I was raised by the Manners Nazis.
You think I am joking.
I am not.
From the time we could both carry plates without dropping and shattering them on the floor, my sister and I were taught where to put the silverware and how to fold napkins and which side to put the bowls and water glasses on and which is the dessert fork versus the salad fork. We weren't born into a family of means. On the contrary, we had a very simple, small town upbringing. However, my parents both felt it absolutely necessary that Ann and I were going to be raised to understand how to function in polite society.
To this day, I can tell you the difference between a salad fork, a fork for the entree and a shrimp. About the only thing I still get confused on is which glass is meant for red wine and which is for white. We were not really versed in such things as children, and let's be honest here, when it comes to wine, who really cares what kind of glass it goes in, as long as it can be enjoyed and consumed in a company of great people and in some sort of vessel that allows me to sip liberally?
A lot of my friends, friends who are raising children today, think it's ludicrous what my parents did, making a child know where the salad fork should go and the butter knife and so on and so forth. I mean, isn't it serving you well just to know that a fork is used for stabbing the food as well as a means of transport from the plate to the mouth?
Uh, negative. Not my parents.
If I had a dime for every time my mother or father rolled out the "your actions are a direct reflection of us as parents and no children of ours are going to be eating in front of people looking like they were raised in a barn" lecture, well, let's just say I could have a brand new, fancy schmancy bathroom right now.
"There will be a time," my dad would say, as he grandly unfurled his cloth napkin before setting it genteelly in his lap, "when you could be at a lunch or dinner meeting with a boss ... or a client. You need to put your best foot forward. That foot does not include being completely clueless about what utensil to use."
And then there was the necessity for polite table manners, lest we forget!
Oh dear me, if my elbows landed on the table! If I dared to slouch down in my chair. "So help me, if you can just drop your lip on your plate and shove the food in, you are too close, and I will snatch you up so fast, your head will spin! Who wants to see that at a fancy dinner meeting?"
I tried valiantly to reason with them. "Dad ... Mom, I am going to be a semi truck driver (this was during my short-lived BJ AND THE BEAR-inspired years)! Who cares how a truck driver eats?"
"I care! And your mother cares. Your behavior is a direct reflection of our parenting, and no child of mine will eat like they were raised in a barn."
To make their point more visual, they would often point out various table manner infractions while we were out to eat ... in public. One famous instance was when we were vacationing in Mackinaw City, and we'd gone, after church, to one of our favorite spots, Teysen's Restaurant and Gift Shop.
Teysen's was a kid's smorgasbord, mainly, because it was sorta like smorgasbord. For years and years, Mr. Teysen employed native Mackinaw City residents, ladies with family recipes that would knock your summer flip flops right off. Mr. Teysen set his restaurant up as a cafeteria-style. You walked in and lined up right near the big ole stuffed Michigan Black bear, and Teysen's employees greeted you with a smile as they helped you grab baked beans in a pot or shave that luscious, melt in your mouth roast beef or the buttery, flaky HORRIBLY FAMOUS Teysen's chicken pot pies. The recipe is said to have died with its originator, a long-time cook at the restaurant, and I have never since eaten anything so flaky and heavenly in all of my almost 41 years.
We loaded our cafeteria trays up, always making sure we smiled and thanked our servers, per our parents' teaching, and made our way to our table. As I was settling into my seat, this particular Sunday, getting ready to dive into my chicken pot pie, my dad gently grabbed my arm and pulled me toward him -- a sure sign that he was about to point out yet another "disgusting eater." I used to HATE when he would do this, but I couldn't help but agreeing with him, after all those formative years of visuals, that yes, in fact, the guy in question, was a "disgusting eater."
"I don't want to point, because pointing is rude, but see that man over there, with the jeans and red t-shirt? What is wrong with what he's doing?"
I rolled my eyes and tried to pull my arm away.
Yeah, Manners Nazi Grande Poo-ba wasn't having any of it. He pulled me closer, and slightly more tightly, "What's wrong with what he's doing?" he asked again, this time a bit more insistently.
With a sigh, I whispered back, "He's not sitting up straight."
"Exactly, if he were any lower to the plate, he could just drop his jaw and push the food from his plate to his lower lip. A disgusting eater. He is not going to impress anyone with those sorts of table manners."
"Yep." I said, half-heartedly as I thought about the fudge and junk shop trinkets that we ALWAYS got to look at after we were done with dinner.
"One day, you will find yourself in the company of people that will judge you on your table manners. You don't want to look like that guy, do you?"
And while I kind of felt badly for the poor guy, I had to admit, my dad was right. He did look like he ate his food from a trough. Perhaps he mistakenly thought that the casual dining extended to how he put the food in his mouth? My mother insisted that wasn't the case.
Another time, at another family favorite, Kenvilles, we witnessed a woman wipe up the remains of mashed potatoes and gravy with her finger and then lick it off. "UCK!" My dad said, with this look, that to this day, makes me giggle with the glee of a small child. "That is a disgusting eater. Look at that. Would you do that in front of your boss on a job interview?"
"Dad. Really? Who goes on job interviews at restaurants?"
"Plenty. Listen, it could happen, and do you want to be the one that cleans her plate off with her fingers and then licks them in front of a CEO?"
He did have a point.
As we got older, I started pointing out the "disgusting eaters" to my parents, which I think they secretly enjoyed. Like, "finally, something we've talked about until we were both blue in the face has stuck!"
So, you can imagine their absolute glee, when, as the associate director of my alumni department, I was moved to a head table (a privilege only those senior members of our department were normally allowed to do) at one of our fanciest alumni dinners, and I dined with three very important CEOs -- I told them that they all complimented me on my "charming dinner conversation and how well I handled myself." I didn't really see myself as charming. I chatted with them, something I seem well-equipped to do, and as far as the courses of dinner, well, I didn't mention to each of the men and their wives that I was raised by the Manners Nazis for just such a moment as the one I found myself in!
Oh the joy and jubilation on those two faces when I informed them of who I dined with.
I hate to admit it. It means they were right. And who wants to admit that their parents were right? Yet in my adult lifetime, I have had the privilege of numerous lunches and dinners with some rather important individuals, and those manners lessons have served me well.
And so I publicly thank my parents, the Manners Nazis, for giving me the ability to hold my own during various dinner parties and luncheons. There are a lot of things I am not, but one thing I will never be is a reflection of poor manners and the lack of "foctching up" in the area of table manners as it relates to those two!
Bravo, Mom and Dad. Bravo!