Kind Gestures by S. Webster


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It’s August, hot, humid and quiet. Whatever is going to happen will take effort and be slow in coming. Nothing in the town of Oliver, North Carolina was going to be less than deliberate today. It’s a Southern thing.

We are lured here by the sweet smiles and kind gestures that give an impression that life will be simpler in the rural South and we are welcome.  Easy to belong in a place like this – just move in and smile back. That’s about all it takes. And once we have responded kindly to their questions of, ‘Do you have family here? What does your husband do?’ and, ‘Would you like to join our church?’ we can get on with the business of settling in and getting to know Oliver, North Carolina. The one thing we all want is to find a way of belonging in a community that was doing just fine before we arrived. Women especially need to know this was the right decision when finally settling on a place to call home.

And it is not that hard to do. Volunteer on committees that take the least amount of time and effort. Raise your hand as soon as those jobs that require actually knowing what to do are spoken for. Say, “I’d love to,” when it is something you can do independently of supervision and unwanted suggestions. Most of us already know that baking cookies is what works the best. Let them know we are happy to do it and then deliver the goods, in spiral mounds on paper plates. We don’t have to stay for meetings, have an opinion, cast a vote or collect our plates. We’ve done our time in the kitchen and the delivery. It’s an easy way to be well-thought of, easy way to keep ourselves in and out of what happens. If something sounds interesting we can stick around long enough for details by arranging the refreshments or setting out napkins. Otherwise we put on a “rushed” expression and get back in the car. We’re going to look good either way. The smiles will still be there and we can be fairly sure that kind words are being said as we drive away. It’s the South and these are women. It would take a great offense for them to be less than kind. And that leaves a lot of latitude for us newcomers to get comfortable.

For those who really do belong here and take pride in their “born here, raised here” heritage, comfort might be harder to come by. Their lives are more open, exposed just by being their mother’s daughter. To know one is to know the next and the one after that. Same land, same house and same things. What they are left with defines who they are because it is not easy for those daughters to discard the belongings of parents remembered by more than just them. In a small town things like this would be noticed and seen by some as disrespectful not to mention the guilt associated with “if it was good enough”.

So there they are with curtains pulled back living lives in the open. If they can’t or won’t be their mother’s daughter, they leave for the length of time it takes to be an outsider and then return to fewer expectations. But once away they seldom do come home. There is little to keep them here in a place where they feel the burden of other peoples’ desires while their own go unfulfilled. Only the strongest will actually pack up and go, and it will be the strongest of those who return years later to pick up the pieces only they can fit together. The daughters come back to old memories that drove them out and rekindle the ones that make it bearable. And more sooner than later, they are folded back into the South, gently rocked into place by rolling hills and forgiving neighbors as they pick up where their mother’s left off.

The ones that don’t return either never heard or simply tuned out the call of home. They have left for good and won’t look back until it is too late to return. The vacated places these daughters left behind slowly fill with newcomers, all from somewhere else and all of us allowed to keep our differences. We from someplace not here are given a pass, to keep our privacy and keep our distance – all with a welcoming smile.