This is my post for my friend George’s “No D Day” initiative.
I am in my early 50’s. I am the youngest child of a man who was himself the youngest child of his parents. His parents were born a long time ago. My dad’s parents were born and raised in Liverpool, England. Though they were born about the time of the death of Queen Victoria, they were (as my dad once pointed out) reared by and among people who had spent the bulk of their lives absorbing the ethos of the Victorian age. Victorian England is noted for a rigid social structure and pronounced rules for proper behavior. Further, my grandfather spent First World War fighting in what is now Afghanistan with the British Army, an institution that would have strongly reinforced the values of the England of that era.
My father could not have been described as a Victorian: he was raised in New Jersey rather than Lancashire. But, he was raised by Victorians. My grandmother (“Nana”) had it seemed thousands of rules for my dad and his siblings, and was quite capable of making up more on the spot. If she disapproved of something without being able to quite say why, she would sniff and describe it as ‘unnecessary’. Granddad was less rigid in personality, but carried a strong sense of the way a ