Easter Table, 2006
My friends Mike and Dottie and I met at Dottie’s home in Richmond, Virginia, for a meeting. Mike drove down from Washington. I drove up from the beach. We were all officers of a professional society and were working together to plan a national conference.
Dottie grew up in Richmond and is infused with both charm and gracious southern hospitality. Her home was typical of what you would have expected in an affluent older in-town suburb of the city. It was a Georgian-style brick residence on a large and beautifully landscaped lot just off a busy avenue. The rooms were large, the ceilings high and the proportions were all spacious. The furnishings were traditional and exquisite. Original art filled the walls.
It was a warm, late spring day. We sat out on a shaded brick patio. Around noon Dottie excused herself to go into the kitchen and set out something for lunch.
I have lived around women like Dottie much of my adult life. Southern woman of this type don’t just throw cold cuts out on a plate. They present whatever it is they’re serving. Presentation is a big thing.
Mike, on the other hand, grew up in an Army family. They moved a lot and always lived in plain base housing. Mike’s wife is an engineer. The décor of their home is comfortable and practical. But it is not a home where presentation is practiced. For Mike, visiting Dottie’s house was like visiting Tara. Everywhere he looked he was struck by how different it was from any he’d ever lived in.
There were just three of us and we were just having sandwiches. If I’d been the host we’d have probably had lunch out of a bag. But Dottie arranged the meats, cheeses, bread, condiments and side dishes on the sideboard in the dining room as if she were preparing for a fancy party. There were fresh flowers on the table. Magnolia blossoms sweetened the air. We took our sandwiches out to the patio on China plates and used good silverware and linen napkins.
I didn’t think twice about all of this. I lived in Richmond for thirteen years. This kind of arrangement wasn’t unusual. Finally, though, Mike stepped back and said he needed a moment to take it all in. Here we were, he said, three modest marketing people having a meal as if we were royalty. He marveled at the ease with which Dottie’s threw it all together.
“My daughters know nothing of this,” he proclaimed with a hint of regret in his voice.
Dottie tried to explain that the way she did things was the continuation of habits and customs that had been passed down through the ages in her family. Just as furniture and family portraits were passed along from one generation to another, so were recipes and stories and even the way certain vases were to be used for certain kinds of flowers. The bowl in which camellia blooms floated the day Mike and I visited was the same bowl Dottie’s mother and grandmother had used to float camellia blooms. In the South some things never change.