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Friday, April 23, 2010


Even though I was very carefully brought up to be the Best Little Girl In the Whole World, and it's taken years of therapy to work that stuff out of my system, if there's one thing I can thank my now sainted mother for, it's the fact that she taught me manners.

I'm talking beyond please and thank you, yes sir, no ma'am.

Being taught 'the basics' by my mother was more like an education in 'Manners 3.0' for everyone else in the world.  For my mother, it was a religion and she was on a Manners and Politeness Jihad.

If you got a gift or had dinner or were otherwise entertained, in my mother's book, you had exactly 72 hours to write a thank you note.

After my wedding, my mother was much more concerned with whether or not I had gotten the thank you notes out than the actual state of my marriage.

In my mother's world, there was a proper way to answer the phone or greet someone at the door and you had better know it. (I still sometimes answer my home phone with "Good morning/afternoon/evening. . . This is Elizabeth. May I ask who's calling?")

I still remember the "trick" she taught us so we'd never embarrass her or ourselves when out to a "fancy dinner" - which would be any place other than our home.

You make a "b" with the thumb and pointer finger on your left hand and a "d" with the thumb and pointer finger on your right hand. The "b" stands for "bread" and indicates that the bread dish to your left is yours. The "d" stands for "drink"and indicates that the glass to your right is yours.

But you never EVER did that so others could see you. You placed your hands discretely under the table cloth while you make your determination.

Discretion was Lydia's signature technique - not surprising when the operative dynamic of your life is 'shame and blame' - which is very common in First Generation American families. Add to that the disease of alcoholism and you begin to understand.

When my mother got angry, she never raised her voice.  Indeed, her voice became very low and developed a certain chilling 'tone'.  If she called to you in a low voice AND used your first AND middle name, you knew that, whatever you did, your punishment began with being grounded for at least a week and went down from there.

She didn't hesitate to call you out on your 'sass'.  "Watch your tone young lady."  "Don't use that tone with me, young lady."

"Tone" and "Young lady" were like warning flags on my mother's playing field.  You knew that, if you continued, you were going to get a major foul and a stiff penalty.

She kept detailed records of Christmas Cards sent and received. Same with birthday, anniversary and Easter cards, as well as sympathy and get well cards.

Her records went back 10 years. That's how long you had to demonstrate consistently good manners. If you didn't, she would cross you off her list.

I asked her once why the decade of records.  Why not 'three strikes and you're out'?  She said that it was the standard Ms. Manners used, and if it was good enough for Ms. Manners, it was good enough for our household.

Indeed, one of her presents to me when I got married was a blue book of etiquette. I still have it on my shelf. Oh, and a notebook so I could keep my own records.  She would occasionally send me clippings, however, from Ms. Manner's newspaper column.  You know. So I could keep up.

So, you won't be surprised to hear me say that good manners naturally spill over into in my professional life. It has come in very handy as an Episcopalian.

For example, everyone who makes a contribution to the church gets a hand written thank you from me. Pledges. Memorial gifts. Whatever. Those of you who have contributed to fundraising efforts on this blog know that I am telling the truth.

Imagine my surprise, then, at the following conversation I had the other day.

I was headed into the Chatham Middle School on Tuesday to vote for a special statewide ballot on the school budget.

As I was walking from the parking lot into the school entrance, a fragile, elderly woman - pure white hair, impeccably dressed in pink and green, freshly manicured nails, Coach purse - called out to me and asked me about which entrance we were to use.

I slowed my pace and offered to walk with her to the correct entrance. She seemed relieved not to have to walk alone.

I presented my hand and said, "My name is Elizabeth. It's nice to meet you."

She shook my hand briskly, sniffed and said, "Oh, I know who you are. I'm 'Mrs. Smith'. We've met before."

"Of course. I'm sorry I didn't recognize you. My apologies."

"Oh, that's okay," she said, softening a bit, "I guess we're out of your usual element." We shared a polite laugh.

"You did a very fine job at the funerals of two of my friends. Very fine."

"Thank you, ma'am," I said. "That was more than two years ago for one and several long months ago for the other. How kind of you to remember."

She nodded and then added, "But . . ." A cold chill went down my spine as I instantly recognized 'the tone'. "I'm quite upset with you."

"I'm sorry," I said, "whatever did I do?"

"Well," she sniffed (she seemed to do that a lot), "I got a lovely handwritten note from you after I contributed to the memorial fund for each of my friends."

"BUT. . .," she said, her voice getting unmistakably angry, "my son also contributed and he NEVER got a thank you note."

"Really?" I said, "Isn't that odd?"

"No," she said, "It's rude! Oh, my son isn't upset but I am. I'm angrier than a wet hen. How dare you send a note to one and not to the other! That's just rude."

"Excuse me, ma'am," I said softly, "but you did say that two years ago, you got a handwritten note of thanks from me, is that right?"

"Yes, I said that. Of course I said that."

