On Etiquette

A decade or so ago, after almost forty years of marriage, my wife left me.  Oh, it was nothing permanent, thank goodness—just a weekend excursion she took with one of our daughters, who was visiting us in Florida with her two girls.  They left me to look after our grandchildren.

I was delighted, of course, not only because I love the girls, but because I knew it would give me an opportunity to put into practice all those theories about dealing with children that I’m forever espousing to my wife.

 Hah!  So much for that plan!

It wasn’t that my theories were without merit.  They were based on an assumption that children—and adults, for that matter—are responsible for their own behaviour, and should be held accountable for the consequences of that behaviour.  Pretty simple, really.  Our world might well be a better place if more people subscribed to that thinking.

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Now, before I go any further, please don’t get the impression that I ever told my wife how to raise our own two daughters.  Far from it!  She always brought her own common-sense approach into play during the many hours she spent with them.

But I couldn’t resist the opportunity—after I’d been away from fatherhood for so long—to put my theories into practice, dispassionately and all-knowingly, with my granddaughters.

However, I didn’t reckon on the fact that my daughter had learned the lessons of effective parenting only-too-well from my wife.  And the extent to which she’d been successful was brought home to me that weekend.

Right from the get-go, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any fault with my grandchildren.  On both mornings, they got up and made their beds, got themselves washed and dressed, and then wakened me.  Gently, with a kiss.

After breakfast, which they helped me make, they cleaned off the table without being reminded.  Then off they went, outside to play until it was time to walk to the pool—their favourite pastime.  The closest we got to a confrontation was when they asked if they could go barefoot.  I told them about fire-ants, and they readily dropped the subject.

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It was quite frustrating, because I wasn’t getting any opportunities to practice my pet theories.  Finally, however, I figured my chance had come.  We went out for dinner that first night, to a local place offering bbq ribs as the house specialty, and that’s what we ordered.  It was the perfect moment to direct the girls in the proper etiquette for dining out.

I tried to begin when the salads arrived, but I wasn’t fast enough.

“Use the small fork for your salad, Gramps,” offered the youngest before I could tell her the same thing.  I nodded obediently.

When I tried to say something else a few moments later, the oldest said, “Gramps, you shouldn’t talk with food in your mouth, remember?”  I nodded again, in guilty agreement.

Then, a minute or so later, while I was still watching for some breach of etiquette from them, the youngest piped up again.  “Please don’t let the fork scrape against your teeth, Gramps.  And your napkin should be on your lap in case you drop something.”  I hastily complied.

When the platter of ribs arrived, I received more advice from the oldest—even before I had done anything wrong.  “It’s okay to pick up the ribs in your hands, Gramps, but don’t lick your fingers.  Just wipe them on your napkin.”

ribs

“Gramps, don’t eat so fast,” said the youngest a few minutes later, “or you’ll get a tummy-ache.”

This went on through the entire meal.  I was lectured to, scolded, and encouraged, all at the same time, by my own grandchildren.  Worst of all, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Probably because, eating so fast, my mouth was always full.

But then, at long last, I found a way to seize the upper hand.  It was time to pay the bill, and I was the only one with money!  Confidently, I marched with the kids up to the cashier, flashing a broad smile at her as I pulled out my wallet with a flourish.  Rather than returning my smile, she merely looked at me—somewhat curiously, I thought.

Nevertheless, I paid the bill masterfully, adding just the right amount for a gratuity.  As we left, I bestowed one final, beaming smile on the cashier.  And again, she didn’t return it.

After we climbed back into our car, I turned to the two girls.

“There!” I said.  “That’s how you settle up after a good meal.”  I just knew they’d be impressed, and I smiled condescendingly at the two of them.

Ewww, Gramps!” they chorused in unison.  “You’ve got a big piece of meat stuck between your front teeth!”

Alas, being a grandpa isn’t always easy!

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The Pickup

During the years we owned a home in Florida, we used to comment on how fortunate we were to live in a retirement community where so many services were close at hand.  It truly was remarkable.

We benefited from facilities and utilities that we could have taken for granted.  We had running water, electric power, telephone and cable service, and internet availability.  We were close to medical and dental services, supermarkets and convenience stores, a volunteer emergency corps, and a fire department.

We had ready access to libraries, recreational facilities, and churches.  We were served by a thriving post office, a conscientious sheriff’s department, and many other organizations too numerous to mention.

We lived near five golf courses, all of which we could drive to in our own golf cart.

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We were, indeed, very fortunate.

However—there’s always a ‘however’ in these cases—there was one public service that caused me a great deal of difficulty.  It probably wasn’t their fault; in fact, it likely wasn’t anybody’s fault.  But it was one of those little vexations of life that seemed, at first, to be beyond fixing.

I’m speaking of the problems I had with my garbage.  The pickup never worked for me.  It used to be terrific to drop the plastic bags at the end of my driveway every Friday morning and forget about them.  A short time later, a big truck would crawl slowly and noisily down the street, swallowing the assorted bags that were tossed into its churning maw.  And the whole thing would be over for another week.

But then things changed, and I began to have a lot of trouble.  It started when the pickup service was moved to an earlier time of day for my street.  That truck began to show up before I woke up!

