I’m sitting in a neighborhood restaurant, reading a book by Sarah Kortum called The Hatless Man, an Anthology of Odd and Forgotten Manners, a compilation of various guides to good behavior from over the centuries.
As I read along, a party of four noisily fills the booth in front of me, in the persons of one exhausted-looking mom and her three young children, all dressed in their best.
By the sound of it, they have just come from some sort of presentation at which they had to sit far too still for far too long.
They’re making up for that now.
I look back down at my book – to read both Florence Howe Hall‘s turn of the century remark that it is wrong “to put the spoon or fork so far into the mouth that bystanders are doubtful of its return to the light,” and George Washington’s frank advice, “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Parts of the Body not usually Discovered.”
And just as I’m thinking, “Who in the world needs to be told this?” I look up and see these children, one of who is even now doing exactly what the father of our country advised us all against.
It’s eerie. I watch them. I look back at my book – and one by one see these taboos enacted by all three kids: by this girl of six, her tights bagging and twisting at her skinny ankles; by her little brother who looks about five, and wears his little his suit jacket askew, in a rakish, off-the-shoulder way; and by the smallest child, tangled Alice-in-Wonderland curls scraped back in a headband and one wet finger hooked like an umbrella-handle deep in the corner of her mouth.
- “Never turn your spoon over and look at yourself in the bowl: it is the action of clown.” And lo, this very thing happens before my eyes.
- “Don’t make a wall around your plate with your left arm, as if you feared somebody were going to snatch it from you. And don’t I see this done, when the French Fries come.
- “In refusing to be helped to any particular thing, never give as a reason that you are afraid of it.” This happens too, when the boy screams at the sight of his mother’s shrimp cocktail.
- Do not “take up a whole piece of bread and leave the dentist’s model of a bite in it,” advises the book. And here is now is the boy child, who has decided to stand up to eat his bread, which he chooses to eat with mouth wide open.
- “Nothing is less alluring than a smile flavored with parsley,” I read on. And yet here is such a smile, garnished too with a slippery finger.
- “It is a breach of etiquette to assume a lazy lounging attitude in company.“ Now one child stretches out full length on the banquette, where, within moments, the bread course complete, the smallest child on his head.
- “Cast not thy bones under the table,” one sage warns in the old book and surely something has been cast under the table, as Alice now slithers off her brother and dives down after it – bringing us to the rueful observation “A vacant chair at a dinner party is a melancholy spectacle.”
But I for one am feeling far from melancholy now, for I begin to see who the rules of etiquette are for: the child in us all at the great feast of life, who, tired and restless and cranky, would like nothing better than to slip beneath the table from time to time ourselves, as the below image from Bluntcard.com suggests. 😉