Busted furnace yields sweet reminders

This summer marks the close of my second decade in the Piedmont. I've lived here longer than anywhere else in my life.

I call this place home.

I've seen a great growth of diversity in the region, and I appreciate the variety we now enjoy, from food to entertainment. I've had all sorts of fun conversations with folks from Asia to Africa to Latin America and many other places.

This world, in this part of North Carolina, is made up of a great number of peoples and languages and ways of thinking. And yet I hope my home doesn't lose all its old ways. Many have grown dear to me.

One of the nicest facts of Southern life is the way folks know how to make it possible to smile even when Most Unpleasant Things happen.

Last week, my husband, Ralf, and I had to face an unpleasant reality: The furnace needed replacing.

That was tough news for a household of teachers. We didn't exactly choose lucrative careers.

We called a company we've been working with for an estimate.

Bernard Smith showed up on our doorstop to perform the task. It turned out he lives in Midland, and as far as I could tell, he's Southern, born and bred.

He spent a good while under our house in the cramped crawlspace. He emerged later, and we sat down to talk.

Of course, we talked about what sort of furnace we could afford and all that, but we also spent a few friendly minutes chatting about our lives and our families. Smith has a niece who is a teacher, and we talked about why anyone goes into a profession that has no significant prestige and is underpaid.

"I tell her," Smith said, "you've got to love what you do to do that!"

"That is the truth," I nodded.

When I joked that we hope (in vain) to get through the rest of our mortgage without paying for any big-ticket items, Smith told us why he didn't expect to retire until he was in his 80s. (Things happen in our lives.)

But it was clear as day that he loves working for that company, so he didn't seem unhappy about working for many years to come.

Why did we decide soon after we arrived that we wanted to stay here?

We got spoiled by friendliness. We got charmed by the honest perseverance and easy openness of those who became neighbors and friends - from our mechanic to our son's many fine teachers.

The homegrown, native hospitality we've treasured is part of our lives. The culture of the Piedmont has a great deal to offer the diverse people who end up calling this place home.

Thanks, Mr. Smith, for coming from Midland to Concord, and reminding me of that sweet fact.