"And, after your other friend died this past fall, you did get another handwritten note of thanks from me as well, is that correct?"

"Yes," she said, deeply annoyed, "but I'm telling you that my son didn't get a thank you note from you and that makes me very angry."

"Yes, I understand and I'm sorry for that, Mrs. Smith," I said, "but might you not at least entertain the possibility that something might have happened to his note? That it might have somehow gotten lost in the mail?"

She actually stopped in her tracks, thought about this for a minute, then shook her head and said, "No. . . no. . . no. I trust the post office more than I trust clergy."

"Well, there it is, then," I said, trying not to laugh as I thought about what I knew about her local church and her denomination. I mean, I suppose there was some form of logic to her reasoning but twisting myself 'round to try and find it just hit my funny bone,

Besides, there was no sense getting upset with the old girl whose temperament was probably not the sweetest in her youth and had soured considerably with her advancing age. I could only imagine her story - the stories that had given shape and form to her life.

"Oh," she said, "don't get me wrong: I have great admiration for you and all that you've accomplished, but this sort of thing just should not be tolerated. Bad manners are inexcusable."

"Indeed they are," I agreed. "Unacceptable, in fact."

"Right you are," she said. "I'm glad we agree on this."

"Oh, I couldn't agree more," I said.

"I knew you would," said she as we arrived at the entrance to the polling place.

"Here you go, ma'am," I said, "delivered right to the door."

"Well, this has been most pleasant. Thank you, Reverend." (I confess that I giggled inwardly at this public fracture of the Rules of Grammar.)

"The pleasure has been all mine," I said as she smiled then called out to a friend of hers who was standing about half way in a very long line. She moved past everyone else, and I shook my head as I watched her rudely elbow her way to her friend. It soon became very clear that she had absolutely no intention of moving to the back of the line.

I overheard her say to her friend, "Oh that nice Reverend from St. Paul's walked me over here. What a lovely young woman, don't you think? Just lovely."

She said this, I should like to point out, after she rudely cut in line.

You know, insanity is not a qualification for this work, but it does help.

Good manners, however, are not optional.

Thanks, Mom.


it's margaret said...

ehhhem..... I hope it occurred to you that maybe he never gave, but told his mother he had....

Ha! --my wv: sabidth.

I hereby declare today to be a sabidth to overbearing good manners taught us by our mothers. and grandmothers.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

As an alumna of BLGiW training, I really enjoyed this essay. I think perhaps the motives for our receiving this training were similar: as children or grandchildren of immigrants, we were being prepared to beat Them at Their own game. (I noticed this dynamic with my two best pals from high school, who grew up in Italian-American families.)

These days I've devolved into being kind of a grouchy, scruffy middle-aged chick. But if needed, I could parachute behind enemy lines and set a luncheon table with the best of them.

The encounter with the grande dame sounded more like a clash between actual good manners and the perceived authority of the caste system. One handy thing I learned in college was that Nice is a code word for wealthy, and in a few up-close exchanges I have surmised that Nice people are in fact not generally Nice. If one's family has been Nice for generations, one's position allows one to eschew actual manners.

My other, tangential, question is why Reverend is such a problematic form of address. I've been using it for the last few years, having seen it work well in Brazil. Using Reverendo or Reverenda and the first name does (for me) the right job of balancing respect for the position with first-name parity. As nobody in the U.S. feels obligated to call anyone Ms. or Mr., I sometimes feel infantilzed when I have to use an honorific with someone who calls me by my first name. Revda Cindy or Revdo Ralph fills the bill for me quite well. I understand that "the Reverend" is intended to be third person, but all of us commit more brutal assaults on historical grammar every day. Even the Nicest people.

Love the photo, by the way.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, Margaret. That's precisely what I think happened. I think her anger is really with her son, but . . . well . . . you know only too well how clergy are the receptacles of other people's garbage.

Today is a sabidth. Tuesday wasn't. I'm enjoying today.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MC - Your insights about Recovery from BLGiW Syndrome are right on target. I, too, can mix and mingle with the best of them, but "they" often hate it that an "outsider" knows them so well.

Your insights about the Nice Grande Dame Syndrome were also spot on. She could be verbally abusive - albeit mildly so - because I am, after all, only the 'hired help'.

The thing about "Reverend" is that it is an honorific title - at least, in English. A Mayor is called "The Honorable Ms. Smith" but she's called "Mayor Smith" not "Honorable Smith".

The title of the Dean of a Cathedral is "the Very Rev'd Jones." But he is called "Dean Jones" not "Very Reverend."

A bishop is "The Rt. Rev'd" but is called "bishop" not "Rt. Rev'd".

See? It's tricky for priests.

Muthah+ said...

Loved this one! There are so many such Grand Dames in the Church. I am finally of an age that I could become one but for some reason I just can't pull it off. Grand Dame Dyke just doesn't do it some how. Maybe I am just not rude enough.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...