especially one who had crammed too many layers of adipose tissue into too little spandex, my mother would lower her eyelids ever so slightly, soften her voice to a reverent tone, and murmur, “Bless her heart.” Only a whisper of a smile crossed her face – you had to be quick to catch it.

Heaven help you if she turned it in your direction.

I am forever marked by one “blessing.” I was married, a professional editor, mother of two wonderful children, and pretty successful by all the usual standards. I had filed my last story and rushed to catch the plane for our annual pilgrimage to the family Thanksgiving, my children and husband having arrived before me (deadlines yield to no woman). I was tired, a little bit jet lagged, and very ready to relax. As I sat at my mother’s feet (there being not enough chairs in the room), she stroked my hair and in that sweet murmur said . . . wait for it . . . “Bless your heart. You used to have such pretty hair.”

There’s no place you can go with that.

Yet there were times when her heart blessings could break your own. Standing by my father’s casket, having lost the love of her life, she reached out and touched his face. “Bless your heart,” she said. She spoke a lifetime of love in those words.

Let’s face it. We’re all our mothers’ daughters. (Apologies to my own daughter – sorry, honey, but it’s going to happen.) And, well, yes, I'm just Southern enough to go to that place.

I recently finished a frustrating encounter with a Washington state bureaucrat. Walking away from the counter, shaking my head, under my breath, I blessed his flinty little heart.

Another time I sat at my desk following a particularly unpleasant call from a particularly unpleasant client. I had been staring at the phone for a while before I realized I had muttered, “Bless his heart,” as I hung up.

I’ve said it – and meant it – as I swooped up a toddler with a wicked case of playground road rash. I’ve thought it – with clinched teeth – as I watched my husband rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher I’ve just loaded. I’ve whispered it – resigned to the inevitable – as I’ve watched a friend plunge headlong into a disastrous relationship, after all of us who love her had tried to warn her off. And I’ve resisted putting it in writing – hitting the delete key a couple of times – as I responded to a request from corporate wonks who clearly thought they knew what they were doing.

I said it again recently – the first time I held my friend’s newborn son and thought about what a wonderful mother she’s going to be. And I was thinking it about an hour ago – as I read an email from a long-time friend who never fails to make me laugh out loud.

All cultures have their heart blessings. My Venezuelan son-of-the-heart taught me the all-encompassing, and often scathing, “Pobrecito.” (Look it up in Urban Dictionary: And my colleague, who is probably the most un-Southern woman I know, has her own special version of, “Aw, honey,” that absolutely does the job.

But for the real thing, you need a Southern woman of a certain age.

And so we come to my gracious Aunt Evelyn. It is she who gets credit for the all-time best heart blessing I’ve ever heard.

We were at a family funeral and a particularly irksome bunch of cousins had fallen upon the ham and coconut cake like lions on a fresh kill. My sister was irate, ready to throw them out. My aunt reached out, patted her hand – and delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce. “You can’t hold it against them, honey,” she said in her sweet, soothing voice . . . here it comes . . . “Bless their hearts. They wasn’t raised. They was drug up.”

Truer words was never spoke.