We southerners have some unique customs, and certain things we say on certain occasions. I think experts call it gracious living.
For example, if my wife and I are invited to dinner at someone’s home (which, of course, has not happened in a very long time), my wife will inevitably ask if she can bring something. The same thing happens when we invite folks to our home. When a dinner invitation is extended, saying “What can I bring?” or “You have to let me bring something” is part of our southern lexicon.
Without being sexist, it’s almost always the woman half of the couple who asks to bring something. Although I consider myself well-mannered, I don’t see a dinner invitation as a potluck unless the person extending the invitation indicates such. I have been asked to dinner, so I automatically assume the person asking me will provide the meal. I will express appreciation for the invitation, and I will thank the hosts profusely after I have consumed the meal, but I will not try to prepare part of it.
But a well-reared southern woman will always ask what she can bring and will put up a bit of an argument when the host or hostess says, “nothing at all, just yourselves.” The discussion usually ends there, unless there is a last-gasp attempt by the invitee, saying something like, “We’ll at least pick up a bag of ice.” Wow, yes, that will be a big help. Freezing water is a lost art these days. But whatever.
Also, the woman in the couple will always take “a little gift,” even if – and especially if – she has lost the battle of insisting she bring something. “We are not going over there empty-handed,” my wife has said to me more than once as I might have questioned why she was putting a bottle of wine in a decorative bag, or wrapping up a new dishtowel in tissue paper to hand to the hostess as she arrives.
I’m not a quick study, but I can be taught, so I eventually learned not to argue about any of this. If a futile discussion about what we will bring or a circular exchange of wine and/or dishtowels is necessary for us to stay socially connected, I’m all in.
As I have aged, however, I’ve become perhaps a bit more candid. Let me explain.
After my wife’s parents passed away in November only two weeks apart, there was an outpouring of love and grace from friends, the likes of which we have never seen. Not only did people ask what they could do, they showed up at our door with food or they had flowers and plants delivered to us.
My wife has a tall stack of cards and notes people have sent to her. After I wrote about our loss in this space a few weeks ago, I received emails from readers I have never personally met. The kindness of others has overwhelmed us, and we find ourselves wondering how we will ever adequately show our appreciation.
We have also learned how, even during difficult times, humorous stories can emerge. (Which is exactly how my in-laws, both possessed of wry senses of humor, would have wanted it.)
Not long after we came home from Arkansas following the graveside service, I received a text message from a longtime friend, expressing her and her husband’s condolences. She also asked if I thought Susan (my wife) “might like a tree to remember her parents.” She forwarded a link to trees we could choose from.
Maybe I was a little fatigued when I read her message, because rather than saying, “Thank you, that would be lovely,” I replied by asking if that would be a tree we would have to plant.
Her response was in the affirmative.
Again, maybe it was fatigue, or perhaps I had a momentary lapse in memory as to how I was raised, but as politely as I could, I declined her offer. I explained that we are not “yard people” and that it would, quite simply, cause us not a small amount of stress if we were given something we had to plant and try to keep alive. Fortunately, this woman is a good friend who knows me well, and she put all kinds of laughing emojis in her response.
When I shared this with my wife, she was, of course, mortified. Little did she know that was not even the entire story.
When our friend agreed not to bring us a tree, she then said she would love to bring Christmas morning breakfast. There is a tradition in our family of my preparing breakfast Christmas morning before we open gifts. Since I’m not the primary meal-preparer in our home, it’s a bit of an ordeal for me. Therefore, this was an offer I would certainly not refuse.
But, believe it or not, I put a qualifier on my acceptance.
I explained how we would be having our family Christmas the weekend after Christmas, with our Christmas Eve being Dec. 26 and Christmas Day being the 27th, and I wondered if what she would be bringing would freeze. She said it would probably not freeze well, but she would be glad to bring it on the evening of the 26th.
“Are you kidding me?” my wife asked incredulously as I related this exchange with her, excited I already had my breakfast menu planned. “I mean, really, are you kidding me?” she asked. “After you told her you didn’t want a tree, you told her yes, Christmas morning breakfast is fine, but please bring it two days after Christmas?”
I think there was maybe something about never being able to look this person in the face again, but my memory fades. I knew I had handled the situation a bit, well, differently than my spouse would have.
But the story has a happy ending. Our friend and her husband showed up late on the afternoon of Dec. 26 with a scrumptious blueberry French Bread casserole (that truly was to die for) and hash brown potatoes, both of which only required heating up the next morning.
My wife thanked them effusively and apologized for my behavior, as I did. We all had a good laugh about it and the friendship remains intact, as does my marriage.
There might, however, be some lessons in gracious living in my future.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at [email protected].