Saturday, September 18, 2004

Southern hospitality

I’ve been wondering why it is that while I live in the south, I don’t know many "southerners". I’ve lived in NC for fourteen years and most of my friends and acquaintances are from the north. The point of this is that I don’t understand southern hospitality. Am I supposed to return a good deed with a good deed? A pie? Or does a simple, "Thank you" suffice? These are the things that plague my mind.

Here’s an example from today: I have not mowed my yard for, oh…over a month. Why don’t I own a mower? This is a valid question, but I’m not answering that one right now. So, anyway, I borrow my ex-husband’ s mower and begin to plow through eight to ten inches of weeds. My yard is weeds. There’s a brave stalk of grass every now and again, but is being choked out by the weeds I allow to propagate. The mower and I are trudging along, getting bogged down by the thick vegetation. To complicate matters, because the weeds are so tall, I’ve gotten the surface sticks, but there are many lying fully camouflaged. Every so often the mower tries to eat a large stick and sounds like it’s going to lose part of the blade. Add walnuts to this equation and you get the picture. It’s tedious and somewhat embarrassing.

Next door, one of my neighbors is raking leaves. I’ve never met him. I’ve seen him partaking in that strange southern rural ritual of "leaf burning". Leaves are anathema to a lawn in my neighborhood. He apparently sees my pathetic mowing attempts and after I’ve finished the front yard and have plowed one lonely, weed-laden strip in my back yard, he comes across his perfectly manicured lawn on his riding lawn mower towards mine. I laugh heartily – this is a lovely surprise. He has on a baseball cap with the back of his mullet cut pulled through the hole, tidy jeans, a T-shirt, and a short-sleeved button down shirt that is salmon and purple. He looks to be in his early 40’s – I’m totally guessing on this one, because he’s rather tan (read weathered). He smiles and starts mowing along the edge of my yard.

I don’t know what to do with myself. Do I go inside and kick back? It seems rude when someone else is doing the work that is rightly my responsibility so I continue to pick up sticks and add them to the pile in the woods (that was there before I started renting the house). He drives his Craftsman 15.5 OCV around my back yard. After I’ve finished with the sticks I try and start my borrowed mower again. I give three good pulls and it won’t start. I check the gas - it’s empty. I head to the shed, get my gas can, add gas, and crank it up. The mower starts and I work on edging while he does the main part of the yard. As I’m mowing I notice he is off his riding mower and pulling clogging clots of weeds out from the blade. He has also just mowed over a large gravity well and it has sucked in his mower (I have three main gravity wells – also known as ankle-turners in my family). I, casually, keep mowing for a while. When I am done with my section, I notice he is still working on the mower itself. Shit, now I have guilt to contend with as well as gratitude.

So I approach him. "Has my evil yard attacked your mower?" I ask (probably not the best opener). "It’s not evil." He replies. "You try and do something nice for somebody and look what happens." Yep, double my guilt. I try again, "Yea, it’s supposed to help your karma, not hinder it." There is no response from my neighbor. He finishes de-clogging and restarts his mower. The clanking and spitting of giant walnut shells sounds just as bad from his mower as it did from mine. Plus, if I ruined my borrowed mower, it’s just my ex-husbands Craftsman push-mower – not some fancy in excess of $1000 mower.

I have now done all the edging and sit on my back steps to watch. I notice some sparks shooting out from above the blade housing. The mower coughs with increasing frequency. The kind-hearted neighbor stops the mower again. I said, "I definitely saw sparks." He mumbles something unintelligible to the underside of the mower as he works. After some poking, prodding, and a couple of groans he hauls himself back onto the mower. All that is left is a giant tear-dropped shape in the middle. He mows very carefully only adding about a foot at a time to the mower’s path, any more than that and the sparks fly the mower sputters and it’s all downhill. I keep watching and we carefully avoid eye contact. As he’s on his last pass, he says (and I read his lips over the roar of the mower) "I just wanted to help you out." And I replied, "Thank you".

So, what does hospitality dictate? Do I bake a pie? Buy him beer? Let it go? These are the thoughts that keep me awake at night. You’d think that after my good rural upbringing I would know the answer, but alas, I do not.

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