My grandmother taught my mother an etiquette lesson at a Grange dance in rural Ohio that stuck with my mom throughout her life. It must have been an important experience, since Mom told very few stories about growing up with her family, and this one was important enough to repeat.
Mom was born in 1924 and her mother, my grandmother Anna, was born in 1895, when there were very different notions than today about what a lady should or shouldn’t do — how to dress, how to sit and how to behave in public. Certain behaviors, dressing, gestures and expressions were not, generally, accepted in a woman.
I’m guessing it was the early 1930s when this happened because Mom was old enough to be able to talk, but young enough to have few filters about speaking out in public.
The story goes that Mom and her family arrived early at a Grange Hall where grandfather Philip — a rough, tough, railroad man — was playing the banjo along with other amateur musicians. My mom, who was just a child, saw something shocking and scandalous, raised her index finger and pointed: “Mama, there’s a lady over there smoking a cigarette!”
Grandmother Anna bent over her child, took the small, pointing hand in hers and quietly said: “Phyllis, you must never point your index finger at someone. It isn’t polite or proper.”
Today I wonder why my grandmother chose to focus on the act of pointing and not on the fact that this woman was (gasp!) smoking. But that is the emphasis Mom put on the story. It was an etiquette lesson about ladies and pointing, not a judgment of another woman’s personal habits.
Perhaps it reflects the fact that Mom herself had joined the ranks of women smokers by the time she told us this story. I’ll never know.
Mom taught all five of her children this etiquette lesson by telling this story on herself. It’s a window into her life and a bygone time.
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