Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Commonwealth: Casseroles and Culture

Virginia. It's beautiful here--virgin forest crawling across much of it, shrouding what once sheltered Native Americans and the first colonists. There are still areas of those early settlements that remain preserved, and others, of course, have expanded into contemporary urban populations prideful of their legacy. The English left their mark in a rather distinguished old-country accent, long Os rounding out the speech of the locals whose families weave back to the first peoples. Careful in speech as they are, they are even more careful with the establishing of relationships; it is hard to break into even common society here, and the presence of some of us as transients remains exactly that. Too, the proximity to the culture of the true northern states has ebbed away some of what could have been a hospitable reputation in one of the most elegant states in the fifty. I love living here, but find it curiously confounding. Southern, yet stand-offish. I simply shrug and say to newcomers, "Virginians!" and they say, "We've noticed."

This summer, our household survived two people having surgery; first for my son, then me. Where I grew up, my household would have been blanketed in casseroles and other steaming dishes for days. One or two visitors would have delivered a bottle of wine (when not for the patient, highly recommended for those providing care!). Deep and mid-southerners do more than check on us, they do not believe that the patient is fine, and show up anyway. So with my son's surgery, I hit Mommy-exhaustion by Day 3 of recovery, and when irritated by something his out-of-state father did at that time, I said, in a fatigued tirade to him, "And dammit, I need a casserole, and no one has brought one!" The mind-set of the Virginian is that distance is best, and if you need something, you'll ask for it. The trouble with Deep Southerners like myself is that according to our own traditions, we dare not ask. But, I guess you could say I am learning; right before my surgery, my boss asked me what I needed. I looked at her and said, "A casserole." And she sent one--had it delivered by a local catering company--something my Louisiana girlfriends found uproarious.

While Virginians wish not to intrude upon you unless asked, they think nothing of making oddly direct observations, things my mother would have chastised me for, and often did, in our soft-spoken household. Last year, a parent of a child in my son's class bumped into me at a local eatery. She knew my son, but she and I had never met. So imagine my shock when she introduced herself and said her boy had said Tiny was in frequent trouble at school, and that she had asked him if Tiny was mean, and the boy had said no, that he was actually a nice kid. She told me this, and I thought--if I were permitted in my upbringing to say it to a stranger--"You're shittin' me." I remained speechless for a moment and invented something gracious to say. It's what ladies of the Deep South do instead of saying "You're shittin' me" which we are so clearly thinking.

In Missississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee, if you would see a stream of neighbors coming and going from a gathering near your home, you wouldn't just be invited, you'd be recruited. There is a wonderful scene in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, when a Georgia local knocks on the door of the visiting New York writer for ice, and then brings him to a neighboring bash. He isn't used to this. Apparently, Virginians aren't either. And more than once have I watched a parade of adults and children entering a neighbor's home for parties while waving to us on our porch. I have adapted to this now, too, and have begged my children to just stay inside and avoid any tension. I have taught them households have borders and not everyone should be included all the time. In fact, I have grown to even like this a bit. Keeps things small, manageable even, when it's our turn to host an event. There is something to be said for becoming Virginian.

Nevertheless, where I grew up, we took new people under downy wings of conversation and comfort. We want you to be all right. We ply you with Mama's chess pie and Daddy's cocktails. We send boatloads of prepared meals to the ailing. (Note my favorite quote from my first mother-in-law when she was dying of cancer--she pointed to all the fruit baskets her Florida friends had sent. "Have some fruit. We have fruit out the yang.") We are afraid new people are lonely, left-out, excluded. In Virginia, no one wants to bother you. Or they can't be bothered. In the deeper southern regions, it bothers us that you might be lonely. We 'd rather die than overlook the potential of good company anyway. So imagine my surprise at my office when, in my first days there a year and a half ago, no one came to see me at lunch, ask how "the new girl" was doing, and invite me down for company. I felt terrible. Eventually though, I adapted. When I want company, I head to the group table at the cafe on my floor, when I don't, I eat in my cube. These days, I have too much work anyway.

It is hard to make friends in Virginia. Sure, people are nice here. But having you over is an earned position, not a casually-made offer. A workmate asked me recently if I was going to visit with friends one weekend. "I work and raise children," I said, "I have no close friends in Virginia." He was shocked, "But you are so friendly!" he said. Frankly, I have learned that is probably the cause, as my social tendencies in the very first office I was in here three years ago made me a bit of an outsider. The vibe in that office had been more morgue-cum-library, and I just didn't fit. Being an emotional trainwreck didn't help either, but that story is for another day.

In Lousiana and Mississippi, we had constant events and company. Extended family was a part of daily life. In Tennessee, I had a social schedule that the Queen of England might find exausting. It was moderate in Indiana, and earned after two years of residence there. I maintained many busy nights of fun dinners in Georgia. Here in Virginia, it is different. I lived here six months before my husband and I were invited to anything (with the exception of drinks with his first boss, who used that time to hit on me in a surprise alone moment, so that shouldn't count). Living here has groomed me to choose even more carefully those I might befriend, people who can understand and tolerate the complexity of our step-family arrangement, heavy travel for the kids' visitation, my husband's two jobs, the kids' activities, and a very nuclear family-centric life in general. Maybe, Virginia has been good for me in that way.

The other day, the phone rang with a kind and eager request for coffee and chatter from a parent at my daughter's school, an accomplishment of earning trust. "Who was that?" Tiny asked. "A friend," I said, "Mommy has a friend in Virginia. High five me."

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