My Southern grandmother drilled old-fashioned etiquette into my mother’s head. My mother drilled that same etiquette into mine. Which is weird, really. My mother turned her back on much of her upbringing when she became a liberated woman. She reclaimed her maiden name. She mortified my grandmother by embracing their Cherokee heritage and getting suntans so dark my racist grandmother would insist – in the most DIRE tones — that “her daughter was turning black.” My mother discarded “Mrs.,” bras, hats, gloves, and the idea that all ladies should be competent with a stove or a vacuum.
But somehow, Southern etiquette survived the purging.
Some of the manners I learned were basic:
- “Please” and “thank you” are not optional. (Smacking a kid in the head for forgetting this rule IS optional.)
- Set the table properly and keep your dirty elbows off it.*
- A table is not properly set unless there are red wineglasses. (Overlooking salad forks could be forgiven. Overlooking wineglasses could not.).
- ALWAYS clear the table. Don’t offer, just get up and do it.
- First to reach a manual door at the Smithsonian Museum? Hold it open for everyone behind you, yes, even including the seventy-five seniors bused in from the local retirement community.
- More guests over than chairs? Go get extra chairs from another room.
- Still not enough chairs? Give your seat to an adult and sit on the floor.
- Visiting a friend or relative? Bring a “bread-and-butter” gift.
And some rules seemed ridiculous:
- A properly set table includes at least three spoons, three forks, and two knives per table setting.
- Wipe your mouth before you take a sip of water at the table, otherwise you leave smudges on the glass and you’ll be judged a Neanderthal and so will your mother.
- Always bring out the good china for guests. Never mind if certain guests are horrific four-year-olds who smash plates and laugh. Good breeding trumps Royal Doulton wreckage.
- Under no circumstances EVER should the metal of your utensil touch your teeth. No excuses. Yes, an obnoxious sibling deliberately jostling your elbow is an excuse. Shut up and be more alert next time.
- The soup spoon moves from the front of the bowl to the back before it is lifted to your mouth.
- The soup spoon should never be more than half-full. (If it takes you so long to eat your soup that your brother eats your entrée, so be it.)
- The oldest son must hold the chair and seat his Southern grandmother. (Usually while his little sisters smirked.)
I learned that the soup spoon was my enemy and my mother was inflexible on good manners. Especially when it came to the holy grail of good breeding: the thank you note.
As soon as I could write, my mother insisted I send thank you notes to my grandparents. My first one was an absolute triumph:
My mother never corrected my handwriting, my spelling, my punctuation, or my grammar. (Obviously.) The note didn’t even have to be on pretty paper (a good thing, for our less-than wealthy family). But after every Christmas and every birthday, a thank you note was due to every person who gave me a gift. And I was permanently glued to my kitchen chair until those notes were finished, (probably by the sheer force of my mother’s disapproval).
My mother died when I was a teenager, but by then the indoctrination was complete. My full siblings and I still send each other thank you notes when we receive gifts.
After Christmas with my family in New Hampshire, I handed my Chinese-American fiancée a stack of cards on the airplane home. “You can borrow some of mine.”
Andy’s face was as blank as the cards. “For what?”
Me: “For thank you notes.”
Me: “You’ve never heard of thank you notes? For gifts?”
Andy: “Yes, I have heard of them. Like I’ve heard about dinosaurs.”
Me: “So there’s no thank you notes in China?”
Andy: “Ahem. Born in Hawaii, remember? There’s no thank you notes there.”
Me: “The hell there’s not. I sent at least fifty to my grandparents in Kauai.”
Andy put the cards back on my tray table. “If you’re not white, you don’t write.”
Me: “You made that up.”
Andy: “No way! It’s an ancient pidgin proverb.”
Me: “Really. Have you heard this one? ‘He who angers fiancée sleeps on couch.’” I shoved the cards back at him. “The white people gave you gifts. You send them the thank you notes. If the Chinese people give you gifts, you can slide.”
Andy: “But – but — your Ex-Stepmother gave me towels. So. Many. Towels.”
I smiled. “Hell, yeah she did.” My Ex-stepmother was worried that Andy would feel left out while the rest of her kids were opening lots of presents. So she bought him a whole set of towels, and wrapped each one separately, down to the wash cloths. My Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister also feared Andy would be shafted. She gave Andy a whole set of fancy measuring cups and spoons — also all wrapped separately. By the end of the morning, the rest of us had opened all our gifts and Andy still had a pile of presents. So we cheered him on and played guessing games as to whether the next gift would be a hand towel or wash cloth.
Andy shot me a look of growing horror. “I don’t have to write a thank you note for every individual gift, do I?”
“Absolutely,” I told him. I let him suffer for several minutes before admitting that one note to each giver was acceptable. Because suffering deters people from making up bogus proverbs, right?
Ten months later, Andy and I were on our way back to New Hampshire for our wedding. We’d cashed in thousands of airline miles and we were flying first class.
Andy had a drink, a bowl of warm nuts, and a blissful smile on his face. “Just think, honey. For the next six hours, no one can call and bother us with any questions or problems with the wedding.”
I handed him a stack of cards. “I know! We can get all the thank yous done for the registry gifts that have already arrived!”
Andy recoiled. “Nooo!”
“Yessss,” I gloated. “And you cannot escape now.”
One of the flight attendants stifled a giggle as she walked by. Andy groaned.
I held out a pen. “What? Do you really think it’s fair that I write them all?”
“But you’re a good writer.”
“But your handwriting is prettier. Perhaps YOU should write them ALL.”
“I don’t see why anyone has to write them,” Andy sulked.
“First, it’s courteous to let people know their gift has arrived—”
“They could track it online,” Andy argued.
“–second, a note allows you to express your appreciation—”
“Uh-huh. Cuz I so appreciate the cheap-ass imitation lava lamp with fake fish we got from my father’s second cousin.”
“—and third, it’s just good manners!” I glared.
Andy waved the cards and envelopes at me. “But honey! Think of the trees! The carbon footprint!”
“That’s why we’re going to do them on the plane and mail them at the airport in Boston. Most of them are going to New England or down the Eastern Seaboard. And they are made from recycled paper.”
Andy sighed. “So…I’m in charge of thanking my family?”
“Sure. You thank your family, and I’ll thank mine.”
After I finished my first card, I looked over. Andy had his ear buds in. He was watching cars explode on his monitor. I poked him with a pen.
“Dude! You are supposed to be thanking people!”
Andy smugly shook his head. “After Christmas, you said,” and here the man brought out the AIR QUOTES, “‘if the Chinese people give you gifts, you can slide.’” He put the cards on my tray table and patted my hand. “But you go ahead and thank all your people following your own customs.”
I fumed, but he was right. Damn it. How dare the man actually listen to me. “You could help, you know. You’re the one who uses that giant Calphalon pot set my grandparents sent.”
“But we agreed. You thank your family. I’ll handle mine.” Andy sipped his drink and smiled at me.
I smiled back. “Fine. You can handle all of our friends. If they are Chinese, slide away. If they aren’t Chinese, though…” I put the cards back on his tray table.
Too bad most of our friends are either white or Japanese.
*Taco night excepted. On taco night, we set the table with only one thing: newspaper. Elbows on the table were encouraged. Clearing the table involved rolling up the newspaper and throwing it away. Taco night was awesome.