Courtesy wasn't really optional in my childhood home. I grew up with two sisters just older than me. If I wasn't courteous to them, they would slug me.
Yes, I saw the irony (even though in those days I thought "irony" was a shirt that needed a lot of pressing). And no, I didn't say anything about it. That would've been rude.
And — let's face it — painful.
Kathy, my youngest sister, had a strange fascination with my eating habits. She felt it was her duty to point out to our mother that I was taking more than my share of mashed potatoes, or that I was hiding my parsnips under pieces of fat from the roast beef. And whenever we traveled and Dad bought hamburgers for us to eat on the way, Kathy would intentionally wait until after I had hungrily wolfed mine down before she would start eating hers. And then she would torment me with the deliberately long, slow, luxurious chewing of her hamburger.
I thought that was rude. She said it was just good manners.
And then she stuck her bun-and-burger-and-special-sauce-covered tongue out at me.
Wanda Lynne, on the other hand, was anxious to make me a kind and courteous Lothario. Never mind that I was still years away from actually dating. Wanda Lynne wanted to make sure I would treat the girls I dated better than the boys she was dating were treating her — at least, that was my theory. So she made me open doors for her and help her into her chair at dinner. And when we walked up the hill to church, she taught me to walk on the inside closest to the road. She said it was courteous for me to do this so if a car came by and splashed water or snow it would hit me before it hit the girl I was with. But I always thought she was secretly hoping an inattentive driver would come along and pick me off.
Years later, I went away to college, and I remembered the things my sisters had taught me. I assumed that was the way that grown-up people act, and as an 18-year-old college freshman I wanted more than anything else to act like a grown-up. So as I walked into the library for the first time, I noticed an older woman — probably at least a junior — walking behind me, and I held the door open for her.
"What's the matter?" she asked, glaring at me. "Do you think that because I'm a woman I'm not strong enough to open a door for myself?"
I was stunned … and speechless.
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Freshmen," she muttered, brushing past me.
I stood there for a moment, my face was flushed and warm from embarrassment. I decided that there would be no more door opening or chair holding or closest-to-the-traffic walking for me. And if I wanted to eat the last of the mashed potatoes in the cafeteria, so be it!
As I stood there, however, another upperclassman approached the library door, her arms overloaded with textbooks. Instinctively, I reached to open the door for her. I grimaced as soon as I realized what I had done, and I braced myself for the muttered invective that was sure to follow. Instead, I received a warm smile and a look of relief.
"Thanks!" she said brightly. "It's nice to see we still have a few gentlemen around here!"
Of course, if I were REALLY a gentleman I would have offered to help her with her books. But I was still a little gun-shy, and I didn't want to press my luck. Even so, I decided that the good feeling I got from performing an act of simple courtesy was worth the possibility of bluster. To do otherwise would be to go against a lifetime of training — not to mention rendering meaningless countless sisterly slugs. Three years later I met a beautiful freshman who actually appreciated my courtesy to her, and for 35 years we've been trying to out-nice each other.
I've been thinking about this lately, especially since September is National Courtesy Month. And I've noticed that while the world in which we live can be dark and sometimes foreboding, courtesy and kindness bring pleasant, refreshing light to our lives whether we are the giver, the receiver or just an interested observer. A teenager stands to give an elderly man her seat on a crowded bus. A motorist slows to allow another vehicle to merge onto the freeway. A shopper with a week's worth of groceries in his cart allows someone with only a few items to go ahead of him in the check-out line. Such simple courtesies don't necessarily change our lives, but they can change the way we feel about them.
Even without the slugging.
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