I grew up in the country.
I’ve said this phrase hundreds of times over the course of three decades while in the early stages of meeting someone new. What I meant by this—and what I still mean by it—is that growing up, our house was not inside city limits. We didn’t have neighbors. No one ever trick-or-treated on our doorstep. My parents couldn’t vote in city elections. Our house was surrounded by dozens of acres of trees, land, and animals. This is what I mean when I say I grew up in the country. Emphasis on the word “in.”
When I was young, I would vehemently deny I was country. Sure, I was born and raised in a rural community in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, the heart of cattle country. And sure, the best way to describe my hometown is by explaining that when Pure Country—the film starring George Strait—came to town, it was sold out for an entire year. And our theater only had one screen. This means that for an entire year, Pure Country was the only movie you could see. When I went to see it with my parents, we watched a family bring the back seat of their suburban into the theater and put it up at the front. That is a love of country.
But I was never country. Even though my father was a large animal veterinarian and his career was working on cattle, and my upbringing was surrounded by cowboys using the greatest variety of curse words I’ve ever heard, I wouldn’t say I was country. Yes, my chores had me feeding livestock, or spraying the manure out of the barn, or helping my dad find cattle that had escaped through a break in our fence line. But that didn’t make me country.
Sure, in high school I belonged to the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and our final exam was matching pictures of cattle with their correct breed name, and we got extra credit in the class for selling sausage or showing sheep. But that didn’t make me country. Growing up, I didn't think I was country because of three main reasons: the clothes I wore; the music I listened to; and how I spoke.
In high school, I noticed a trend that I kept to myself. Given that our town was home to lots of cattlemen and ranchers, many of my classmates (and their parents) lived on acreages with animals and gross chores like I did. Those students, however, never dressed like they did. In fact, to a person, we all wore Doc Martens. We wore Levis or Calvin Klein jeans. We wore flannel in the way Pearl Jam did, not in the way a ranch hand would. And yet, those classmates of ours who lived within the city limits, often down sweet, quiet, tree-lined streets past the park and City Hall, would dress country—Cinch or Wrangler jeans, pearl-buttoned shirts, and cowboy boots. It always confused and amused me that those of us who spent the weekend hauling hay with our dads showed up to school with JNCO jeans, and those who spent the weekend riding bikes down to the city pool showed up at school wearing cowboy hats.
And yet. I now have such angst about my own wardrobe. I sometimes look in my closet and think, Who the hell is this woman? Is she a yoga instructor? A hippie? A mom from the 80s? It’s as if my closet continues to be evidence I’m either running away from, or still trying to figure out, who the hell I am. For twenty years I’ve tried to find a style. Blazers and Converse? Dresses and cardigans? Jumpsuits and jean jackets? I spend so much time scrolling through clothing websites looking at these women modeling the clothes and thinking: Is that who I am?
Onward I fight to find a style that will let people know who I am, rather than hiding who I am. And without a doubt, my favorite thing in my closet was a purchase I made a few years back: cowboy boots.
In high school, I was very into Alanis Morissette. And Sublime. And Dave Matthews Band (I am white and this was the 90s). But that didn’t mean I was unaware of country music. My god, no matter who you were, you could not ignore the splendor that is Garth Brooks. When I was a junior, I was at a school a few hours away for a speech and debate tournament when a tornado came through. The people in charge of the event told us we would be leaving the auditorium and walking down toward the basement of the school. I’m not sure who started it, but all of a sudden, a low voice in the back of the group began singing “Friends in Low Places.” And like a ripple across a pond, the entire mob of 500 slowly moving, highly anxious students began to chime in. Not one person didn’t know the song. Everyone sang with their heart, no one missing a single word. It was such a comforting, and oddly beautiful, moment. And yet, a few months later, when Garth Brooks was set to perform an hour away from our town, and my mom offered to go stand in line at Wal-Mart for a chance to win tickets, I scoffed. Hardly, Mom. Now close the door and let me turn up this Eminem song while I oil my Doc Martens.
During the past year, Jim and I have shared a home office. It has been a surprisingly wonderful experience. Having time together has been a gift and being able to quickly bounce ideas off each other has been highly beneficial. However, we could not come to an agreement on music. He insisted on tuning into a station that, I swear, played Elton John every other song. No offense to Elton, but dear god, that Benny and the Jets song is such a panic attack waiting to happen (Benny, Benny, Benny, Benny, Benny….Benny, Benny, Benny…Benny). Anyway, after the twelfth Benny in a row I jumped up and turned the radio to a random station that played today’s hits. Jim felt this station was as egregious with Maroon 5 as his station was with the Rocket Man. And another fight erupted. So we settled on a country music station that only plays songs from the 80s and 90s (so before Toby Keith changed it all with his “boot in their ass” song). And let me tell you, country music may have saved our marriage.
