As far as unwritten rules go, living in the South is much like living in a foreign country. And there are a lot of unwritten rules. Many of them would seem archaic and borderline idiotic to the average outsider, which is one of the many reasons why so many of the small towns that dot the landscape from Virginia to Mississippi would pretty much rather be left alone.
It’s imperative that you return a wave. Always. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving through a blizzard and you can’t see out of your windshield and you have two kids screaming in the backseat and you just spilled hot coffee all over yourself. If someone passes you and waves, you’d best wave back.
Same goes for someone holding a door open for you, whether at the grocery store or the bank or the gas station. Again, it doesn’t matter what your mood is or what you’re carrying or what you’re not. Walk through and say thank you. Refuse, and your risks run from the small (being politely put in your place) to the large (being called a liberal).
At no time are these rules more important than when visiting a stranger’s home. Always answer yes when asked if you’d like something to drink, because no visit is a real visit without some sweet tea. Always make sure the mud is off your shoes, even when told it doesn’t matter (because it always matters).
And always, always, sit where you’re told to sit.
That last rule almost tripped me up the other day. I was visiting the home of an uncle of a friend, had checked my boots for mud, and had already been given my glass of tea (in a Mason jar, even!). Things were going just fine. Until we all sat down in the living room, anyway.
“Sit here,” the man said.
He pointed not to the sofa or the love seat, but to the recliner. The faded blue one. With the tear in the seat, the coffee stains on the armrests, and the dog hair everywhere.
And I almost, almost, politely declined. Put me on the floor or against the wall. Put me anywhere but that chair. But I didn’t. Couldn’t. Proper upbringing can be a real pain sometimes.
So I thanked him for his kindness and sat, slow and gentle, knowing both that one quick movement would get me speared by a protruding spring and my wife was going to kill me for getting so much dog hair on my shirt. The seat screeched and moaned, then finally gave way.
“Not bad, huh?” he asked me.
I took a sip of tea.
“Feels great,” I said.
He smiled and nodded, satisfied.
“Had that chair since I got married. First piece of furniture I ever bought new. My wife says it’s a piece of junk and an eyesore, but not me.”
“I think it looks just fine,” I said.
“Comfortable too, huh?”
“Oh yeah. I’m gettin’ sleepy just sitting here.”
“You know that chair’s been right in that spot for near twenty-five years?” he said. “Never been moved. I like it by the window there. Used to hold my boy in that chair when he was a baby. We’d sit there for hours. He’d lie there on my chest and sleep, and I’d just stare at him trying to figure out how someone like me could have a hand in such a miracle as him.”
I sat my jar on the coffee table and settled into the chair, imagining my chair home where I once sat with my own children. And still did.
“I sat in that chair while I waited for him to come home from his first prom. That was a happy time. Sat there the day he came home drunk because his girlfriend had dumped him. That wasn’t such a happy time. I was sitting there when he found his next one though, and I was in that chair when he said he was going to marry her as soon as he got out of the Marines.”
He grew quiet then, stealing a glance toward my friend who sat on the sofa beside him. He sipped his own tea and then cleared his throat.
“I was sittin’ there when they came to tell me he’d died in some town in Iraq, too.”
The room was silent for a long while. It was a holy silence, one offered not just to the sacrifice of the fallen but to the fragility of life.
“I love that chair,” he finally said.
I did, too. It was the most beautiful chair I’d ever seen.