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January 13, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – Good Manners!  

 Weekly feature . . .by Mike Coburn

During this recent Christmas season, the mail brought us what I thought was another batch of the ‘usual’ greeting cards we get from friends we barely see or hear from, but when I saw a particular envelope, my complacency was shattered. I had received a card from someone I totally didn’t expect. There was a time when we got a huge number of Christmas cards and those updating writings that summarized a given family’s past year. They were a way of staying in touch and keeping up with friends too rarely seen. I must admit that our sending of cards has fallen off, and that the pile of cards received is significantly less than in prior times. Part of the reason is a faster lifestyle and the accessibility of instant communication through texting, Facebook, or via other social platforms. “Snail Mail,” whether the government knows it or not, is a dying industry. Most of the mail remaining is commercial and governmental, with very few personal letters except for older generations.

This ‘wake-up’ call sent my mind racing to another time when certain formalities, such as sending ‘thank you’ notes, was the order of the day. It was simply polite and a real social affront if not done in a timely manner. It was back in my days of growing up in that little Kentucky town when I overheard a lecture that a neighbor was giving her recently married daughter. “What do you mean you haven’t sent out ‘thank you’ cards?!” I wasn’t a member of the family, so it was a little embarrassing that I was within earshot of the lady correcting her procrastinating daughter.

 Like an instant replay, my memory brought back a mental picture of when my grandmother reminded me that a ‘hand-written’ note of appreciation for a host, guest, benefactor, or close friend was never out of order, and should be considered as ‘required.’ Not sending such notes showed either that we didn’t care for the person or the gift, or that we were wholly untrained in the social graces. I was taught that all forms of etiquette showed whether we were polished, or ‘finished.’ They rose out of the desire to be polite and have a good reputation. While rare today, such actions were what people of good character took special care to make happen.

My Great-grandmother spent hours trying to train this hickish yokel about the ‘important’ things of life, which reflected upon one’s upbringing. There was a long list of courtesies that I was expected to remember. That list seemed to grow every year, so that I once accused her of making things up. She patiently told me she never gave me more than I could handle, but there was always more to learn. ‘Now where have I heard that?

I learned that a gentleman ALWAYS walks on the outside when traversing down the street with a lady. That goes back to the days when a horse-drawn carriage might track a little close and hit, or throw mud upon the two pedestrians. The idea was that the man must protect the woman. It reminds me of the gallant man placing his cloak over a mud-hole that the lady might pass over the offensive puddle without getting mud on her shoes. When I see men and boys on the inside I feel a shiver and have to look away. To this day, my wife could tell you, I simply cannot stand not being on the inside.   

Perhaps looking for an escape, when I was told how to treat a lady, I remember asking how I could know if a woman was a lady. The answer was, “Every woman is a lady until she proves herself otherwise.” That made it clear enough. My mind went to the movie, Gone with the Wind when finally, Brett Butler read the clues and decided that the manipulative Scarlett O’Hara had proved she wasn’t a lady. He therefor, didn’t ‘give a ****.’ That reminds me of the day when men simply didn’t cuss in front of women out of respect. If something slipped, they would apologize at once. Times have changed so now rather than showing respect, we are equally disrespectful. I’m old enough to think something is wrong with that picture.

It wasn’t just about walking on the outside next to the curb, but opening doors for others (everyone, but especially women) or rising to my feet when someone respected entered the room. That respect, which is the operative word, should be provided not only for ladies, but elders and most anyone else you should show deference. This is repeated throughout life. This is expected for people such as a ranking military officer, a grandparent, the preacher, or maybe even a politician. Well, at least some politicians. This article isn’t about women being proclaimed the ‘weaker sex,’ but rather that all people, should be shown absolute respect. There’s nothing wrong in being polite and showing deference to others.

It was shortly after I left Louisa when I had an occasion to meet a young lady of refined background. Not only was she pretty, but she was clearly from ‘good stock.’ Before you get offended, that was the language of the day and did not mean she was at all an animal. Rather, breeding meant that she was from a good family, perhaps including parentage of success, or great wealth and/or public standing. After meeting her parents, I was taken to see her grandmother who had a fine estate on the James River in Richmond, VA. The driveway was lined with flowering trees and was at least a half-mile long and bordered grand, well-maintained formal gardens. When we arrived at the Tudor mansion, we were let in and briefly parked while the grandmother was advised we had arrived. She descended the grand-staircase as we were announced. I felt totally uncomfortable and out-of-place, but the lady immediately put me at ease and made me feel at home. We were given a tour of the public rooms and were shown the photographs of the family that were on the grand piano. They grandmother excelled at being a good host. My grandmother would have loved to have been there.

