My grandmother, “Don’t you dare call me Grandma,” Nellie, had one goal in life — to teach her wild grandchildren to have good manners. As a child, I sat through hours of angst-ridden instructions on the proper handling of silverware and napkins. A lesson on how to hold your glass properly so as not to end up with a milk mustache seemed particularly useless. My only concern at home on the farm with my sister and brothers was how to obtain the actual milk before they did.
One Thanksgiving dinner Grandmother Nellie assigned me the chair to her right to “control Teresa’s fidgeting,” as she said. She spent the meal correcting my every move. “Pass the food from left to right. Don’t gulp your water, sip it. Quit fidgeting!” Toward the end of the meal she whispered between gritted teeth, “Get your elbows off the table..now!”
I yanked my arms away and slid my elbows through the slats in the back of the chair, where they promptly got stuck. I sat quietly through the rest of the meal. My arms were tucked tight against my sides, my elbows held firmly from behind by the hateful chair slats. I politely declined any extra food offered to me and although Grandmother expressed her unhappiness at the food left on my plate, she did praise me for sitting so upright and proper.
People began to notice something was wrong when I left the dessert, angel food cake (my favorite) untouched on my plate. Grandmother immediately demanded that I remove my elbows from the chair but I could not get them free. I’m not sure when the tears started, probably when my older brother suggested we cut off my arms.
Disgusted with the entire scene, Grandmother marched into her bedroom and returned with her face cream. She slathered up each of my elbows and they finally slid free. She hurried to the kitchen and returned with a soft dishtowel. Grandmother knelt down and murmured, “Oh dear, I hope there’s no damage,” as she gently wiped the greasy face cream from the slats of her chair.
Thanks to Grandmother Nellie, I am comfortable at any formal gathering. I know how to use the proper fork and which direction to pass the food. I can even drink a foamy latte without getting a milk mustache. And my elbows? They’re right where they belong. Safely resting on the table.