We were dining at the most exclusive restaurant in the city, the sort of place you have to call the minute it opens on the first of the month to get a reservation for next month. The chef’s reputation was world-class, the atmosphere was as quiet as a bank vault (which, considering the tab for the prix fixe dinner, seemed appropriate), and there was one waiter whose only task was to make sure each diner had a fresh, hot dinner roll at all times.
I was a hippie-turned-entrepreneur with two successful businesses; I was not yet forty, had a six-figure income, owned a large home in a chic part of town, and was about to have an extraordinary dinner with the most beautiful, powerful, and intelligent woman I had ever known — my wife. I was a happy man. A few sips of wine and my eyes brimmed with joy; I looked at my wife lovingly, ecstatic to be sharing this incredible night with the woman of my dreams.
“Take your elbows off the table,” she said.
Aunt Nora, who always surrounded herself with family, sits alone in a recliner in her bedroom, where she loses track of time. After Nora fell and bruised a knee, Mother decided she was too wobbly to make the journey to the dining-room table. Someone suggested a wheelchair, but Mother said no, Nora was better off in her room, and mealtimes were more peaceful for the rest of us now that we didn’t have to listen to her blow her nose and belch.
When I pass Aunt Nora’s open door, I see her vacant face and remember how she used to involve herself in the lives of her nieces and nephews: lecturing us, lending us books, sometimes paying for schooling or hospital stays. She married too late to have children of her own, so she always participated in raising us as much as we would allow. “Come back soon,” she would say. “Don’t stay away so long next time. I love to have company.”
Sometimes Aunt Nora tries to leave her room, but one of us always guides her back to her recliner, saying, “No, Aunt Nora, you need to stay in your room. There’s nothing for you to do out here.”
“I thought maybe I could sit and watch —”
“No, you can’t get yourself up out of these chairs, remember? You need to sit and rest in your own room.”
When Mother brings her lunch, Aunt Nora looks in confusion at the tray and says, “Lunch time already? Thank you, honey.”
Back in the kitchen, Mother pulls a plate from the cupboard for herself and complains, “I give her lunch and she belches right in my face; no ‘excuse me,’ no nothing. She’s like a little kid — no manners at all.”
At the table, we listen and shake our heads and continue to eat, but my food seems hard to swallow.
Each Sabbath, after church, my Danish immigrant mother served us a formal meal, with china, silver, flowers, tablecloth, and matching napkins. We always dressed in our finest and knew that, in exchange for this wonderful food, we had to behave impeccably. “My three children have always been so well-mannered I could take them anywhere,” my mother was fond of saying. Her hospitality and talent in the kitchen were well known in our quiet college town.
One Sabbath, we were told to be on our best behavior; visiting dignitaries from another college were to be our dinner guests. I don’t remember exactly what she served, but I do remember the sauce, which was so delicious that, after emptying my plate, I tried — without much success — to scoop up the residue with my spoon. Then, glancing around to be sure the guests were looking the other way, I quickly picked up my plate and licked it. The conversation stopped, and I heard my mother say: “If you are going to lick your plate like a dog, then go under the table.” In a flash, my brother, my sister, and I grabbed our plates, jumped down from our chairs, and crawled under the table, where we licked to our hearts’ content.
There was silence at the table above us. Then my mother said, “Don’t mind them; it’s an old Danish custom.” And, before I knew it, there she was, the model of deportment and grace, under the table licking her plate with us, winking.
Carthage, North Carolina
Growing up in my family, we girls had to greet Daddy by the back door each evening as he trudged into the house. No matter what we were doing, we were to drop it and come running to place a small, dry kiss on his stubbly cheek as Mom reached over our heads and handed him his drink.
At that time of day I was usually spread out on my bed, drifting dreamily through a novel, far removed from reality. So I seldom heard my dad’s footsteps, and had to be summoned by my mom: “Amy, your father is home!”
Very slowly, I would put my book down on the flowered bedspread that matched the flowered wallpaper and curtains, and even the flowered window shade, all of which had been selected for me while I was away at summer camp, no one having thought to ask whether I wanted small pink flowers plastered over every surface in my room. I would march sullenly downstairs, give Dad a cold kiss, and try to sneak back up to my room (and my book) before Mom could make me set the table.
Just last year, Dad scolded me for not rising to greet my stepmother when she came into the room; I had chosen instead to finish my game of Go Fish with the kids. “Haven’t you learned proper respect for your elders yet?” Dad asked angrily. “Don’t you know how much this hurts your stepmother?”
Is my problem a lack of manners or a dedication to truth? All I know is I despise the singsong greeting that rolls out of my mouth like an overly sweet, garishly pink gum ball from a candy machine. I’ll take rough, rude — even painful — truth over that, any day.
