The power of manners: A Southern recipe for coping with conflict

It was my mother who saw to it that my education regarding things “Southern” began by comparing and contrasting everything with the single word: Yankee.

If asked why it was that she seemed to shun all that lay north of the Mason-Dixon Line, she would smile and with honey in her voice quietly reply, “Oh darlin’, it ain’t shunnin’, it’s sharin’,” whereupon she would loop her arm into that of my father’s, nuzzling a smile from a man as solidly northern as Robert Frost’s cautiously constructed poem, “The Mending Wall.”

My mother, like most Southerners, valued hospitality, which she took to mean a kind of movable picnic capable of accompanying her wherever she went. And, oh my, she loved to share, which is to say she loved to talk.

Favorite among her subjects was, believe it or not, pigs. It came about like this.

You remember the movie, “The Yearling,” staring Gregory Peck and the cutest little fawn you could imagine? Well, the book from which the movie was taken was written by a lady named Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and was about the rural life in the Florida everglades.

‘… the power of manners is incessant … ’tis our manners that associate us … When we reflect on their persuasive and cheering force; how they recommend, prepare, and draw people together.’

Ms. Rawlins was born in Washington, D.C., and educated and the University of Wisconsin. Now you would think that such a geography would have made her the Yankee of all Yankees, but not quite it seems as one day she up and moved to the Deep South, in both time and place, taking a little house in a Hamlet called Cross Creek, Fla., where she lived for, oh, a decade or so, which turned out to have been long enough to come to admire and love her neighbors, if not a particular neighbor’s pigs, about which, meaning both her neighbors and their pigs, she wrote in her book, “Cross Creek,” which was also made into a movie.

You see, the pigs, it turns out, were owned by one Uncle Bert, at least that was his name as I came to hear tell, meaning he was uncle to my mother, making him great to me, not only by lineage but also by reputation, the latter having to do with the fact that his pigs were famous for breaking loose from their enclosure and running amok, though devoutly so, our Florida family being, for a time, Baptists and then Catholics and then Baptists again. But where was I?

Oh yes, Uncle Bert’s pigs would, for no apparent reason other than sheer southern cussedness, make a break for the Yankee lady’s (aka Ms. Rawlins) carefully maintained garden, tearing it something fierce.

Now, as I was saying, all this took place in Cross Creek, which is quite a ways south of Olustee, the latter being due west of Jacksonville and up near the Florida/Georgia line. And although my mother would always, with the telling of the story about Uncle Bert’s pigs, warm up with Confederate pride, it was nothing like the glow that would come over her when she would take down the letter that hung in a polished maple frame on the living room wall and begin to talk about the Battle of Olustee.

As history tells it, to be more precise, as Shelby Foote tells it in his massive, three volume work, “The Civil War,” the Battle of Olustee saw the Yankee general, Vermont-born West Pointer Brigadier Truman Seymour, suffer, in the author’s words, “…one of the soundest thrashings of the war…” at the hand of the Florida Confederates. Numbered among the Rebels who died of wounds was one Private James Terrell, my great (or I guess it would be great, great) grandfather.

Militarily, the Confederacy was a counter puncher. It was the same with my mother, culturally speaking. Though transplanted north by a Yankee she loved, she never tired of sharing all that she valued about the South.

From her I learned about grits and hush puppies, to say “sir” and ‘‘ma’am,” to rise when adults entered the room, to hold chairs for ladies, to spend doors for others, and to sidle to the outside when walking down the street with a woman. Oddly enough, however, it was from her that I received as weak my affection for the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Concord, Mass., definitely Yankee territory, and for his almost Southern appreciation that “… the power of manners is incessant … ’tis our manners that associate us … When we reflect on their persuasive and cheering force; how they recommend, prepare, and draw people together… when we think of what keys they are, and to what secrets; what high lessons and inspiring tokens of character they convey; and what divination is required in us, for the reading of this fine telegraph, we see what range the subject has, and what relations to convenience, power, and beauty.”

Though a native Oregonian, I am also, as mentioned, decidedly southern. In like manner, though a registered Republican, my recent vote for president ended up being more cultural than political. Notwithstanding the South’s majority vote for the contrary, I broke ranks and cast my ballot ... for manner ... and for the power latent therein.

Robert M. White lives in Parkdale.

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