I have the same response every time my kids gripe about my incessant criticism of their table manners: “Well,” I clear my throat. “If the Queen invites you to tea one day, I need to know that you won’t embarrass yourself.”
Nevermind that we never hold afternoon tea in my house and that I myself don’t know how to correctly pour tea or butter a scone. That’s not the point. I want my children to feel unintimidated by social scenes, norms, and societal expectations and navigate them as seamlessly as a royal. Although, to be fair, my kids could teach the Queen a few things, like proper crawfish boil etiquette. For example: Don’t throw the straight ones back in the good pile. It’s just plain rude otherwise. But my kids only know that because I am an incessant manners cop, constantly piping in with interjections like, “Say excuse me” or “You have to get up from the table to blow your nose,” or my favorite, “No, darling, we don’t ask someone why they have so many moles.”
I feel pretty good about my authority on manners. My paternal grandmother, with whom I ate many dinners growing up and whose house parties were a staple of my childhood, was as straight as a ruler when it came to manners, and drilled them into me with even more incessance than I. I can still feel her dark-eyed stare from whenever I was sloppy at dinner or said the wrong thing to her guests. And although I have a history of putting my foot in my mouth, and I readily assume that my nerves would indeed get the best of me should I myself ever be invited to tea, likely leading to my slipping into a ghastly English accent in front of Her Majesty and inserting cliché words like “quite,” “loo,” and “rubbish,” overall my manners are in-check.
But the other day, not long after I told Fiona to not put her foot on the table, I checked Facebook and read that yet another friend had lost a parent. The knee-jerk manners kicked in.
“Oh, Honey. I’m so, so sorry. Praying for you. Please let me know if there is anything I can do,” I typed, followed by heart and prayer emojis galore.
I’ve done this countless times to friends, immediately expressing sympathy and offering help. My grandmother would haunt me if I didn’t. But my manners are also spot-on in this 21st century of digital congratulations and condolences. I was the beneficiary of such modern-day kindness 16 months ago when my father died, and I responded in modern-day fashion as well. I offered one long post of gratitude to all and then replied to texts and messages accordingly.
However, three handwritten letters I mailed stick out in my mind. One was to my closest friends, who at the funeral arranged a slideshow and a beautiful display of Pop’s favorite things and quintessential belongings, like his banjo and the glasses and felt tip pens he always carried in his front shirt pocket. Another letter was to a friend who had pooled money from a bunch of my friends to buy me a spa day. The third letter was to a friend who sent me a sympathy card three weeks after my father passed. She’d purposely waited so long because, having lost a parent herself, she knew that right around three weeks is when all of the check-ins, gestures, and formal condolences stop. From experience, she knew I still needed support.
For each of them, a text would have seemed unworthy compared to how they made me feel. They weren’t gestures. They were actions, and I felt drawn to do something in return. It had nothing to do with manners. It was simply the right thing to do -- honest, genuine, and exactly what my grandmother would have done. On the other hand, if my grandmother was the one expressing sympathy today, she wouldn’t have left her condolences to a comment as I did the day I read about another friend’s loss. In fact, she’d probably have skipped Facebook altogether, sent a ham to their front front door with a hand written card, flowers, and an invitation to dinner in three weeks.
I considered this as I typed my standard comment condolences, requesting that my friend tell me what I could do to help them. I considered this, and then I felt my grandmother’s stare, boring into me, and I heard her voice as if I was twelve years old again and had just told her guests where to find the bar, “Annie, why are you making them tell you what they need? That’s rude.”
Just as quickly, I felt a bad English accent coming on as I muttered, “Oh bugger.”
As I write this, my family is social distancing as the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus whips through the world. This doesn’t feel all that new, to be honest. I spent most of 2019 in self-isolation as I tried to come to terms with life without a father. In the darkest of those days, what consistently pulled me out were the actions of others, efforts that reminded me that there was still light in the world. And although I can’t possibly make the same effort with every single birth, death, and life event that fills my newsfeed, I can measure my gestures versus my actions.
