At about 4:15 p.m. yesterday we exited I-91 North and drove through a monochrome dishwater grey Northampton, where our dog, Shoshi, not knowing if we had been gone four weeks or four minutes, welcomed us home with tail thumping. My time away enabled me to appreciate so much of what this New England college community offers that was in short supply in some of our southern destinations—-organic food, beautiful country for cycling, accessible bike paths, food and entertainment within walking distance, and, of course, a progressive and cultured community.
It’s easy from this vantage point to berate southerners as being a bunch of backward, right-wing, homophobic, sexist, anti-immigrant, evangelical hypocrites, who can’t speak proper English and eat too much pork. However, I need to give credit where credit is due. We headed south to shed our parkas, hats, and gloves; to trade in black and white for tropical colors; to pedal hard into ocean breezes. What we didn’t anticipate was how warmed we would be by the graciousness of the people we met. Southern hospitality is alive, well, and apparently very genuine. We basked in it wherever we went. On my early morning walks around the streets of Key West, every person I passed greeted me with a robust, “Good Morning!” This warm cloak of kindness engulfed us everywhere—-from Mordi’s cousins, Sam and Helen, who filled our hearts and bellies with comfort food and lively conversation, to the wait staff at The Cottage restaurant in Siesta Key, who happily offered to trade my first mojito, which turned out to be my last, for a familiar cosmo, which they then doubled when Mordi accidentally knocked our table, spilling a few drops of the pink liquid….The inn-keeper in Charleston, who greeted us with cookies and a smile and the owners of the 1895 House in Savannah, who left me with a hug and chocolates; the receptionist at Tropical Shores Beach Resort in Siesta Key, who chased us down because he noticed our bikes and wanted to make sure he told us about some great cycling opportunities in the area; the retired electrician from up North, now manager of the Ivey House in Everglades City, as an antidote to boredom, who made sure he approached us several times a day just to see how we were doing…. I will never forget the shock I experienced when the owner of the Atlantis House in Key West, who tended to his gardens with the same kindness he showed those who stayed at his guest house, approached us one night as we sat in his lighted gazebo, “I just made some ceviche and fish pate. Can I bring you out a plate?” (The previous night, he greeted us with two huge pieces of key lime pie!)
Indifference seems absent from the warm southern breezes below the Mason-Dixon line. My cynical husband says it’s because we are white. I do know that “hi y’all;” “mornin’;” and “How ya’ doin’?” were spoken by people in all colors, shapes, and sizes. I don’t deny the racism that lingers like a humid summer afternoon in Savannah; the statue of a confederate general that adorns a seaside park in Charleston, along with the occasional confederate flag and posters for Civil War revivals, and restaurants where black means your job is filling water glasses and replacing the fork that fell to the floor. Yet, like the north, changes are happening—a new Savannah monument to the Haitians who fought in the revolutionary war and a black waiter I notice at the exclusive Old Pink House Restaurant are clues that change is in the air.
We’re expecting some more of that heavy, wet late winter snow in Northampton tonight. I’ve switched back from cotton to fleece and don’t go out without my burgundy wool gloves. Yet, while I dodge the early morning black ice camouflaged on the sidewalk of Elm Street, I feel an extra layer of warmth, a souvenir of southern hospitality, as real and as comforting as a plate of southern friend chicken, corn bread, and grits. I affix these memories into my mind’s scrapbook of this most amazing journey.