Helen Chappell - July 2006

Come Heres and From Heres:
A Guide for the Perplexed

by
Helen Chappell

     Do you have trouble understanding what people are saying when they speak to you?
      Do people look at you for a while, then finally ask, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
      Do you often find yourself puzzled, stunned or just plain gobsmacked since you moved the Eastern Shore?
      Relax. I am here to help you try to understand what we are all about, which can help you when you are out and about and at a loss to know what is going on and when you should take it personally.
      Because I’ve spent most of my career writing about the Eastern Shore, from the Hatem Bridge to Cape Charles, they seem to think that I have some cultural insight into what makes the other, well, the other.
      An anthropologist would have a ball studying the culture of the Eastern Shore. It’s complex enough to make Margaret Mead take notes, full of subtle social cues and assumptions that everyone is on the same page. For someone who has moved here from the cities or their suburbs, the things locals take for granted can often lead to a great deal of puzzlement.
      Likewise, people who have lived here forever find themselves trying to understand the cultural expectations of those who have come here.
      We all speak the same language, we all watch the same TV, we all buy our groceries in the same stores. Most of us are well-intentioned and friendly. Most of us have the same political and social outlooks. I do think most of us really mean well and want to get along with our neighbors. It’s just that sometimes, we say the same thing, but it means different things to different people, depending on expectations and experience.
      We all love the Eastern Shore or we wouldn’t be here, and that should be enough common ground to forge a bond.
      Don’t worry if you don’t catch on immediately. It took four hundred years to build this regional culture, and we don’t expect you to act and speak like a from here over night. In fact, even though we were raised here, many of us don’t always know what’s really going on at any given time. We have no idea why Old Miss Virginia down the street has suddenly stopped talking to us at church, or why Jimmy Lee Jester is looking at us funny every time he sees us out and about.
      Most of it can easily be explained by the fact that you don’t know what you did, but there’s a rumor you did it, so it must be true.
      The first thing you need to know is that there is this thing called Eastern Shore Alzheimer’s. People can forget anything but a grudge.
      Sooner or later, they’ll need something from you, and conveniently decide to overlook your alleged transgression.
      We are bi-lingual. We speak American broadcast English like everyone else who watches too much TV. That flat colorless tone of the Midwest has become the lingua franca of America.
      However, among ourselves, we speak the consonant- swallowing, muttering drawl handed down and refined by our ancestors. Spend enough time listening to it and you’ll hear things like “eyelan’” and “warter” coming out of your very own lips.
      Few women raised in the dialect had a lot of trouble understanding the manly mutterings of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain. We’ve listened to men mumbling all our lives.
      If you run your car into a ditch, or have a flat, don’t panic. Four men in a four-wheel drive pickup truck with a tow chain will be along shortly. Don’t try to help them, just stay out of their way. This is what they live for.
      Don’t be surprised to find movie rentals and bait in the same store. Whatever you do not buy food at this store.
      Don’t park on a slant at the Post Office and take up five spaces. This is very annoying to the locals, who like to slot their cars head in. This is a good way to get a nasty look from the people who are collecting their mail and the local gossip at the same time, a very important daily ritual around here. Not to stop and pass the time of day while you are collecting your mail is considered very rude. Topics should include the weather, births deaths, illnesses and any local scandals. Whether you know the people involved or not, you are expected to take an interest in the bad behavior of others.
      If you’re in a hurry, you need to be living somewhere else.
      Even if we’re already late for an appointment, we will stop and chat with you. To not do so is considered a rude breech of manners that shows you have no home training.
      Home training is our word for what you learned at Cotillion. Believe it or not, many of us did not have to buy our own sterling silver; we inherited it from our grandmothers. Of course, we won’t mention to you that we and our cousin Georgia almost got into a hair pulling match with our sister Yvonne over the Steif Rose salad forks when the family was dividing up Me-Mom’s estate. But trust me, everyone knows.
      The same way that old ladies in your neighborhood will know you are a month pregnant before you even suspect.
      Remember, “y’all” is singular, “all y’all” is plural, and “all y’all’s” is plural possessive. And yes, people do use this around here.
      If someone tells you they are going up and down the road, it doesn’t mean they are spending the day cruising Route 33. It means they are going into town, running some errands and returning home.
      Save all manner of bacon grease. You will be instructed later on how to use it. We get nostalgic over the way our grannies used to cook with lard. Pam spray might be healthier for you, but our nostalgia for pork fat is a sad thing to behold. Anyone who’s had a crab cake fried in lard knows what I’m telling you here.
      The proper pronunciation you learned in school is no longer proper.
      Even people with graduate degrees have been known to use double negatives in casual conversation around here.
      Be advised that “He needed killin” is a valid defense here. I cannot count the number of times I have listened to the vile misdeeds of certain individuals, and agreed wholeheartedly with this excuse for causing their early departure from this earth. Some people are unremittingly vile. We’re just willing to admit it.
      If you hear a Shoreman exclaim, “Hey, y’all, watch this,” you should stay out of the way. These are likely to be the last words he’ll ever say.
      Likewise, “I Know What I’m Doing” should be the epitaph on many tombstones around these parts.
      If there is the prediction of the slightest chance of even the smallest accumulation of snow, your presence is required at the local grocery store. It doesn’t matter whether you need anything or not. You just have to go there. No matter how much you may already have at home, you are required by Eastern Shore law to buy more milk, bread and toilet paper than you could possibly use in a year.
      No one on the Eastern Shore knows how to drive on ice. From here, come here, doesn’t matter. No one around here can drive on ice.
      Likewise, there must be a law around here that the use of turn signals is strictly forbidden, especially if you are over the age of 70.
      Tailgating is one of the region’s favorite sports. You might think baseball would be the other, but it’s more like a religion around here.
      Do not be surprised to find that 10-year olds own their own shotguns, they are proficient marksmen, and their mammas taught them how to aim. That 8-year-old out in Western Maryland who killed a bear got a late start in life.
      Having a boat on a trailer in your driveway is considered a status symbol. They are not on the waiting list for a slip. They want that boat right where everyone can see it.
      In the South, we have found that the best way to grow a lush green lawn is to pour gravel on it and call it a driveway.
      If your children go to school around here, they will go native, and be accepted as such. This is considered a great accomplishment.
      The Western Shore has coffee houses: the Eastern Shore has waffle houses.
      The Western Shore has dating services: the Eastern Shore has family reunions.
      The Western Shore has switchblade knives: the Eastern Shore has acrylic Nails.
      The Western Shore has hyphenated last names: the Eastern Shore has hyphenated first names.
      The Western Shore has field greens: the Eastern Shore has kale.
      The Western Shore has lobsters: the Eastern Shore has crabs.
      And contrary to popular opinion, most of us know the difference between a shiraz and a merlot, but we’ll drink either with our venison.
      Last, surprisingly enough, many of us have actually been across the Bay Bridge and beyond. Maybe that’s why we all end up back here.
      With these few thoughts to start you off, you should soon begin to grasp Eastern Shore culture, and maybe even embrace it as you go up and down the road.