Clint, George, Garth, Faith, Tim, the Judds, and the incomparable Shania were like old friends filling up our space. I knew every word to every song. Even though I would have denied being a country music fan in high school (remember, I grew up in the country; I didn’t grow up country), I was suddenly rocking along to all the greatest hits. Gosh, country music (before the shameful denouncement of The Dixie Chicks) used to be such a great venue for rebels just wanting to talk about how much they loved their wives and their trucks. But as a side note: I never realized how dark all of Reba’s songs are. She’s either watching her brother hang for a crime she committed, or catching her husband having an affair, or getting dressed up by her mother so she can go whore herself out for money. Did anyone check on Reba back then? Have we checked on her lately?
When I was growing up, I worked hard not to say the word “y’all.” This was, in my understanding, as wrong a word as “ain’t” and “fixin’.” When TV shows made fun of people from Oklahoma—looking at you, Friends—you could bet they’d use the word “y’all” with a hyperbolic accent.
I distinctly remember my sophomore, junior, and senior English teachers correcting any student who said it. My parents never used it. And once I got to college, I never heard it again. Until about five years ago. At which point, I heard it everywhere. From everyone. This word had suddenly sprung up as not only a common word, but a preferred word. Fashion bloggers who have never set foot off the West Coast were using it to describe shoes “y’all should get.” Authors were using it in their posts to tell “all y’all to check out” their new book. And my friends from a variety of upbringings were using it in their everyday language to explain that “y’all better come out for drinks with me!”
And while I heard everyone around me using this word with increasing regularity, I didn’t fully appreciate it until watching Hannah Gatsby’s second comedy special, in which she said: “I’m taking y’all. I love y’all. Because y’all is the best, most inclusive second-person plural pronoun in the English-speaking world.”
Suddenly, a word I had been afraid sounded hick was the most inclusive, best word to use. Instead of me walking into a room full of men and women in my classroom and instinctually saying, “Morning, guys!” I could say, “How are y’all doing today?” Instead of asking my daughters at the end of the day, “What do you guys want for dinner?” I could say, “What sounds good for dinner, y’all?” But electing to use this word after having my country conditioned out of me is going to take a long time and a lot of work. So y’all be patient.
When our firstborn was young, I bought her a tiny pair of cowboy boots. And she wore them everywhere and with everything. When she outgrew them, I bought her the same pair in a bigger size. I did that for four more pairs. Until one day she asked, “Can I have Nikes instead?” So we gave all five pairs of boots to her younger sister, who wore them until she pulled them off one day and asked, “Do you have anything with glitter and a heel?”
In the past year, as our kids have been going to school virtually while Jim and I work from our home office, they have had their fill of Elton John, Maroon 5, and every country star from 1980-2000. Recently, I caught our music-loving youngest humming a tune I knew all too well. “Sweetie, are you singing ‘Chattahoochee’ by Alan Jackson?”
She looked up at me. “I don’t know what song it is, Mom,” she shrugged. “But can I look up Lady Gaga again on YouTube?”
And as I taught our children how to communicate, talk, read, and type, I’ve seen how geographical some of our phrases are. That even though the girls weren’t raised in the country, they still know very common country phrases from their mother. My husband and two kids still continue to look on in confusion (horror?) when I use the phrase “crappin’ in tall cotton.” But you can bet your sweet bottom I’ll be teaching my children how our words matter. And to be mindful when you are alienating someone by a word you choose. So if “y’all” suits them, so be it.
So yes, I grew up in the country. And all these years later, after getting married and having children, I think I’m finally ready to admit that maybe I also grew up country. While I love our current community, our neighborhood, and our home, I sometimes find myself longing for a different view. That instead of our neighbor’s house, I’d look out our bedroom window each morning to see miles of woods, or wheat, or water. That our kids could spend their evenings out chasing lightning bugs, or their mornings down at a pond, or their weekends racing through an open field with boundaries they can’t see, no matter how far they run.
Because there's part of me that thinks their characters won't truly be developed until they unknowingly arrive at school with the remnants of a cow patty on the bottom of their Doc Martens.
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