My extended family had gathered from near and far to see my mother through brain surgery. We claimed most of the vinyl chairs in the hospital waiting room. While we were there, some visitors arrived who knew Mom and Dad from church. They were well-meaning, caring people, but we saw them as strangers, worming their way into our private business with saccharine words of support. They took over and began spewing pious platitudes, then insisted on forming a prayer circle.
As I held the hand of the person next to me, my head bowed in embarrassment, I was seething inside, thinking of my mom all alone just down the hall as this ridiculous group prayed for her. Which of them had the courage to walk down that hall and visit with her? Which of them could get past the awkwardness of her shaved head, or the silence, or the ventilator protruding from her mouth? I gritted my teeth and rolled my eyes at my sister, who squeezed my hand and made a face. When I started to giggle, I felt no guilt.
Fort Thomas, Kentucky
My ex-husband’s family followed an unspoken code of behavior that everyone knew but me. Apparently, the first rule was: you should know the rules without being told.
When we ate at my in-laws’ house, I was careful to follow proper etiquette — elbows off the table, napkin on my lap, always say “please” and “thank you.” When, at the end of the meal, my father-in-law announced, “There are green beans left. Anyone want them? Heather?” I always took them, thinking it would be rude not to accept. When my mother-in-law said, “Who’ll eat this last muffin?” I never declined, for fear of hurting her feelings.
After a few years, I relaxed enough to say, “No, thank you,” to offers of the last piece of this or the last spoonful of that. Only then did I notice that I had been the only one who ever accepted such offers. I also noticed that the person offering usually dished the food onto his or her own plate after everyone else had declined. With chagrin, I realized that “Who’d like the last slice of bread?” meant “I’d like to eat this, if nobody minds.”
My mother, who traced her ancestry to the Polish aristocracy, believed adamantly that good manners were the key to success. She worked hard to train me and my eight siblings in the niceties of proper behavior. We learned to stand up when an older person entered the room, to politely decline a second piece of pie, and to accept the first request for a date — even if it came from the most undesirable boy in school. One year, my mother gave us each an 841-page book on etiquette for Christmas. Her emphasis on good behavior seemed ironic in light of my father’s abusiveness.
We were required to be present every night for dinner. Our job was to sit at the table, chewing and swallowing, while Dad drank Scotch or can after can of Budweiser, watching us like a hawk, waiting to pounce on us for any infraction. We tried to follow all the rules: Come immediately to the table when called. Be sincere when you say grace. Don’t speak unless you are spoken to. Sit up straight. No elbows or arms on the table. Use your fork, not your spoon. Don’t complain about anything. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Eat everything on your plate. Put your knife and fork on the plate and neatly fold your napkin when you are done. Thank Mom for the food. Ask politely to be excused.
Invariably, someone would make a mistake, and my father would order the culprit down to the basement. No amount of tears or pleading ever made any difference. Dad would get his thickest belt, then stomp downstairs, while the rest of us remained at the table, listening to the horrible screams echoing up the stairwell.
My siblings and I have all grown up now and moved away. We still have our books of etiquette, and we dutifully call each other, and write thank-you notes for the gifts we receive each Christmas. Only two of us have married; the other seven live alone. None of us has children. But we all have good manners.
When I walk down the tier I never look into another man’s cell unless he speaks to me or I have business with him. If I brush up against another convict, I make sure to say, “Excuse me,” whether I bumped into him or he bumped into me. When I light a cigarette in my cell, I sit at the foot of my bunk so the smoke won’t drift up into my cellmate’s face. I carefully wipe the rim of the toilet every time I pee, whether a drop hit it or not. I comb my hair neatly before going to chow, I don’t make smacking noises while I eat, and I never cut in line.
Here in maximum security, good manners are more than just etiquette.
Pelican Bay State Prison
Crescent City, California
When I was six, my father set out to eradicate my habit of interrupting grown-ups. I was told to stand quietly until an adult had finished speaking and only then to open my mouth. I had always been a good child, and pleasing my father was important to me, so I practiced doing as he said.
The ultimate test came one evening when my parents were having a dinner party. Mother had prepared a beautiful meal centered around a baked ham. We children were fed in the kitchen that night, where the food was laid out waiting to be served. Soon after the party started, I burst into the dining room with an important message to convey. My father was speaking, and he gave me his “remember what I taught you” look. So I stood beside him, waiting patiently.
When he had finally finished, he turned to me and said, “Thank you for being so polite, Sarah. Now, what would you like to say?”
“The dog is eating the ham.”
Sarah Keith Chalmers
I used to love to watch my husband eat a lamb chop. He’d cut delicate bites, dip them in mint jelly, and gracefully place them in his mouth. When the chop was almost bare, he would lay the bone on its side and carefully slice away the remaining meat. I’d watch in amazement, marveling at the social training on display.
He’s married to someone else now. I often think of him as I settle down to a rushed dinner in front of the evening news. I eat as if the adjoining room were on fire, as if I were ten years old and my friends were outside waiting for me. When I’m finished I often feel unfed.