A gesture is something nonverbal, a sign of something. It’s a nice gesture to leave a comment of condolence as a symbol that we’re thinking about someone. There’s nothing wrong with gestures. Most of us are too distracted with modern day noise to give more than a gesture anyway. In fact, it’s just as socially normalized to keep condolences and congratulations limited to social media comments as it is to respond in only emojis, yours truly the loudest nonverbal sympathizer, well wisher, and emoji popper in the bunch.
I hit send to my friend, now in that awful, horrible club of fatherless daughters, and I wondered if accepted social norms are forcing out the kind of manners my grandmother drilled into me. I thought this as I went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and set my eyes on a round tupperware, leftover spaghetti inside. That particular tupperware is the good kind, no BPA, dishwasher safe, and stain resistant. But that tupperware isn’t mine.
While Pop was fighting cancer in a hospital bed at home, his and Mom’s kitchen was packed with other people’s tupperware. Meals were delivered daily for those of us who cared for Pop, and because I rarely left his side, I ate out of every one of those containers. With most of the folks declining the return of their tupperware, I also ended up with a new collection. But the one in my fridge didn’t come from Mom’s kitchen. It came to me by way of a mother at my children’s school, who saw the agony in my eyes every morning during those awful weeks and who wanted to do more than a gesture.
“What about the people at your house,” she asked when I told her we didn’t need any more dinners at my parents’ house.
By this time, my husband was the one, boots on the ground at home, helping with homework and tucking the kids in at night. What were they eating? I hadn’t a clue. Probably lots of take-out.
The next morning, she presented me with a brown grocery bag, packed with french bread, cookies, and a fancy tupperware container of homemade chicken curry for my little squad at home. She must have mentioned it to other parents at school because the next morning, I was handed another meal, then another, and then one mom asked me what my dad was craving. When I told her that he was on a liquid diet, she asked me what his last real meal was. I told her it was salmon sashimi, but that sadly, he couldn’t finish it because the tumor had obstructed his stomach by then. So the next morning, she brought me a huge salmon filet, big enough for my entire family. Resting at the bottom of the bag was a smaller filet, wrapped in freezer paper, for Pop when he recovered. He never ate that salmon, but I didn’t forget her gesture, which wasn’t a gesture at all.
In fact, none of them were gestures. Sure they were signs of compassion, but there was nothing non-verbal or distant about them. They were thoughtful, required effort, and were the kind of actions that pulled me from the darkness--there was still good in the world even as my father was dying. More than anything, they were actions without adding to my burden.
Manners are feisty little critters. They are both genuine and completely dishonest. Anyone who asked me what I needed during that time got nothing but, “I’m okay.” Lies! But these folks, and their tupperware, and the myriad others who held me up entirely eliminated my natural instinct to refuse help. They gave me what I needed without me having to ask.
And that, my friends, isn’t just good manners. It’s human spirit at its very best.
So as I opened the fancy tupperware, I thought about my actions in return. Why hadn’t they received handwritten letters too? Did they know how much their actions meant to me? I’d said thank you in person. I remember an updated Emily Post rule about how when you open a gift in front of someone, like at a shower, you don’t need to send a letter because you’ve already thanked them. Maybe too much thanks is no longer sincere when thanking someone becomes a burden?
I wish I could ask my grandmother!
I know enough to know that most people don’t need a handwritten letter, because their actions weren’t driven by some silly need to receive personalized scribbles on stationary. The best of us reach out because we truly care. And while I’m glad that I’m preparing my children for tea with the Queen, it’s far more likely that they will be in the position to respond to the ups and downs of their friends' lives, drawn by that human spirit to help. I don’t know what the world will look like then. Will social media even exist? But I hope I will have raised them to on occasion come out from behind their walls and news feeds to write a letter, bring a ham, and maybe even give away their fanciest tupperware.
And I hope that their best example will be me.
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