Growing up in small towns, I yearned for a way out. Cities like Chicago and New York seemed exotic, far away destinations where the streets were lined with tall buildings and people rushed constantly about. If you had asked me then what my life song might be, I probably would have answered you with titles such as Peter Gabriel’s Big Time or Glenn Frey’s You Belong to the City. I dreamed of anywhere but our little hometown.
As I look back, though, I realize just what we had in those rural towns and how much I miss certain aspects of that life. One of those aspects is politeness. I suppose I didn’t really notice it back then because it just “was.” I really didn’t know anything else and so had no comparison.
Some of the behaviors common to us back then are apparently almost extinct nowadays. For example, when I was growing up, men took off their hats before they entered a building, and everyone–men or women–took off their hats during the singing of The Star Spangled Banner or the recitation of “The Pledge of Allegiance.” In an area where wearing cowboy hats or ball caps was fairly common, I would see men politely remove their hats almost daily.
On a similar note, I remember riding in the back of a hearse after a family member’s death. As we traveled along the small, rural road, I looked out the window in an attempt to control my emotions. That was when I saw him. He was an elderly man who had stopped his car by the side of the road out of respect for the funeral procession. He stood by his car with his hat held over his heart. That one man’s small act meant more to me than anything else because it was true and heartfelt.
I must admit that it was a shock to move to my current city. Those niceties that I had taken for granted were gone, and I wonder if the loss of it has affected me as well. I have sometimes found myself forgetting my manners, something that would make my mother and grandmother shudder if they were still around.
I know we probably can’t go back to the politeness that I remember. I think that perhaps we’ve lost more than we can imagine, however.