Such a wonderful word to roll around on your tongue. It has a solid, satisfying sound when spoken aloud, dropping weightily into a conversation like a bag of sand thumping a wooden floor. It is defined as somebody who is bad-tempered, disagreeable, or stubborn.
Not at all the person I believe myself to be!
Yet, according to several of those closest and dearest to me, I am becoming something of a curmudgeon. They tell me it has to do with my rather determined efforts to hold fast to the social dicta instilled in me by my mother.
Although it’s been seventy years since first that grand lady began educating me on the social niceties—and despite my knowing that the customs and mores of our changing society have altered since then—I cannot stop bemoaning the loss of what I consider to be simple etiquette.
Let me provide a few examples, taken from experiences we had with folks in the community where we used to spend our winters. And, I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression of them; they were all lovely people, good-hearted, gracious, and kind. It’s just that they didn’t necessarily subscribe to the things I learned at my mother’s knee.
When my wife and I would invite a few couples for a dinner party, for instance, and specify an arrival time of five-thirty, I didn’t appreciate when everyone would arrive, fashionably late, some twenty minutes past the expected time. We’d be sitting anxiously alone, wondering if everyone forgot—worrying that the hot hors d’oeuvres would be cooled and soggy by the time we got to eat them.
“Oh, we just wanted to be sure you were ready,” our guests would say when I’d make a supposedly-offhanded comment about their lateness.
But you see, we were always ready when we said we’d be. Always. If we’d thought we needed more preparation time, we’d have set a later arrival target for everyone. My mother believed it was proper to arrive when your hosts asked you to.
“There’s nothing fashionable about being late,” she would say. “It’s just rude.”
Hospitality gifts were another example. Although they weren’t de rigueur, it became the thing to do as we visited back and forth at each other’s homes. A favourite gift was a bottle of wine, nicely encased in a gift bag designed for the purpose—but never of the same vintage as might have been previously received from the same couple.
“Thank you,” I would say fulsomely as I pulled the bottle from the bag and set it to one side. “We haven’t tried this one. I’m sure we’ll enjoy it.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?” they’d ask.
“Uhh…no,” I’d reply, “not just now. We have wine already selected for tonight.”
Their disappointment would be palpable as I proceeded to pour them a glass from the decanted wine I’d already planned for the evening. And I was somehow made to feel as if I were offering a second-rate product, when sometimes, it was better than what they’d brought.
“How rude is that!” I’d rail at my wife after everyone had departed. “And you know what’s even worse? They took home the gift bag they brought their wine in! Can you believe it?”
My wife would tell me not to get so worked up, but it just didn’t seem right.
Here’s another case in point. The day after our dinner party, some people would phone to thank us for the evening, graciously commenting on the food, the company, or the conversation among friends. That’s exactly what my mother told me to do.
“Always call the following day to thank your hosts once again.”
But, increasing numbers of people don’t think to do that anymore. Or perhaps they do think of it, but can’t be bothered. Either way, it’s a classic breach of etiquette.
“Don’t worry about it,” my wife would say when I’d rail on about it. “They thanked us several times at the door before they left.”
“It’s not the same,” I would respond, still miffed.
Now, lest you think I’m overly critical when I have no right to be, let me assure you that I tried to practice all these niceties when we were on the other side. I’d ensure that we arrived on time, as specified by our hosts, never more than a minute out either way.
“Oh! You’re here!” they’d say, lifting an eyebrow in surprise as they opened the door.
“Five-thirty,” I’d reply, with an exaggerated glance at my watch. “That’s what you said, right?”
On one occasion, our hostess was still in the shower when we got there, at the appointed hour, and her husband wasn’t sure whether or not to let us in.
Of course, we always brought along a gift, usually the ubiquitous bottle of wine. I’d proffer it unassumingly to our host, and often, to my great surprise, he’d open it immediately to pour us each a glass. I found that mind-boggling. It made me wonder if he didn’t have enough of his own, and was dependent on his guests for the evening’s libations.
“What if we’d brought flowers?” I’d rage later to my wife.
And, so many times, when my wife or I would phone the following day to thank our hosts again for their hospitality, they would always sound bemused. As if we shouldn’t have bothered. As if they didn’t care, one way or the other.
“Don’t these people know any better?” I’d rant, scarcely coherent. “Doesn’t anybody have any manners? Why can’t they just do things right?”
“You mean your way?” my wife would reply sweetly.
“Yeah,” I’d say forcefully. “The way my mother used to.”
But it would fall to my wife to have the last word in these discussions, and it’s a word that would always shut me up—at least temporarily.
“Curmudgeon!” she’d say.