What I’ve Learned About Southern Hospitality Might Save Us All
This op-ed was written early in 2020, shortly after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was not picked up anywhere, which I like to attribute to a glut of such articles. A timely piece (as journalism is), I retired it but decided that I could share it with the world somewhere–here on my blog would do.
There were many things that I did not expect to find when I moved to the South from the North, to North Carolina from a whole life in Metro Detroit. Fields of poppies and daffodils splashed across the freeway and foliage so adamant that it would take over everything, everywhere, all the time and eventually require hired help was one of them. Bugs, also persistent to the point of popping up as cockroaches on black tie event cocktail tables, was another one. A popular grocery store named Harris Teeter, pronounced with a drawl that would make it impossible to find out where I was supposed to be locating cellophane to wrap a tattoo. And the true meaning of the phrase “Southern hospitality.”
Where I come from, hospitality refers to the art of entertaining people in your home or at your get-together, with an emphasis on feeding people. How delicious (not fancy. Read: salty, sweet, and fatty) is your food? Did you supply enough to feed the crowd plus every member of their extended family who wasn’t there? Eventually, how fun was the party and how practical were the accommodations, should someone be staying overnight, planned or not? When I moved to what is referred to as the Triangle, I assumed there would be groaning boards of fried chicken, pulled pork, and biscuits everywhere I went, as well as invitations to sweet tea on the porch and, I don’t know, guest bedrooms with floral and lace duvets and views of the Wisteria-covered pergolas. How surprised I was then when I attended my first wedding, my first baby shower, my first church potluck. Lord help us, but at those wedding receptions they served only hors d’oeuvres! And at the showers they presented finger foods that women circled and barely touched! And some people showed up to potlucks empty-handed! A Michigander was left wondering what in the world was this supposed Southern hospitality and under what elusive rock I could find it? Was it a dinosaur? Was it reserved for the country folk? No one understood what I was lamenting, yet the term “Southern hospitality” still stuck around, a whisper on the air that blew in with the world’s most intense pollen season.
I have been in Durham, now, for my entire adult life. I am middle-aged. I love Durham, the city that I adopted immediately upon sight, settled into, and rooted my family in, investing my children’s childhoods and therefore, to an extent, their identities. I love the personality, the ebb and flow of the place’s breathing. And I am grateful for the Southern hospitality, for sure.
Wait, what? Didn’t you just say you couldn’t find Southern hospitality? Well, yes. It took some time, because I didn’t know what I was looking for. Turns out, my Northern perception of Southern hospitality was mistaken. Hospitality, defined by Google, is “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” While us hard-working Midwesterners had got the generous (at least in the physical sense), entertainment, and guests thing down, I had missed reading the finer points of Durham until I had been here for years. Turns out, learning to talk to perfect strangers in line at the grocery store was the key. Because what I had never seen hospitality as was “friendly to strangers.” Or just plain friendly. Smiling. Nodding. Remembering people later. Asking after peoples’ families. Casually and selflessly acknowledging a shared experience, like dealing with the DMV or hiking the same trail. How odd, and now, how homey.
There is another place that broadened my idea of community. While in China, I was challenged dealing with people who had a different thought process than I did on the assumed rules of society. The enigmas ranged from government deference (thank you, Communism) to being a country of “yes men,” from ogling people for their differences to snapping unsolicited photos of red-heads and blondes (like my daughter). No concept of lines. Throwing elbows and smashing into elevators.
The parallel made by the Durham mayor between our Covid-19 curve and South Korea’s (Indy Week, indyweek.com, “Durham Slows Coronavirus; Stay-at-Home Order May Stick Through May”) did not surprise me. I, like most conscious adults right now, have been following the Covid numbers with bated breath and an astuteness made more acute by quarantine and pure lack of my normally wall-to-wall scheduled distractions. I had already noticed that North Carolina and particularly Durham was “flattening the curve” with admirable aplomb and I was very cautiously optimistic. I postulated my theories, somewhat educated, about all manner of Covid things. One of my hypotheses had been this: the more community-minded a location’s people are, the more likely they are to stomp out Covid quickly. The more independent? The more it would spread. Which might seem counterintuitive, because being apart is exactly what helps us. But when independence manifests as rebelliousness and when community is on a spectrum between Communism and friendliness, well, then, caring about others or listening to our government just might be the key to pandemic success, if such a thing exists.
