I can still hear my paternal grandmother: “Bless her heart,” she would say. It was one of those Southern-isms that fascinated me as a kid. I may have been growing up in Texas, but my own San Francisco-born mother never said, “Bless her heart.” She never said, “over yonder” or “back forty.” Neither did she serve biscuits every morning or insist on only drinking Dr. Pepper that had been bottled in Dublin, Texas (still the only Dr. Pepper made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup). But Grandmother did.
I’ve been hearing her voice because I read an interview in Southern Living magazine. This country singer mentioned that her favorite thing about the South is women who say “Bless her heart.” Personally, my favorite thing about living in the South is being able to justify a subscription to Southern Living magazine. It’s good for me to remember this, because the list of things I do not like about living in the South is long (Curious? My top three are heat, humidity, and mosquitoes.).
Though I miss Chicago desperately, I do love Southern Living. It reminds me to look past the strip malls and remember that this place really is unique. And I love women who say “bless her heart.”
Regretfully, these three little words do conjure a common stereotype of Southern women. You know, sugar-sweet on the outside but with a deep vein of mean underneath. As in, “Poor thing looks like she got dressed in the dark, bless her heart.”
Yes, I’ve heard comments like this one (though never, ever from Grandmother), but, for the most part, “Bless her heart” isn’t used to sugar-coat the ugly.
Rather, it’s always sounded to me like a precious way of viewing other people. When we remark upon someone’s trouble, pain, or folly with a “bless her heart,” we are emphasizing that which is child-like in the other. Bless her heart (‘cause she can’t really help it). Bless her heart (‘cause we’ve all been there.)
At its worst, “bless her heart,” is infantilizing. At its best, it reminds us that we are all unfinished works-in-progress, generally trying (and frequently failing) to do our best.
To say “bless her heart,” is to notice what’s gone wrong but then . . . to extend a little grace.