"Good morning, Miss Carol." "Hey, Miss Charlene." And so the day begins at the little public library where I work in central Florida.
This band of women co-workers welcome me into their midst with a joyous "Hey, Miss Dawn."
Southern hospitality has surprised this stoic (by Southern standards) Midwestern girl.
When my husband and I first moved to Florida, we constantly reminded ourselves that we were on "Florida time." Nothing, except perhaps the anoles, rush in this tropical realm. There is a rhythm to the land that seems in tune with the ocean waves. Palm leaves sway lazily in the sea breeze, and sunshine soaks into our shoulders. Birds don't twitter; they drawl, in honks and barks.
The manatees in the nearby St. Johns River epitomize the Florida lifestyle. Just watching them makes my heart rate slow and my breathing deepen. They linger and interact in their watery community, as if they have all the time in the world. They live peacefully with alligators.
Native Floridians seem to have adopted that same rhythm and adaptability. Hammers driving nails into new houses maintain a steady but fuguelike beat. Traffic, except for the newcomers, moves leisurely. Food service, postal service, customer service, grocery lines all move at a pace conducive to smiles and conversation, which inevitably begins with "Where are you-all from?"
It startled me the first time someone added Miss to my first name. I regarded it simply as an affectation, as when my aunt called me Dawn-y, or when my crotchety high school math teacher would rasp out, "Miss Eversole, would you please tell the class the right answer?"
But my library colleagues regard this greeting as a true courtesy. And much to my surprise, I like it. It is a pleasant alternative to being dry old Mrs. Goldsmith or the dreaded, age-defining "ma'am."
After all these years, my name had become a comfortable, known quantity that would always be there and never surprise me.
Being addressed as Miss Dawn turns my name into something different. It makes me feel new and young – like a princess. It borders on being an endearment. Miss Dawn can dare to do things that plain-old Dawn wouldn't consider.
Sadly, though, I can't bring myself to call others Miss. My Midwest reticence to change a lifetime of respectfully addressing people with a title and surname – such as Mrs. Perez – makes me stumble over Miss Karen. It sounds intimate to my cold Northern ears.
Yet I hear this form of greeting everywhere I go.
In stores, restaurants, on the street, old friends greet one another and young people address teachers or elders this way. It is like a background hum that reminds me where I am. It sounds particularly sweet on the lips of children.
Still, I hesitate to follow their example.
I wonder if "Miss Dawn" is more than Southern influence. Perhaps it is about people who have joined together in a sanctuary where the common denominator of books leads to a more courteous or cordial atmosphere. This building filled with books welcomes everyone – regardless of age, race, gender, religion, economic situation, or culture.
Voices are hushed and reverent within its walls, yet they mingle with the laughter of children. Everyone delights over discovering a new book.
Listening to the murmured conversations in the library, I hear a swirl of international voices: the enticing rhythm of Jamaican language mixed with lilting Irish brogues, and Scottish burrs mingled with romantic French lisps.
Earthy German consonant-rich words blur together with Russian phrases that remind me of fur coats, Fabergé eggs, cabbage soup, and Dr. Zhivago.
I could listen forever to these seductive accents. Each language distinct, yet they blend into a welcome cacophony of what I term the "cultural side," the positive side, of global warming. Cultures meld, yet retain their individual charm.
Lurking beneath the influx of snowbirds and new residents, new developments, and new infrastructure is the Florida of orange groves, swamps, old-time religion, and biscuits and gravy.
We all cling to familiar traditions. A fall cool spell – nights in the 40s, days in the 80s – made me nostalgic for a Midwest autumn, apple dumplings, falling leaves, crisp nights under wool blankets, and cool days made for harvest.
Longtime Floridians wore layers of jackets and sweaters to ward off the "cold." Northerners stopped perspiring, as though they were in a sauna and enjoyed the cool breeze on their fevered skins.
A note from friends in the Midwest reminded me of ice-encrusted windshields, windchill factors, snowdrifts, and dark winter days.
I embraced the moment and adapted to my new, location:
By combining sunshine and cool breezes wafting through open windows and doors with a batch of freshly baked apple dumplings and a pot of steaming chili, I found a way to hold onto my past and embrace my future.
Each year I slip a bit more under the influence of this land and its smiling, genteel courtesies. I feel the lines blur between my life before Florida and my life in this land of contrasts, where Old World and New create an inviting harmony that makes me hum with anticipation.
Not long ago, on the anniversary of my working one full year at the library, I entered the workplace and pinned on my employee badge.
With only a slight hesitation, I took a deep breath, looked my co-workers in the eyes, smiled, and said, "Hey, Miss Charlene. Hey, Miss Carol."