Manners of the Heart

I once enjoyed reading various columns in the daily newspapers. They were, after all, essentially the same thing as these blog posts; only the presenting medium differs.  And I have vivid memories the many weekly and daily features that I read.

One, years ago, was an advice column for etiquette. (I see you are now shaking your head.  You are thinking: When even the words “please” and “thank you” are forgotten bastions of good manners, when hate speech and road rage are common — well, in this era, almost no one, no one at all, would ever write, much less read, a feature piece about etiquette.)  But, there you have it.  For many years, newspapers across the country carried a daily article totally devoted to proper behavior.  Some still do!

I found the etiquette column fascinating. My own upbringing might be referred to as “Midwestern casual”.  I knew enough of good manners to keep my elbows off the dinner table and my mouth closed while chewing a bite.  I did not sling my napkin about my neck, but placed it on my lap. I knew that I should hold the door open for a person whose arms were laden with packages, or who was elderly, and that I was to answer respectfully, “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes, Sir” when addressed by an adult. Parents of my friends were addressed as Mrs. or Mr., not by their first names.  I was never to point at someone, and I needed to say “Pardon me” or “Excuse me, please” when it was necessary to walk around someone.  But that about summed up my acquaintance with mannerliness.

So I devoured these articles on etiquette, learning unexpected and captivating facts. Presented with more cutlery than a knife, fork and spoon?  Start at the outside and work inward.  Lay my unused hand across the napkin in my lap. If arriving first at the door, hold it for everyone else, but if a someone offers to take the door for me as a large group enters, say thank you and continue in.  Spoon my soup away from me. When first becoming acquainted in a formal situation, ask if I might call someone by their first name. Sit with my ankles crossed and on a slight slant to one side.  Stir tea or coffee slowly in a vertical line.

Some of the advice was pithy and intelligent; occasionally (like that “spoon your soup” rule) it seemed to be total nonsense…until one considered the consequences of behaving otherwise (A dribble from the soup spoon will fall into the bowl, not the lap! Tea stirred in a circle will create a vortex and could overflow the cup.)

But scattered amongst all this concise and sensible information, there lurked pitfalls, and many of these became apparent in the questions sent in by people seeking to know the appropriate way to handle unusual situations. My favorite of all these was the woman who had a debate going with a friend on the correct way to put the flat sheet on the bed.

Having grown up in an era in which white bedsheets were the norm—colored sheets, and solid colors at that, had finally edged into the market; prints were just becoming popular—it had never occurred to me that there was any special way to lay the flat sheet atop the fitted sheet. You placed it down, straightened it across, tucked in the bottom and put hospital corners on the lower sides.  Period.  End of story.

But just as Dear Abby learned in the Great Toilet Paper Debate, everyone has an opinion.  The writer opined that, if the sheet was laid down “properly”, with the uppermost seam turned down, the flat sheet had to be laid with the printed side downward or “only the maid sees the pretty sheets”.

The maid?!

I had already gotten stuck at that part about the sheets being laid down “properly”. It had certainly never occurred to me to turn that uppermost seam down any which way.  One laid the sheet, as I’ve said, to the correct height on the mattress and tucked in the bottom and corners.

But the maid?

What maid?!  Did the writer of the letter—much less the author of the column—not realize that 99-and-some percent of the readers of this column had no maid?

It suddenly occurred to me that the etiquette lessons I was learning from these articles might not, after all, be applicable to the reality of the life I was living.

I’ll never remember what the author’s answer was to this ultimately silly question, having boggled at those other points in the letter. Despite that, I continued reading the manners advice column daily, extracting from it some pertinent guidance that I continue to use to this day.

But the memory of that letter came back to me when I was recovering from surgery, and a thoughtful friend came weekly to change the bedsheets for me. Laying down the flat sheet, she asked if I preferred to have the embroidered top seam turned down, for that would determine how she lay the sheet over the mattress.  “Hey, you’re doing me the favor,” I told her.  “I’m just grateful for your help. You put the sheet on there any way you like.”