I’ve noticed from the beginning of this whole lotta mess that while I keep reading stories of flagrant flouting of the constantly new rules and recommendations, I wasn’t observing that when I ventured out to go—as I now call grocery shopping—“foraging.” Beginning on Friday the Covid Thirteenth, I saw orderly lines, people giving wide berth, people being kind and empathetic, from a distance, behind their masks, gloves, and bottles of Purell. It was as if, though aching to hug each other and help other people find the hot sauce or red hots, the people around me—the people I loved—were loving me back by leaving me alone, hanging on to a thread by believing that one day we would chat it up in the grocery line or miss the beginning of church service yapping in the lobby, again, because they had done their damndest to be a good neighbor. Sure, there are naysayers here. There are desperate people. There are sad and mad and rebellious people here. And though I know this is anecdotal, and my experiences are based not just on my city, but also my socioeconomic standing, my race, my ethnicity, my religion, my age, etc., I can tell you that it has been consistent with what I guessed after watching China and then South Korea give Covid-19 a pretty sound beating, putting up literal walls and testing like mad. As Corona spread in the US, I guessed, hoped, dreamed, that the South, the Southeast, North Carolina, Durham, would help itself by helping each other.
My husband left for work three hours ago. It is night, now, and I should think about getting ready for bed, as if there is much of a delineation between day and night, between bed and couch and fridge, right now. As he walked to the car, my kids and I stood above him on the deck, as has become our stay-at-home tradition. The first glimpse I get of him, every night, is him upside down in his windshield as he approaches the car beneath me. He wears blue scrubs and has his home mask on, and he lifts his lunch bag and coffee Thermos over the holly bushes as he opens his door. He is a handsome man, with a couple wrinkles and a smattering of gray hair at his temples. He used to be a social worker and special ed teacher, and then a real estate agent for a heartbeat before the last nation-wide disaster struck in 2007. That one was a disaster for us as a family, as well. But it did lead Kevin to nursing school and to nursing, fulfilling the adage that great things can come out of bad.
Kevin disappeared behind the red roof of his car and we waited for him to start the engine and back out of the driveway into the cul de sac, his work badge swaying from the rearview mirror. He leaned over the dash and waved, his slim, white hand obscured by the reflected setting sun. But we saw it, and I was grateful for it. It hadn’t come easy, I know, because his mind wanted to shift quickly to what would meet him at the hospital and away from the family he wants so desperately to protect. But he waved because we wanted him to, and he opened his window and kept waving because he knew we would like that even more. Tonight, as the door behind me sucked back into place with my kids on the other side of it, I leaned my head into my hands and sighed one of those heavy, meaningful sighs. I was on the verge of tears, wanting to panic but knowing that the Midwestern in me would not, could not. Kevin had received a call from HR while he was putting on his shoes, alerting him to some possible additional exposure to Covid. Even before that, he had said to me in one of his regular work-sharing, de-stressing speeches—speeches I had experienced this pandemic—“It’s getting real, now.” And like the night he called to say that they were converting his unit to a Covid unit, I wanted to ball up and sob uncontrollably, like a child, because I was scared of the monster in the closet, the specter of death and destruction, of human suffering.
There are many facets to the Covid pandemic. One could write a book about it, as I’m sure will be done ad nauseum. There are still many things to be discovered. Has Covid-19 been secretly transmitting by fecal matter and are fecal matter tests more effective? What about children and babies protects them? Will it die back seasonally? Will it come back? How many times? Will vaccines have to be annual or will we eradicate it in its one devastating strain? Not to mention questions of an economic, political, and historical nature. What will save humanity? Will it be knowledge? Scientific cooperation? The “heroes who don’t wear capes” that we’re banging pots and pans for at 7:00 pm? The heat of summer? Government insistence and enforcement? People trying to make social media a better place? Or will it be community? And will anybody ever believe it? That my husband and his wife and his children were saved by Southern hospitality—which can exist anywhere, really, in any community and in any heart—in the city that they loved?