by Cathy C. Hall
That Southerners are polite is a well-known fact. Not so well known, perhaps, is that we’ll take politeness to extremes, just to prove the point.
Hilton Head, South Carolina, is just across the Herman Talmadge Bridge, spanning the Savannah River. Today, Hilton Head is known as a resort area, golf courses and outlet stores covering almost every square mile that’s not beach. But the summer before I started high school, when my family rented a cottage there, Hilton Head was not nearly as developed. One lone plaza, with a grocery store and an ice cream shop, were all that the island had to offer on the social scene. So it was not too surprising to run into folks there. But to find folks we actually knew? No one expected that.
There we were at the ice cream shop, me, my three brothers, and Mom and Dad, filling up on double scoop cones. In walked a young teenager that my oldest brother recognized as a schoolmate. The schoolmate’s family followed close behind. So, we all chatted awhile, the parents discussing about where we were renting in relation to where they were renting. No one was really paying much attention. It was small talk, passing the time with folks from “home.” We piled into our separate cars, waving and smiling, with a “Good to see y’all!” thrown in. And then my mother said, “Y’all should come by and see us!”
One of my older brothers asked what the other kids were thinking: “Why did you ask those people over?” Talking about ice cream flavors was one thing. Entertaining was another thing altogether. Mom wasn’t worried, though.
“Oh,” she said breezily, “I was just being polite.”
Well, we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We knew all about “being polite.” Being polite meant that we didn’t have to actually do anything, like have someone over, bring some special dish, or show up at some boring function. When you were “being polite” you had offered, and that was enough.
The next evening, shortly after supper, we were sitting around, too stuffed with crabs to move, when a car’s headlights shone in our direction. Now this was odd, because we were one of about four houses on a small dirt road. No one ventured down this way unless they had business. When the car slowed, then stopped in front of our little bungalow, we still had no idea. We thought someone was lost. Until this look came over my mom’s face and she said, “Oh, my Lord. Do you think…?”
Four people climbed out of the car. Four strangely familiar people. “Oh my Lord” was right. It was the family from the ice cream shop. They’d actually taken my mom up on the offer to “come by and see us!”
There was nothing to be done but entertain the family. Now, these were perfectly fine people. It’s not as if we were forced to sit down with Attila the Hun and company. But both of my older brothers had worked till late afternoon in a field, picking tomatoes. My father had played golf. The rest of us had spent the day on the beach. We were dog-tired and ready for bed. But now we’d have to be polite.
The adults went inside, while the youngsters stayed outside on the screened porch. It was sort of exciting for me, at first. I mean, these were actual high school boys. I fetched a Coke for the visitors; my mom offered the parents a beer. But no, they could just stay a minute. They’d been driving around and thought, why not just pop in? Why not, indeed.
That was sure one long minute. A half hour, then an hour passed. My excitement had worn off with my last yawn. Then, out of the blue, my oldest brother said, “I need to check on something.”
Check on something? What something? Was the house on fire? A toilet overflowing? He wouldn’t say. It was just “something.” Minutes passed. We all wondered aloud where he’d gone. Until it slowly began to dawn on my brothers and me that what needed checking on was a mattress. My brother had gone to bed!
The rest of us on the porch mumbled bits and pieces of conversation, with long pauses in between. The parents continued to talk. Suddenly, my other older brother spoke up.
“I better go check on that thing,” he said, heading inside.
Great, I thought. We wouldn’t see him again.
And that’s when I knew. I was the last bastion of Southern hospitality left. My mother was counting on me. So I sat out there with those high school boys, desperately searching for something to say, trying to ignore the scene on the porch. Because now my little brother had slumped over in his chair, fast asleep.
Finally, finally, the adults got up and stretched. The two visiting boys, now sleepy themselves, dragged outside, and the little family piled into their car. “Tell your brothers we said ‘goodbye’,” they said. Oh, I’d tell them, all right. But no one, not me, not my father, and especially not my mother, said, “Y’all come back to see us.”
Being polite has its limits. Even for a Southerner.
Cathy C. Hall was born in Texas and raised in Savannah, Georgia, so she’s pretty well-versed in the whole politeness thing. Today, she works as a humor writer living in the metro Atlanta area with her husband, three junior Halls and Sally the Crazy Dog. Her columns, essays and articles appear in magazines, anthologies, newspapers and webzines. She writes fiction, too. So if you’ve ever worked or lived with Cathy, or even said hello to her in the grocery store, you’ll probably end up in her stories. Cleverly disguised, of course. Visit her website at www.cathy-c-hall.com.