Tradition? The South drips and sways with them. Little did I know this when I arrived ten years ago – a Yankee from Michigan via California – but Great Grandpa fought for the Confederates, so perhaps it was inevitable that I ended up here.
California traditions only last five minutes, so there are really few customs save the New Year’s Day Rose Parade – most memorable for the floats created from thousands of flowers and for the “Perpetually Perfect Parade Weather.” What we did in California was make it a tradition to scramble over each other, feet first if necessary, in an endless attempt to climb anything – up the corporate ladder or into bed with somebody.
Universal reverence for the elderly was the tradition I immediately recognized upon moving to the South. I came to work on an old Victorian home for an iconic, Southern family. They put me up with Paw-Paw, the family patriarch. He and I lived downstairs, with the younger generation one floor above. Knowing my penchant for cooking, the family hoped my presence ensured Paw-Paw would be well fed. He was.
One day the family came over – the whole rootin’-tootin’ lot of ’em. Evidently word had gotten out, and I was asked to make pancakes, as I had done so many times for Paw-Paw. There, at the long dining table, generations of Jenkins sat, forks in hand, ready to give ‘er a go. But I could only make one pancake at a time, so my conundrum became who gets the first one. About the time that cake was ready, Paw-Paw moseyed over and sat down at the head of the table. Now, I was a bit smitten with one of the family members and wanted to give her the first pancake – maybe curry some favor.
In the end though, after the blessing, I slid the pancake down on Paw-Paw’s plate. His eyes met his son’s, those two pair of eyes met the grandson’s, and back and forth this went for a moment. There was a hanging silence, then Paw-Paw either grunted or farted, I wasn’t sure which, and the son glanced over at me without a word. After that, I was in – I was one of them – because I understood. There’s a hierarchy here, and that’s how it’s done. It’s tradition.
I got a gigantic jolt of tradition going to Ole Miss on game day and partaking of the action down at The Grove. I had long since given up on much civility from large crowds, especially when the alcohol was flowing. So I was flabbergasted to see young men sporting coats and ties, young women wearing dresses that actually covered up their bodies, and the total absence of paper plates.
Instead, everyone laid out rich tablecloths, fine utensils, and linens of all types, not to mention some mouthwatering food. This was no backyard barbeque. This was a big, formal party and everybody respected the rituals. The entire place vibrated with a prescribed hospitality I thought was long gone with the wind.
At one point, the band played Dixie and the entire crowd fell silent. Everyone removed their hats and bowed their heads. No cell phones chirped. Not even church was ever this solemn. In an instant, I was transported back, helped along by having heard the story, just ten minutes prior, that in the “War of Northern Aggression,” over 2,000 students from Ole Miss left and took up arms. Zero came back.
LSU won the game that day, and though the result was in doubt until the very end, the outcome seemed to take a back seat to the other activities, with one exception. That would be the Ole Miss cheer. It’s better after a couple of beers, but even sober, it has a nice ring to it: “Hoty-Toty Gosh O Mighty, Who the hell are we? HEY! Flim flam, Bim bam, Ole Miss by damn!” I asked a dozen people where the cheer originated. It didn’t matter. Nobody cared. Tradition.
With the game now behind us, the party revved back up. Only now, the festivities moved to a private residence. The owners were proprietors of a general store in Oxford – another generation maintaining their position and safeguarding the family business. They were pillars of the community and their house dated from the 1850’s. History and patina stood front and center – along with the folklore.
The resident matriarch was in her 70’s, resplendent with perfect posture and a commanding presence not unlike that of Kathryn Hepburn. Though disappointed with the game’s outcome, she cheerfully pointed out, “The boys gave it their best, no need for anyone’s head to hang as a result.” By God, there weren’t going to be any whiny babies here. Not at her house. Not on her watch.
At one point, the thirty-odd guests jumped to crisp attention and formed a receiving line when the mother of our hostess arrived. I was off in another room noodling on a piano, wondering about all the fuss. I quickly absorbed yet another tradition, and realized that not joining the crowd to “pay my respects” to “Mama” was a certain breach of etiquette. I had more than sand to brush off my languid, California feet.
Soon after, I piped up and asked for a tour around the various rooms, commenting on many of the exquisite pieces of furniture and the deep, rich history. We made our way to the dining room where the main table included a piece of glass better than an inch thick. It rested on what looked like two massive columns – obviously cut down to size and probably the remains of some former, big entry way.
I mentioned the table, especially the beauty of the columns, and inquired about their origin. Immediately, our hostess, the epitome of style, charm, and grace all evening long, turned bitter and sour and full of rancor. I would soon discover why.
She menacingly turned toward me, and with her face tightened down like a vice, said, “That’s all that’s left after they came and burned the courthouse down.” Then her eyes got even bigger. Sensing a foreigner in her midst, in a very cold and accusatory voice she said, “By the way Will, where are you from?”
I said a fast prayer. I needed a save, right here, right now. My prayer was granted. I took a breath and casually replied, “Well, Ma’am, I wasn’t born in the South, but I got here quick as I could.” She backed off only slightly, then muttered as she walked away, “Well, you did the best you could.”