My mama’s smooth black walnut four poster ‘teestah’ bed, handmade by a furniture maker in Lincolnton, North Carolina she says, and bought for her by my daddy only when my great Aunt Pances told him to, graces the guest room. This is the revered family furniture, with matching queen Anne highboy and lowboy, and turned, tall bedposts with fat round bands like matching 70’s bangled bracelets on upward arms.
The symbol of hospitality, the pineapple, graces doorways, and gateposts in the American South. Down by the water in Charleston, at Waterfront Park, a short walk from the Waterfront Park Pier, formerly called Adger’s Wharf, Charleston’s Pineapple Fountain represents the welcoming hospitality for which Charleston is well known. People in the South are amazingly thoughtful in traffic, and hand written thank you notes still exist. Even America’s most-published etiquette expert, Marjabelle Young Stewart, recognized the city in 1995 as the “best-mannered” city in the United States, a claim lent credibility by the fact that it has the first established ‘Livability Court’ in the country. The virtues of kindness and courtesy, what mama called having good manners, might really be cultural habits worth saving.
I’ve just come to understand that this cultural distinction is connected to what the ancestors called “keeping an open house.” The tradition involves having a guest room, and having homemade pimento cheese, ready in the fridge, to offer guests…it’s about hospitality. Not long ago my cousin Mike Hutson, historian extraordinaire, who lives in El Paso, Texas, mailed me a copy of Florie Hutson Heyward’s (1862-1955) memoir. “Aunt Florie” was sister to my great grandmother, Charlotte Hutson Martin, and her story is about their family and the little community of McPhersonville, South Carolina, just after the Civil War. Their mother, Caroline, died at 36, mostly, I think, of a broken heart over the loss of her first born, five year old child, a son, whose name was Trabue. Her death in 1887 left Dr. Thomas Woodward Hutson a widower with five children to raise. He had served as a surgeon in the Civil War, and now he mixed his own medicines and paid house calls to families in the region, struggling to parent these children and to rebuild the little town of McPhersonville, which had been furiously burned to the ground by General Sherman, and which, eventually, he did. Pay for physican’s services then was slight, if at all. Their house was small, with a bedroom for TW as they called Dr. Hutson, and a guestroom. Outside was a little house that had been the kitchen, which was built away from the house, so as to prevent fires. The five children all slept together here now, bathing in a big tub in the center of the room.
It was tradition to keep that guest room available for guests and no Civil War was going to change that. Dr. TW was ‘keeping an open house.’ This was exactly why, when, even in my mother’s small retirement apartment, at age 87, she must defy logic and keep the guestroom fully furnished, as always, instead of making the room the office she really needs instead. It is that remnant, long remembered, of hospitality, just as Blanche Dubois immortalized in Tennessee Williams’ play Streetcar Named Desire. How much she depended on “the kindness of strangers”. It is what a visitor to the South meant, in the 1800’s, when he remarked that there were few ‘taverns’ to stay overnight. One could knock on a door and be considered an honored guest, and be welcomed, and fed, and ushered into a guestroom at most houses along most routes.
Aunt Florie was writing this, her memoir, during the 1940’s and 50’s, and she described then, how “so and so” did or did not “keep an open house.” Now I understand what she means, and what the tradition of having the guestroom symbolizes. Perhaps this tradition, that my mother keeps, might just be one worth saving, in our current state of economic turbulence. Perhaps, instead of insisting someone “call ahead” perhaps we can pay it forward by responding to a knock at our door, with an invitation in, to a tray of pimento cheese sandwiches, for tea, for connection. We all need each other and our gifts of kindness, now, more than ever.