My husband was a little miffed the other day when he and I had to stand up at the doctor’s office. Well, we chose to be nice and stand up.

Many of the other patients were alone, perhaps for routine visits, but several brought whole families and neighborhoods with them. I go in with my husband because sometimes it takes two people to slow the doctor down and ask him to explain again the numbers or charts or possibilities.

But, on this one day, we stood because we were able to do so — and to free up chairs for the elderly and those sicker than were we.

One very ill man came in supported by what was probably a son, a middle-aged daughter and the daughter’s husband. Others came with wives and grandchildren complete with tablets and phones. One very lucky woman in a flashy wig came in with three laughing friends. They were none in the prime of life.

I always think it is wonderful when crowds of people line the halls and waiting rooms at hospitals. I smile when I visit nursing homes and see men and boys uncomfortably learning against the wall outside grandma’s room. Some may ask, “What good are they doing there?” “Aren’t they in the way?”

They are doing a great deal of good for the patient — letting him or her know that he or she is loved — loved enough to spend time with. And they are doing a great deal of good for each other. Telling stories that have bound them together, catching up on lost cousins, complaining proudly about having inherited grandpa’s bad back.

Over the years I have spent many hours visiting kin in nursing homes, and have learned that crowds around the door may mean a birthday or a setback. Or maybe a cousin is visiting from afar and everyone wants to be a part of the family reunion.

Standing and waiting is a family ritual.

Or is it Southern family ritual?

When I was 7 years old I took part in my first death watch. I didn’t even know the granny who was dying. I was spending the night with a friend. Her parents took us to the vigil for a fellow church member.

I remember arriving in a yard after dark. Cars were parked haphazardly all over a yard. Men were sitting on bumpers and leaning on fenders. The front porch was crowded. I remember feeling smothered in the living room. Some aunt was in charge and we understood that we would wait our turn. Granny was in her bed in her quiet bedroom.

I don’t know what happened to my friend’s parents, but I remember my friend and I sitting in two “straight chairs” by the bedside of the dying woman. We were told just to sit and “be a comfort.” It seemed as if we were there a long time, but it was probably 10 minutes and then we were taken to the kitchen to fix a plate and have a Coke.

We took our food to the back porch, which was also crowded, and again, men were standing holding their plates.

People who are afraid to show emotions, who are afraid to be in the way, who are too busy to care, may think crowds of people in hospitals and hallways and on porches are annoying. Or bourgeois. Or uncouth. Or frightening

I think it is wonderful and reassuring.

Maybe not just a Southern family ritual, but a human one.

Cheryl Hilderbrand is a Jackson writer and educator. Email her at cmhild@bellsouth.net.

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