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All my life I have heard about how hospitable Southerners are. “Southern Hospitality,” they say, “defines a culture and a people.” To be honest, I have never understood what this term, Southern Hospitality, really means. I myself have never felt especially hospitable, even though I spent the first 25 years of my life in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.
But as I pondered what to write about my grandmother, Nana, upon her passing at age 93 this week, it hit me. I finally realize what Southern Hospitality is.
Much like Frank Sinatra mastered song and dance; and Norman Rockwell mastered American folk art, Nana mastered Southern Hospitality.
She always had a fresh pound cake of which she insisted you eat a slice upon your arrival to her home. (And if she didn’t have one, she’d make one, right then and there.)
Nana would never leave the house without being dressed and without her makeup. And while I grew up dismissing this as “Richardson vanity,” I now know it was one of her special ways of having people feel important, whether she found herself at the grocery store, the mall, church, or wherever that day’s activities brought her.
For several years, Nana would give me a gift on my two older brothers, Paul and Hank’s birthday. You see, they were both born on February 15th, but six years apart. And Nana would make certain I didn’t feel left out. Until today, I simply thought this was one more way I was spoiled as the youngest of three. But it was just Southern Hospitality, because as soon as I was old enough to know the difference, no more gifts from Nana in February.
Nana showed us that Southern Hospitality is not about being nice. It is much more than that. (After all, a lie is a lie.) If she didn’t like your outfit, your haircut, or your shoes, you’d know it. But you would know it in a way that didn’t make you feel bad, and in a way that didn’t offend. Instead, negative comments were delivered as constructive criticism; with a quick wit and lots of love, but with a brutal honesty that could only be respected.
Nana showed us that Southern Hospitality is not about grinning and bearing it. It’s about smiling from the heart and giving a healthy regard for a different opinion, with an open ear and a closed mouth.
Southern Hospitality is about knowing when to speak and when to be silent. It’s about knowing when someone needs to cry and when someone needs to laugh. It’s about knowing when to enter a room, and when to leave.
It’s about living as if no guest ranks higher than another. From your very favorite family member, to the Jehovah’s Witness knocking at the door – they all deserve a comfortable place to sit, the opportunity to say what’s on their heart, and a piece of pound cake.
Southern Hospitality makes the people around you feel good about themselves, even when you feel bad. It makes people feel well, even when you feel sick. It empowers people, even when you are weak.
It’s a special kind of lifestyle that cannot be taught, only learned. It cannot be described, only demonstrated.
It’s Southern Hospitality. And Nana embodied it.
Arlon Jay Staggs received his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Mississippi College School of Law in 2000. He is a professional writer, business owner, professor, and activist. Even though his opinions are usually spot-on (we'd guess about 98.6% of the time), they are not necessarily the views of SDGLN.com, the baby Jesus, or God. He can be reached at email@example.com