Make-Believe Manners

When a new friend invited my clan to dinner, I was excited – for five minutes – until I realized how unfit my three meal-time barbarians were for communal dining.

“Listen up!”  I announced in my most authoritative voice at dinner that night.  “This is serious.  We have a dinner invite.  We need work on manners!”

Not sharing my sense of urgency, kids returned their focus to animated banter, interrupting each other with mouths full of food and greasy hands gesticulating their point.  The color drained from my face and panic set in.  What will the neighbors think of us?  Two minutes of this animalistic feeding frenzy and they’ll send us packing with a ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

“That’s it!” I shouted. (Ironically matching their primal behavior.)  “You need to shape up.  Starting right now, you are all enrolled in Manners Boot Camp.”  My voice assumed a  drill sergeant tone.  “I want to see a fork in every hand.  No fingers on food.  Sit up straight.  Close your mouth when you eat…”  The list of instructions was lengthy.

The more I pestered, the worse it got.  Littlest one was paralyzed with confusion and teens indulged in a game of mockery, competing for Most Uncivilized.  “We know this stuff, Mom.  We just don’t do it at home because it doesn’t matter.”  Unconvinced, I soldiered on.

One night, son queried, “Will you be telling the neighbors that we’ve been practicing for a month just to eat at their house?” Not likely. “And neither will you,” I threatened.  “I’d like them to believe you’ve been groomed well since birth.”

As we pulled into the neighbor’s driveway I couldn’t help but give a final review of manners material. A collective symphony roared back at me, “WE KNOW! JUST STOP!”

Nervous smile plastered to face, I ushered my students to the front door where they exchanged cordiality seamlessly. Phase One – check.  Hostess took drink orders and received ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ on cue. Phase Two – check.

Onward rolled the seamless evening with children playing and adults conversing.  Nary a warning glance was needed from Mom.  Dinner passed without incident….until dessert. By that point we had all relaxed enough to let our guard down and didn’t see Tom Foolery sneak in the back door.

I turned my head just in time to catch Prankster son mocking aristocracy with pinkie in air, pursed lips, and feigned British accent raving about the ‘delightful’ meal.  After dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin, he waved it ceremoniously in the air, fanning it out into a single sheet in order to be tucked into his shirt collar as a bib.

Teen daughter snickered, egging him on, and elbowed nine-year old Peach to join in the fun.  Unamused and preoccupied, Peach’s eyes grew wide as she declared with urgency, “I’m going to throw up!”

May Day, May Day!  We’re going down!

I shot a harsh glance at teen daughter which she understood immediately to mean ‘You and your brother regain control NOW!’  Daddy created a conversational diversion while I whisked pale-face off to the nearest bathroom.

“Did we pass?” asked a child when we arrived home.

“By the skin of your teeth.” I replied, and collapsed from exhaustion.

Silly isn’t it? This game of pretend we play.  ‘Look at me, a good mother, with good kids who have manners.’  Hah!  If the ruse could speak it would say something more accurate like, ‘look at me, pretending to have it all together.  Only a fool tries to cover up her family’s flaws. Everyone knows that real connection can only happen when people act as themselves, shortcomings and all.’

Yes, I know this, but press the right button and I am back in the third grade, wanting to be liked, wanting to be invited to the parties, and fearing that I’ll mess up my chances.  Truth is, that very fear is what could sabotage the deal. When we’re afraid to be who we are, afraid that we won’t be accepted, we act different. You know, like in an awkward way. That makes us, you know, like, stumble over our words and stuff.

The day after dinner, hosting friend dropped off our serving bowl with an encouraging note. Had a great time. Would love to have you over again soon.

Excellent.  Just not too soon, I thought.  I need time to recover from the stress of the first dinner.  Maybe next time we’ll try being ourselves and see how that goes.  How bad could it be?

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