To solve that issue, I hit upon the idea of putting the bags out the night before.  That, I figured, would solve my dilemma with the early hour.  To my chagrin, it was just the beginning of a whole host of problems.

Whenever I put the garbage out the night before pickup, the scavengers got into it.  Four-legged critters, like coons and possum; two-legged critters, such as crows and seagulls.  When I would saunter to the street the next morning, after the truck had been and gone, I’d find remnants of the week’s malodorous garbage strewn across my grass.

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I tried all manner of schemes to put a stop to this.  It was amazing how ingenious, and devious, an old guy like me could become when I had to stoop over to scoop up garbage that I had already packed up for pickup!

In order to foil the two-legged critters, I began to wait until just before my bedtime to put out the garbage, after they were safely in their nests.  To prevent the four-legged critters from continuing their raids, I scattered pellets, sprayed foam, and sprinkled red pepper around the bags—but all to no avail.

Once, to my undying shame, and well after dark, I even resorted to putting my garbage bags across the street, on my neighbour’s driveway.  The next morning, there was half the load, spread across his grass.

And it didn’t really change anything, anyway, because when I went over to clean it up, I encountered him in the middle of the street.  He was on his way to pick up the spillage from the bags he had left on my driveway!  The bounder.

After a bothersome few months, I reached the stage where I realized I wasn’t putting out garbage; rather, I was making an offering to the critters from hell!

But, wonder of wonders, I eventually solved the riddle.  Looking back on it, I can’t believe it took me so long to come up with such a creative solution.  It certainly would have relieved me of a bunch of worry.

It finally dawned on me that on every warm, Florida Friday morning, garage sales and yard sales were endemic to our community—every neighbourhood, every street.  And hundreds of people—rich, poor, young, old, women, men—prowled the area in their vans and station wagons.

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So, from that point on, I would clamber out of bed every Friday at a reasonable hour, tie off my garbage bags with pretty, colorful ribbons, and drop them at the end of my driveway, with a big sign on them: FREE.

The bags were gone before I could finish my first cup of coffee!

 

 

Tracks in the Sand

One long-ago February, when winter’s white enveloped the north, one of our daughters came with her family to visit us in Florida.  The favourite activity for our grandson and granddaughter (the third of the clan being still an infant, unable to express her opinion) was going to the ocean, to the beach.

Our usual routines were fairly standard.  We’d park and unpack the car, each of us carrying the beach necessities according to our age and abilities.  We’d trudge the access path, through the dunes adorned with sea oats, pass through the rickety snow fence, and pick a spot that suited us all.

In short order, the umbrellas would be unfurled, the chairs unfolded, the blankets spread, and the toys strewn across the sand.  Peace would reign for Nana and Grandpa, watching the sleeping baby while her parents and older siblings hit the water.

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On one such occasion, a small incident occurred which didn’t have much significance at the time.  In retrospect, however, it has become quite meaningful for me.

My daughter, my wife, and I embarked on a walk along the beach after the kids had finished splashing in the ocean.  Their dad stayed with them, helping build grand castles in the sand.

We decided to hike through the dunes on the way out, and come back along the shoreline.  I led off, sinking ankle-deep into the soft sand, feet clad in sandals to protect from the heat and the sandspurs.  After a few minutes, we came upon tracks in the sand, apparently made by some small creature, perhaps a mole.

What made the discovery unusual was that they suddenly stopped in a small depression in the sand, as if the mole had simply vanished.  The tracks ended without a trace.

My daughter suggested what might have happened.  The mole, she reckoned, had been taken by a predator, likely one of the falcons that frequent the area.  Indeed, on closer inspection, we could detect brush-marks in the sand, caused by the beating of a bird’s powerful wings.

We wended our way slowly, backtracking along the poor victim’s trail.  It occurred to me that, a scant few yards before the depression in the sand, the mole would have had no inkling it was about to die.  It was alive until it wasn’t.

Apparently, though, it knew it was under attack, for we found another, earlier depression in the sand where the bird had struck unsuccessfully.  The mole had jumped sideways, scurried under the protection of some sea-oats, then emerged again to flee along the sand.

Our backtracking ended when the trail curled away from the beach, into dense, long grasses, whence the mole had come.  We soon forgot about it as we continued our stroll, eventually heading back along the water’s edge to our grandchildren.

A few days later, I chanced to hear someone on the radio airily proclaiming that, if we all discovered the world was to end tomorrow, telephone lines everywhere would be jammed by people calling home to say all those things they had forgotten to say while there was still time.  Social media sites on the internet would crash from the traffic.  It made me think again of the mole whose tracks we had seen in the sand.

When it left its burrow for that final time, did it have its life in order?  Had it said all those things that matter to those who matter?  Or were there things it had left undone that should have been looked to sooner?

And I thought of myself.  Does my journey through life leave tracks in the sand for some other eye to see?  Am I subject to a mortal strike from some hidden foe?  And if, or when, it happens, am I prepared and at peace with those who care about me?

When I got right down to it, I didn’t see much difference between that mole and me.  Except one.  I’m still making tracks in the sand.  I still have time to ready myself for whatever is to come, and to be at peace with all who matter.

Such are the thoughts that arose as a result of a stroll along a sunny beach in Florida.