MOM THE MANNERS MASTER
Mom was good at orchestrating things. She could pull miracles together like an artist… a wizard even. She effortlessly put together Thanksgiving/ Christmas, and corporate dinners where everything got to the table at the perfect temperature with the homemade cranberry sauce chilled, the soup, and gravy warm, the wine glasses filled and the turkey cooked to perfection mere seconds after the guests had time to unwind with a genius creative cocktail. The effortless aspect was a part of the wizzardry.
She masterminded fundraisers that left folks agog at the centerpieces, the food was spectacular, and because of a seemingly spontaneous comment or question, conversations flowed organically. She had a way of negotiating her way around a room, being a smart, funny, six foot, classy light of a woman. She could make everyone she encountered feel special and heard, and her laugh put even the shyest of people at a happy ease. She was a manners master. As a debutant and daughter of a Navy Captain, she had to perfect her societal protocol at a young age, and it served her well. In her life and later career, she met presidents, (JFK apparently had FBI proposition her at one point… she politely refused…) interviewed their wives, (she and Nancy Reagan really hit it off…) and her protocol was spot on. She was known in international circles as a smart savvy powerful woman. I knew her as Mom, the inventor of “Manners Day.”
I so clearly remember wrestling in doorways with my little brother Bill, as he would muscle past me, all buck teeth and crew-cut- cute, hollering “BOYS FIRST!” This did not somehow work for Mom, or me for that matter. Cute..for now….even kind of funny with all the elbows all over the place, and the gruntings, and yeah… we were totally giggling. Cute now… but when that pup grows up… not so much. So in suburban VA, Mom invented “Manners Day”.
Manners Day actual started off as “Manners Mondays”. We said “Yes Sir”, “No Ma’am” “Please” and “Thank you”. Of course there was no swearing. After I went to college my language loosened a bit and when I accidentally let an obscenity slip, Dad always shook his head and said, “There’s nuthin’ worse than a pretty girl cussin’.” Mom would occasionally drop the f-bomb, but it was always followed by the phrase “a duck” so it softened the impact a bit. And the slip happened so rarely that if she did use that rhyme, you knew she was reeeeaaaaally pissed. In my thirties I became a Sunday School teacher for two to five year olds, and nothing will clean up your language faster than stubbing your toe in front of a room full of wide eyed children. I found that Mom and Dad were, yet afriggin’casafrassin’, right again.
For our table manners tutorials, Mom would deck out the table like something out of Downton Alley. Besides wearing something civilized… (ie: no black t-shirts with decomposing corpses or band logos on them…) Bill pulled out my chair. I crossed my legs at the ankles, kept my knees together, and we put our napkins in our laps. We passed dishes around the table clockwise so that nobody had to do that awkward eight handed thingy that happens so often at holidays with one relative precariously balancing Grandma’s china gravy boat on it’s dish in attempt to get it to Grandma, the but the turkey dish is passing in front of their face like the Millennium Falcon as Aunt Pooky asks for the butter.
And we never, ever, ever put our elbows on the table. It didn’t take long for us to discover that Dad’s fingers were powerfully strong and lightning quick. After years of bow hunting as a teenager he could be very sneaky with them. He’d see an elbow on the table, pause to see if we would remember our manners on our own, and if that realization was late in coming, his fingers would strike out like a snake, his middle finger aimed in the crosshairs of his mind directly at our funny bones. BAP our elbows would be knocked back two feet. We’d cuss, (inwardly and silently of course) rub our elbows, sit up straighter and continue our “Square Meal”.
The term “Square Meal” comes from Grandaddy, the Captain. A distinguished Navy career, his commanding attitude, and choice of a blue blooded wife, left no doubt as to where Mom learned her skills. Grandaddy’s men, children, and grandchildren were expected to be able to sit at tables with those negotiating the nuances of the Panama Canal, Gitmo, and Kennedy’s inaugural ball. The bar was set high. This meant that you didn’t bring your head down to your food, slouching like a starved animal shoveling in the kill, half masticated meat dangling from the mouth, and snarling, “Don’t steal my fries!” Instead they, and we, were trained to use our silverware from the outside in, cut our meat without sawing the table in two or sloshing the water glasses, calmly get a small portion onto the proper utensil, and bring it, fork handle horizontal, tongs up, vertically in front of us until it was head level. Then the fork was brought into the mouth, thus creating a ninety degree angle. We then put our utensil out, down, and chewed, mouths closed, while listening attentively to whoever was talking, completing the second ninety degree angle. Square Meals.
Against every instinct in our bodies, we learned not to hoard the coveted things like Mom’s homemade biscuits, dwindling butter, the dark meat of the turkey, or chocolate ice cream for ourselves. Whenever we got into coveting food like a diminishing water supply on a lifeboat, Mom would remind us of a roommate of hers. This familialy infamous oaf had once served herself at a function by receiving the dish of asparagus that was being passed, and proceeded to chop the tender heads off of all of them, and passed along the tougher stalks for everyone else at the table to share while she enjoyed the buttery tender good stuff. It made enough of an impression on Mom that she was telling us the story, her face reddening, temples pulsing, her more deadly wizarding powers bubbling just beneath the surface, decades later.
