Manners Matter

My dear late mother was a stickler for decorum, manners,
and good form. This philosophy served her well. She was an
aspirational child of the Pennsylvania coal country. Later in life,
she punched well out of her social weight-class and traveled in
pretty lofty circles. She wished the same for her brood. For the
most part, the brood couldn’t have cared less. As with most
things regarding my mother–son relationship, this became a
battle of wills.

Rule number one, elbows off the table. Rule number two, thank
you notes will be sent within a week of receiving a gift. This
almost took the joy out of Christmas and birthdays. Naturally,
my rebellion took the form of a work-around.

Thank you notes were framed by a mental template. Here goes:
Dear Aunt Carol, thank you for the money. It will be saved for
college. It snowed last night but not very much. Did it snow by
your place in Brooklyn? I can’t wait until next Christmas when
you come to Pennsylvania again. Well, mom wants me to go to
bed. Goodbye, Love your favorite nephew, Ricky

Of course, I was seething and would’ve preferred writing:
Dear Aunt Carol, what the f***k can I do with a lousy dollar? Dad
says that you are so tight that you squeak when you walk. It
snowed last night. It was just enough to make snowballs. I hit a
bread truck and a police car. I hope that it snowed enough in
Brooklyn to cover the needles and dog crap. Mom hopes that you
don’t visit next Christmas. She says that all you do is complain..
Well, mom wants me to sign off . I can’t wait for next Christmas.
Maybe you’ll bring me a five-spot. It will be our little secret. I
won’t tell my brothers. Goodbye. Love your favorite nephew, Ricky

As I got older, these little white lies mutated to a variant form.
When picking up a date for a first time, a vanguard of parents
and younger siblings awaited. The father invariably would
inquire about my “folks”. This was code for, “are you worthy of
my daughter? I noticed that you pulled up in a six-year-old
station wagon.”

I would answer, “my mom is an artist and my dad works in
publishing in the city”. If you broke the code, the message was
“my mom is a bored housewife who takes painting lessons at the
YMCA. My dad sells advertising space by telling dirty jokes to
guys at three Martini lunches.”. To his credit, Dad didn’t drink.
But he sure sold lots of advertising space. And his jokes were
screamingly funny. You wouldn’t tell them today.

Lack of sincerity coupled with a nuanced approach to the truth
reduced my sense of genuine self. It was easier to create the
artifice than confront my true standing in relation to others.
This lack of self awareness was a growing problem. I was
becoming a world-class jerk.

Fundamentally, I had to relearn gratitude. Instead of, “what is in
it for me”; I had to comprehend the motivation behind the
offering. In most cases, it was simple goodness. The offerings of
others came from a place of generosity. Next, I had to discover
language that would convey appreciation. In the beginning I
would joke. Example: “Thanks for the nice sweater. It will be a
winner at Ugly Sweater Day.” You are correct, I was a complete
ass-hole. But at least I was trying.

Eventually, I learned that language matters. It would be just as
easy to say, “Thanks for the sweater. It looks warm and is a very
thoughtful gift.” There was no need to hide behind a wise-guy
persona. Just acknowledge the generosity behind the action. But
this is an act of vulnerability, a statement that others are needed
in my life. For some reason, this was a wide river to cross.

Fortunately, I have made that crossing. Aside from sneezing and
farting I am totally dependent on others. In other words, my
vulnerability is total. And my gratitude to for the support and
kindness of others is also total.

If Aunt Carol was alive now, I would say “I am glad that you
shared Christmas with us. It is a long trip from Brooklyn and the
subway and train rides must have been tough. There is no need
for a gift, I’m just glad you are here.”

I’m finally learning.


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