I remembered that ‘comfortable’ as defined by my great-grandmother was the most critical responsibility of a good host. It isn’t just the ‘tea and crumpets,’ but how the guest is put at ease. Making others feel at home was an art, that in my case, had to be cultivated. Thinking of others was a new kind of focus for me, but in the end, I could see that it was by far a better way to live.

As this article wants to testify, I had not totally forgotten granny’s lessons. Later, when I had left Richmond, I hand-wrote a card thanking the grand-mother for her hospitality. My granny would have liked that. A second note went to the girl’s parents. I heard later that they were impressed by the note, as well. Sadly, it didn’t work out with the girl, but I found someone even better. Shhhh.

I never understood all the details, but even in grade school the teachers told us about the old practices of gentlemen formally ‘calling’ on others, including sweethearts. There was a way to place a ‘personal card’ on a tray, perhaps with a certain corner bent up signifying something I’ve forgotten. The act of turning certain corners up meant this or that, but I didn’t take good notes and really don’t remember. I doubt others would understand, anyway. I never had an engraved personal card until a box was ordered for me just prior to my graduation from Louisa High School. Those were to be included in graduation invitations/announcements. Afterward, I was placed at a table and told to respond to each gift with a note of thanks. Today, with email, Facebook, and Twitter, I doubt younger generations know how to hold a pen. Certainly, they don’t use a fountain pen and never took classes in penmanship. In the end, I felt embarrassed because sending out invitations was like ‘asking for a gift.’ That didn’t seem right, no matter that everyone were expected to do this.

Granny used to meet me at the door to be certain that I removed my baseball cap, once indoors. The military taught me also to wear the appropriate hat/cap when outdoors, lest I be out of uniform. They also required the hat/cap be removed when indoors. Today, I try to take my darling wife out every week or so to various restaurants for a date. While there, when I look around the various dining rooms, I find it amazing how many men are sitting at the table still wearing their caps. My grandmother would have boxed their ears!

 We also were to at least ‘tip’ our caps when passing others, especially ladies, or to remove them until we passed. I think this action is reminiscent of a military salute and may have come that practice. We also had to remember to use polite language such as “yes, mam,” or “no, sir.” Some of my friends had to ask to be excused from the table at the end of a meal. My kids were taught that, too. It kept them from running off to play and leaving food uneaten. Finishing my meal with kids running amok wasn’t fun for me, especially when the crash of broken glass is heard.   

I was taught that when on a date with a lady it was my job not only to show her every courtesy, but to protect her from any embarrassment, or outside threats. She was to be returned to her home safely and to be shown an enjoyable, fun evening. Trying to be a gentleman, it was my duty to treat her as important, and to ensure she’d have no cause to regret her time with me.

I remember when ladies would dress up to go downtown. They would never just dart out the door, but rather would put on nice dresses, fluff up their hair, and put on ‘their faces.’ If I had to, I’d button up my shirt and if really pushed, I’d tuck the shirt in my pants. When going to larger cities the women would wear a hat, white gloves, and carry their best purse. Why, they’d even break out high heels and wear hose! Big box stores aren’t so formal, are they? Society has changed. We now suffer with folks not caring how they look when they go out. I know I’ve seen pictures taken at Walmart of people of all shapes and ages showing their lack of concern for personal hygiene or appearance. It is no surprise they don’t send cards. I’m not sure if they simply don’t care, or never received the training. They appear to be unfocused today as they walk along through life focusing on sending text messages or playing electronic games.

 It seems to me that each generation loses a bit of the past; good with the bad. While most of that occurs by lack of training, some are driven by the lack of care of the greater population. All I can say is that the young man or woman who cares to learn etiquette, and takes care to apply those lessons, will rise in the esteem of others, and will gain self-esteem and confidence. It is time to put out a call for everyone to show respect to others, and teach those behaviors to our children and grandchildren, lest they be gone forever.

Meanwhile, if you see me getting lazy or ignoring proper etiquette, call me on it. I never want to be rude, uncaring, or untrained. That would reflect negatively on the heartfelt efforts of some very nice people and their good breeding. To start this ‘new/old’ trend, gentlemen show some respect, walk on the outside and take off those hats!     This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

Comments  

+1 #2 Whatever... 2018-01-15 20:18
In reference to your mention of why men walk on the outside of the sidewalk, following is the reason I have always been given:By keeping her on the inside in earlier times, she would remain under the overhanging second floor balcony, which would prevent a chamber pot from being emptied on her head. Either way, oh the things we do for our ladies!
Another great article sir.
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-1 #1 Bernard 2018-01-15 18:29
Great article Mike, Yep back in the day good manners was taught, respected and enforced by one's parents. Not so this day & time men don't open doors for ladies, stand when one enters the rood etc.
We need to go back to some of these things, would be a much better world. Thanks for the memories.
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