I was reminded of this story when I was hosting a party in graduate school and had purchased a couple of ounces of paté. Not everyone is a fan of goose liver, but a schmear on a cracker is divine for some, and I’d invested more than my budget could allow to provide a little something decadent to my guests. An engaging group was sitting around enjoying the nuances of it, and….I don’t know who the guy was, a friend of a guest, God bless his heart, but a blundering guy… heard them talking about the paté’s awesomeness. He picked up the remaining ounce (ie: ten servings) and ingested it in one bite, grimacing as he swallowed. “Ew…that’s disgusting…” My guests were slack-jawed. I exercised some aching muscles on keeping my mouth shut, my own wizarding death powers percolating. I found it as difficult to be gracious as he found to swallow. Battles and the times for them must be chosen carefully. I was probably the only one thinking of asparagus at the time, but I have attempted since then to be particularly conscientious of peoples potentially limited resources. That includes limited education on manners. Mom and Dad made sure that Bill and I would not bungle ourselves into any such breach. Not on their watch.
As with anything between siblings, Manners Day became a weapon. We’d flap cloth napkins annoyingly in each others faces and hiss “Pfffsssssssssssssst” at each other as if aghast at the other being so rude as to leave their napkin on the table instead of placing it in their lap! It became a running bit among the family for years after our training had stopped and there were times when he entire kitchen table looked like a jewish wedding with all of the flapping hankies.
And on Manners Day I loooooooooved that when no matter what argument we may be having, I won a little bit every time Bill the Brat had to open the door for me. I would sweep past him like the bloody queen, shoulders down, neck long, chin high, beaming while he glowered. He’d occasionally throw in an exaggerated Shakespearian bow and “Milady…”. I loved that. However, on days that weren’t Manners Day my brother began to needle me with rudeness when Mom wasn’t around. I’d roll my eyes as he’d stampede ahead, slamming the door in my face and I wrestled to open my own doors to find him gloating on the other side.
He’d launch into “It’s not Manners Day!” before I could finish my whine.
Bill was about eleven years old when Mom rounded the corner and overheard this mantra, and quickly deduced what had been happening.
“Bill. Door. Manners Day.”
“Mom EVERYDAY is Manners Day….” he groaned as he held open the door for her.
“Exactly.” She breezed past him. Grinning to herself, He finally gets it.
I thought That’s how it’s done.
My brother and I actually had a really cool moment years later. He was beginning to date, and had been seeing a long haired pretty girl in the cast of one of my shows. He was helping me into a coat one Christmas, and as I shrugged into it he patted my back affectionately. Aww. I turned to him, “Hey Brat…” I leaned in like I was gonna sell him a watch…this was good stuff… “Next time you help Jessica with her coat, pull her hair out of the back of it… she’ll love it.” I had dated someone recently that had surprised me with this additional thoughtful gesture, and it had earned that young man a kiss. It apparently worked for my brother too… he thanked me… a couple of times over the years.
It has been frustrating to some degree to have such high standards in my own dating life. Many a gorgeous, brilliant man has dropped a ball that they never knew was in play. They never knew that the charm of their six pack abs, smile or conversation was marred by witnessing their mouth full of food. They didn’t hear me telepathically telling them to open the door. It didn’t occur to them to keep me safe and treat me like the lady I was trained to be.
I’m currently dating someone… not a CEO or a country clubber, but a blue collar guy, tattooed and straight talking. He has such commendable manners that it has drawn comments from friends, family and even from random mothers of young children in parking lots. He opens the car door for me, and once when he took my hand as I stepped in, I overheard a woman addressing her two boys, “See how he opened the door for her? That’s how you treat a lady.” It was like witnessing a mini- manners day, and I found myself smiling and tearing up a bit as she approached him and thanked him for his example. On our first date, my eyebrow had raised a bit when he do-si-do’ed me to the inside of the sidewalk, and I flashed back to nine years old. Dad scootched me to his other side when a car was approaching in a deliberate, but seemingly completely random move. Confused, I asked why he always did that with Mom and I, and he explained, “I’m protecting you from traffic, or anyone that might be coming towards us. It’s what a gentleman does.”
It’s self sacrifice. It’s a conscious “I’ll take the hit for you.” I think I realized at that moment that Dad would die to protect me. I was humbled. It is the ultimate gift of service. And I took it for granted.
And when I think of self sacrifice… one name pops into my head more than any other.
Ultimately good manners is trying to be as classy as Christ. His top charges to us are at the core of good manners. He told us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Be a servant to them. So when someone is needing an ear, listen to them. Hear them, when they need to be heard. Instead of contriving ways to avoid the pain in the butt job that no-one else wants, ask how you can help. When you are working with a team, volunteer to do the job no-one else wants. Organize the paperwork. Do the filing. Change the diaper. Take out the trash. If you didn’t cook, then do the dishes. When resources are limited, give anyway. Protect each other. Be graceful in how you deal with things that bug you… things like slammed doors, sore elbows, and flapping napkins. Forgive the indiscretions of those taking the best of the asparagus, the last of the paté, and of those driving nails into your hands and feet.
That’s how it’s done.
That’s how you have good manners.
Love each other like He did.
And I thought Mom was a tough act to follow…