My mother-in-law always had perfect manners. When my daughters were little girls, I told them, “Anything you see your grandmother do, you may do.” Her courtesy extended to refraining from correcting her husband — although he did not hesitate to correct her. She was also, of course, too polite to correct me.
When her husband was made president of his company’s international division, they went off to Europe. In Germany, where she could speak the language, she had an experience she was still trying to understand in her old age.
“A group of German ladies invited me to lunch,” she told me. “They seemed gracious and friendly. When one of them asked me what I did all day while my husband was conducting business, I replied, ‘I entertain myself.’ They burst out laughing, and told me, ‘No lady would ever say that!’ They were very rude.”
I suggested that perhaps she had inadvertently used an embarrassing expression, but she would not accept the blame. I was too polite to tell her that they thought she was referring to masturbation.
She died at 102, still unaware of why they had laughed.
South Bend, Indiana
My friend Mike’s family was much wealthier than mine. I often slept over at their fancy apartment, which was like another world to me. At meals, their maid, Emily, served each course when Mike’s mother pressed a button under the table. I was always afraid I would use the wrong fork or otherwise reveal my shallow grasp of etiquette.
One evening, Emily brought finger bowls to the table before dinner. I didn’t have a clue as to what they were for, and I’m not sure Mike did, either. While we were trying to figure them out, the phone rang and Emily brought it to the table on a thirty-foot cord. (This was the fifties, long before cordless phones.) While Mike’s mother was talking, Mike and I got a little careless and noisy with the finger bowls — so much so that, when she hung up, she flung the phone across the room and screamed at us for being so loud while she was talking. After that it was very quiet. No one spoke the rest of the meal.
I have never been served a finger bowl since and am still unsure how to use one.
When I was fifteen, my mother’s Uncle Jake and Cousin James came to Seattle for a prestigious contract-bridge championship. They were rich and famous, traveled around the world, drove Cadillacs, and had swimming pools. Somehow my mother, the poor relation, elicited a breakfast invitation from them while they were in town. I am certain she embarrassed them into it.
Early that morning my mother applied red lipstick, dabbed perfume at the base of her neck, behind her ears, and between her breasts, and put on earrings and a brooch shaped like strange golden flowers encrusted with blue and yellow rhinestones. We rode the bus to the Olympic Hotel, where she insisted on entering under the awning at the front door. I would have preferred the employees’ entrance, where our presence would have been less noticeable.
We were escorted to the booth where Jake and James were seated. My mother’s greetings were loud and expressive, her voice reverberating off the walls. Her uncle and cousin were as subdued as the lighting, two large men I had never seen before and would never see again.
Halfway through our breakfast, a man bent to whisper in Jake’s ear. Jake stood and apologized profusely: a forgotten meeting; what could he do? We exchanged farewells.
After his father had left, it was clear that Cousin James wanted to leave, too. My mother said, “Oh, go on. We’re almost done.” But James said, “Oh, no, that would be too gauche.” Gauche was a word I had never heard before, and its strange sound stuck with me. Cousin James stayed through breakfast — which my mother ate slowly — and paid the bill. We rode the bus home.
My second cousin’s response has since become one of my family’s inside jokes. In appropriate and inappropriate situations, we respond with, “Oh, no, that would be too gauche,” and we smile smugly at each other.
It was 1959, I was eleven, and I was at a cotillion, learning about manners and how to dance. The music stopped. It was time to have refreshments.
The rule was that, when the music ended, you had refreshments with whoever your dance partner was at that time. The girl was supposed to get the cookies; the boy had to carry the punch. I was thankful we had to wear gloves, because my hands were all sweaty.
As my partner and I waited in line, he eyed me furtively in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors — then turned to the boy in back of us. “I’ll give you fifty cents to trade partners,” he said. The boy looked me over very slowly and said, “Naw, I don’t want to.”
Long Beach, California
My father was one of the sweetest men who ever lived, but when I was young his lack of social graces caused me great embarrassment. He loved people, and he loved living, and sometimes in his exuberance he’d forget about niceties.
At dinner, I would watch in awe as he packed more food into an already full mouth, his cheeks looking as if he’d tucked a couple of tennis balls in them. He’d often find something so funny that he’d throw back his head and laugh with his mouth full, giving us all a view of his partially chewed food. Company would turn their heads or politely look down at their plates. “Can’t you do something with him?” I would ask my mother later. One time, he laughed so hard that a kernel of corn shot the length of the dining-room table and came to rest on my boyfriend’s wristwatch. Sometimes, when he was getting carried away, my mother would give him a gentle nudge under the table. His demeanor would suddenly change, and he’d look crestfallen.
My father has been dead for eight years, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him. I now wonder, What right did we have to take away his honest enjoyment in eating and laughing? Sometimes, when I’m eating with a group of well-mannered people who take small bites and talk in hushed voices, I long to see his happy face, packed full of food, smiling back at me.
Susan M. Lee