The day I ‘discovered’ Southern Hospitality

The day I ‘discovered’ Southern Hospitality

I grew up in a lovely small town on the coast of Maine. A shipbuilding town. We were poor but lived on a street that was lined with glorious old sea captain’s homes. Tucked down in behind (and below) those living museums, if you looked carefully, you would see a small house closer to the river. A house with a noisy chicken coop and a rambling garden. That was my home – literally in the shadow of mansions.

The house immediately over mine was owned by an admiral and his wife, The Gilettes. One summer day, I had come up to street level and was headed north toward a friend’s house carrying my big tin of marbles. The Gilette’s house was surrounded by a square granite fence – one thick enough for kids to mount as they walked that length of the sidewalk. As I walked by I saw two pale boys in the yard, blond hair, very white sneakers – wearing their shirts tucked into their shorts. I could immediately tell they were from ‘away.’ 

As I walked by, the boys looked up and stopped what they were doing – staying back in the middle of the yard. They invited me to join them. Within a few minutes, their mom called out from the porch, “Where are your manners, boys? Let’s invite Susie in. She can join us for dinner.” 

Over the next few hours I came to realize that what I had been told about how the world worked may not have been true. 

The boys and their mom were visiting from New Orleans. Their accent alone tickled me. I wondered how they learned to talk that way – unaware that it was as natural to them as my Maine accent was to me. And going inside the house – well – I felt small. The ceilings were high. The staircase was like something out of a movie. The table – more glasses and silverware than there were people. And real napkins.  

But the abundance I experienced was less about things and more about feeling seen and appreciated while I was there. They smiled at me – a lot. Even their eyes smiled. They asked me questions and listened. 

That was my introduction to Southern Hospitality. (Yes, I capitalized it.) And it threw my assumptions about class out the window. I never felt a hint of stuffiness or condescension even though I had been conditioned to do so. 

Life back down in my house was very different. It was tiny with worn linoleum floors. We had a big oil stove that heated up the kitchen in winter and summer. Dad was in his fifties when I was born. He was tired and resentful about being a ‘have-not’ in the midst of all the ‘haves.’ Rich people were the target of most of his insults. “They’re not like us real people, Susie-Q. Be careful around them.” 

He was right. These people weren’t like us. And I wanted to be like them. How did they get to be that way? You know, polite. Generous. Kind. I wanted to learn how to be polite – and generous – and kind.

On that day the world became larger and more interesting than anything I had imagined.

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