The Little Joys Of Southern Life
I’ve been at the doctor’s office today, having some tests. I was reminded in some small but joyous ways of how much I love living in the South.
I stood in line to check in at the clinic, and heard the following conversation between the nurse (a middle-aged black woman) and the elderly white man in line in front of me.
“Anything new?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” he said. “Just another year older.”
“Another blessing!” she replied.
When I reached the desk myself, I took the photo above of her station. She is unapologetic about her faith, clearly, and based on my brief experience, it makes her a better nurse. The old man in front of me was blind, or nearly blind; he had a red-tipped cane, and walked holding the arm of a younger woman, presumably his daughter, or maybe his caretaker. He can’t have an easy life. The kind words the nurse had for him surely made his day better. They made mine better, just overhearing them.
I bring up the race of these two people because if the only thing you ever heard about race relations in America was what you learned from the media — including me, I regret to say — you’d think we were at each other’s throats. In my part of the world, blacks and whites interact with each other every day. What’s easy to overlook, or to take for granted, is how naturally courteous most folks are to each other, across racial lines, even if they don’t know each other. Nobody is ever going to be able to claim that the South is a racial utopia, but having lived in other parts of America with mixed populations, I’ve seen blacks and whites getting along better here than elsewhere. I don’t have a theory about that, but that’s been my observation.
I find it so comforting that I’m able to talk about our shared faith, in an easygoing, natural way, with so many black folks among whom I live. The other day at Walker Percy Weekend, Patrick Connelly mentioned in his lecture that the late novelist had expressed hope that Christianity would help heal the grievous racial wounds in the body politic. That doesn’t seem to have happened … or maybe it happens more than we realize, if not as much as we need.
Case in point: the lengthy conversation I had today with one of the four nurses I dealt with. As she was processing some insurance information, we were making small talk about raising kids. I’m not sure how faith even came up in our talk — it’s so natural down here that it can slip up on you. The nurse, who appeared to be just a few years older than I, mentioned that she had recently received a phone call from her son, who is 25 and living in Atlanta.
“He told me that he wanted to call me and thank me for all the things I had told him to keep him straight when he was growing up,” she said. “He said that he used to stay mad at me for being so strict. But now that he’s grown, he said he knows that everything I told him was true, and it has kept him on the right path. He told me, ‘Ma, I don’t know how to thank you enough.’ I told him, ‘Baby, you already have.'”
She went on. “I had an old white man in here the other day, and we got to talking about kids, and I told him that story. He told me that he’s 75, and his son is 50, and he’s still waiting on that phone call. I was thinking, ‘Mister, if you ain’t had that call yet, it’s not coming.’ That’s said, innit? That poor old man said he’s got three kids, and they’re scattered all over the country, and they never call him to check on him. My son calls us every couple of days, just to see how we’re doing.”
The nurse said that she was once a [mainstream conservative Protestant denomination], but changed to pa fringe one], in part because she felt the need for strong religion to help her raise her children. “That [former] church, it was so permissive,” she said. “People were doing all kinds of things, out in the open, and the pastor didn’t say anything. He was too involved with the deaconesses, to tell you the truth. You had people up in that church living together, sleeping together, and that didn’t make any difference. They’d be saying, ‘Oh Jesus, forgive me,’ but then they went right back to that bed. Didn’t intend on changing.
“That’s not what the Bible says to do! No,” she continued. “The Lord will forgive anything, but you got to repent. You got to take Him seriously. Trouble with the churches today is nobody wants to take Him seriously.”
I know what you’re thinking. No, I did not say the words Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. But I didn’t have to. This lady understood it.
“You see so many of these young men getting in trouble with the law,” she said. “They have never been shown love. I keep telling people that they have to encourage their children, especially their young men. They’ve got to show them love. When they do wrong, correct them, but do it in love. I’ve seen them come out of jail, and they get beat up by everybody, people saying, ‘I told you you were gonna go to prison for that!’ Is there any wonder they end up right back there?
“But I have to say, a lot of these church people thinking that the way to show love is to let these young people get away with anything. They don’t want to correct them, because that’s not loving. Some young person ruins their life, and they going to be looking back at you wondering why you didn’t show them better? What you gonna say to them? That you ‘loved’ them so much you didn’t show them right from wrong, and you didn’t help them make the right choice? That’s not love. But that’s what people these days think is love.”
On and on like this. I enjoyed being with her so much. She was not pushy at all. I participated in the conversation as much as she did. That woman is a nurse in a doctor’s office in Baton Rouge, and she is wiser than most people you’ll meet in universities, I’d bet. I cannot imagine having that kind of deep conversation with a stranger I’d just met outside the South.
No doubt you New Englander readers have by now spontaneously combusted by the mere thought of having that sort of interaction at the doctor’s office. Let me be clear: if I had just given this woman the information she asked for and no more, we would have had a pleasant, professional interaction, and only that. But people here really love to talk, if you’ll give them half a chance. Me, I love that. And these weren’t the only fun conversations I had today, wandering from doctor’s office to doctor’s office. Honestly, it was a good morning. Another blessing!
UPDATE: I took out the name of her former and present church.