I have just returned from a trip to the gulf coast of Florida, and while the weather did not cooperate I really experienced the much vaunted graciousness of southern hospitality. From storekeepers and newspaper venders to well dressed members of the Episcopal church where we went as pure strangers on Sunday, I felt most welcome.

After a "bon voyage" send off dinner with my children and granddaughter, the hospitality began when I boarded my flight. I was a bit nervous because I was totally on my own and had to change planes in Atlanta for my flight to Panama City Beach in the panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico. I discovered, however, that being "somewhat" elderly has its advantages. The young gal next to me on the plane also had a connecting flight to Costa Rica and she offered to help me find my way in the airport maze. Apparently I had to take an underground train from section E where my plane from White Plains landed, to section A where my connecting flight would take off. Not only was she helpful but the airlines people were right on my case to make sure I found my way.

No one seemed to be in a hurry in Panama City Beach. The gal at the general store where one saw older gentlemen sitting at round tables reading the newspaper and sipping coffee, smiled as I entered to buy the New York Times. I had to get there early or they would all be gone. Southerners don't generally "cotton to" the liberal papers from up north so the news stores don't order many. The gal got to know me during my five day stay, and we chatted about the weather. I didn't dare bring up politics.

While it wasn't warm enough to sit on the beach we did have lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Gulf -- ushered by a smiling hostess to a table right by the window with a view of the beach. The hostess hovered around to make sure our service was in the best Southern style. Afterwards I went down to the water and felt it just to see how cold it was -- it was actually quite warm. The sand was very white and fine -- comfortable on ones feet.

One day we drove down to Pensacola. As we made our way casually down the Gulf shore, the distant sand dunes looked like snow-capped hillocks with their while sand topping, In the town of Pensacola the Southern charm was evident in the eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings that reminded me of colonial villages. We stopped at a picturesque restaurant in the middle of the old Spanish quarter with delightful southern style furnishings, tempting southern style menu and relaxed people enjoying a leisurely lunch.

The Episcopal Church was in a charming wooded glade and filled up rapidly with what I sensed were not casual visitors, but long time members of the congregation. Many of them seemed to be retired grandparents of around my age. I sat next to a lady who was most welcoming in her manner. She invited me to come to the after-service coffee hour. Southern hospitality at its best! My sister and brother-in-law were not inclined (being an Episcopal minister himself, they had been too many coffee hours), but it might have been a very pleasant experience even though we were strangers to the congregation

The sun finally got the point of southern hospitality the morning I was to go home, and I indulged in its warmth beside the pool for an hour before leaving at noon for the airport. I really felt more relaxed as I embarked on the flight north because of the hospitality to which I had become accustomed and the friendliness of my fellow travelers. I also realized that age actually does sometimes have advantages. People really do watch out for us traveling grandmas.

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