Everything I Ever Learned About Civility I Learned in a Small Town

By Katherine Dalton for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Henry County, KY. Lesson One:  Don’t honk unless it’s friendly.  And for goodness’ sake don’t honk at the Ford stopped interminably at the town’s lone traffic light.  It’s bound to be Miss Carrie, age 82, deciding whether or not she needs to go the bank (right), or straight on home to start dinner (left).  What’s your hurry anyway?  Honk and make her jump and you’ll feel guilty for a month.  Also the older men seated on the courthouse bench will catch you at it.

Watch the witticisms, because everybody’s related.  Chances are the ex-magistrate so deserving of a good lambaste is your eager listener’s third cousin.  If you’re talking to one of your favorite ladies from church, you can be sure there’s a relation.

Speaking of tactlessness, if you put your foot in it at the deacons’ meeting (where all deliberations are confidential), be ready to spend the next two years living it down, because love and a cold and a big mouth cannot be hid.

If there are cars at the funeral home, and there’s no message on your answering machine, call and find out who it is.  Odds are three to two it’s somebody you know, or his uncle.  And keep your suit pressed, because you will be at the funeral home a lot—so much so that your city friends won’t begin to understand it.  But no man is an island in a little place.

Nor is there, in a little place, any real stratification by zip code or any way to ignore the poor.  No matter what your income, it’s likely you will live right around the corner from a trailer.  Even if you don’t, you will see all degrees and all sorts at the post office.  The half-crazy lady with no legs who motors her wheelchair around town with a pug on her lap.   The sweet kids from the Section 8 housing around the block.  The poor and old and thrifty beyond imagining.  The poor and young and thriftless beyond imagining.  And the middle class, who have troubles of their own:  the cancer-ridden, the cancer survivors, the postal clerk who found her brother shot dead.  As you go to get your mail you will find there is no shelter to be had from the full range of your neighbors, including their grief and trouble.  It is not always comfortable, to tell the truth.  But it does keep your head out of the sand.

You will find gossip is for some a source of entertainment, for others a weakness, and for a few a bludgeon.  But gossip can also be the way a community sorts through individual disasters and moral dilemmas so it can take a stand.  You will see there are good things to say about gossip.  It is sometimes medicinal–and often mostly informational, since much of the real news never makes the weekly paper.

Though one day a few of your neighbors may show you just how cold people can be to a man who has been good to them for years, you may be equally astonished to discover how much a friend (and not even a close friend) is willing to bear from others in order to spare you some of the consequences of your own folly.

You will certainly discover, now and again, by chance and mistake, how much charity there is—only often nobody sees it, because it’s not meant to be seen.

Still, keep your nose clean, because your life is not really your own, and not only is the good Lord watching—so are about forty other people.

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