And that, I think, is the essence of good manners: gratitude, consideration, and genuine courtesy.  Truly good manners are manners of the heart.

The End of the Story

I wish that every media outlet had a special feature daily titled, “The End of the Story”. Because I want to know. I want to know the end of the story.

I’m a foolishly demanding person in this respect. A lover of the “cozy” mystery genre, I have been known on more than one occasion–usually those when I’m certain I’ve pinpointed the murderer–to peek at the last few pages of a novel and see if I’m right in my suppositions.  This tendency has been greatly enhanced by the advent of the e-reader, since I can bookmark the page I’m on, swipe swiftly to locate the denouement scene, and verify my deduction.  (And, no, knowing the end of the story in no way diminishes my pleasure in the novel as I return to my bookmark and read the rest of the book.  In fact, it just gives me greater appreciation in examining the ways in which the author builds clues, especially if I’ve guessed the wrong murderer.)

So, as I say, I am demanding in this respect: I want to know the end of the story. One news story which I never saw finished was that of the Bus Push Jogger in England.  Each morning as I log on to read—not watch, but read–the news, I turn first to the BBC.  (That is because I trust the British to provide the most balanced version of what the heck is actually happening in the world-gone-mad US.)  Doing this means, of course, that I also read a lot of incidental British news, and the London Bus Push Jogger story caught me in its web.  Contrary to my usual behavior, having read the story, I watched the video—several times, in fact—as a jogger intentionally pushed a woman passerby out of his way and into the path of an oncoming bus.  Happily, she was rescued.  By day’s end, the video had gone viral, but the jogger had not yet been identified.  I checked back any number of times, and never found a news story indicating that the jogger had been recognized.  Eventually, there were no new links, no new leads, to the identity of the jogger.  The story just whispered away.

This drove me absolutely nuts. I wanted to know the end of this story—even if the end was, “Someone must know who this man is, but no one has the integrity to come forth and finger the jogger”.

A similar news story was one in a Western state in which a young woman had been the victim of road rage. An angry driver had stormed over to her stopped car and smashed his fist into the side mirror, breaking it.  She had videoed the whole thing on her phone, and it was presented on the local and then national news.  Yet, despite the fact that the man’s face was clearly visible in the video, again, days later, he had not been identified.  Again, the links to the story simply dissipated.  Again, I gnashed my teeth.

I suppose my propensity for longing to know the story’s end began when I was (as I’ve discussed in earlier posts) a “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers” junkie. Now, 50-some years later, I’ve not forgotten a letter written to the columnist about the possibly-separated twins.

The letter was written by a man who explained that, six years earlier, his wife had given birth to boy/girl twins. Their infant girl had died a few hours after birth.  Fast forward six years, and the man’s wife had passed away, also.  His little son had begun first grade, and come home one day, desperately excited, because a little girl in his classroom shared his birthday.  Later, meeting the little girl’s parents at a school function, he learned that, not only did the children share a birthdate, but both had been born at the same hospital, and resembled one another to a startling degree.

They might have been twins.

The man’s suspicions were aroused. What more likely than some well-intentioned nurse, paving the road to hell with energy, had switched his living daughter with the dead child of the other couple, consoling herself that this way each couple would have a living child?

At the time of his letter, DNA testing was the stuff of science fiction; only blood tests and an extensive investigation into the hospital’s ID practices would shed any light on the possibility that the little girl was his own child. The man wondered if he should proceed.  Abbey or Ann (I forget which) advised him not to open this can of worms.

The man never wrote again, or, if he did, the letter was not published.  Or perhaps I just missed it.  But the mystery of the possibly switched-at-birth twins has (obviously, since I’ve never forgotten it) bothered me ever since I read that long-ago letter.  And I still want to know the end of the story.

I found myself considering about this odd little facet of my personality—thinking of it a lot—while I was ill earlier this year.  From the day of my initial symptoms, until I received the news that I did not carry the dreaded Lynch syndrome (a hereditary cancer-causing genetic defect), I wondered constantly about the end, possibly soon, of my own story.

This time, at least, it was not to be. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering.  For I want to know.  I want to know the end of my own story.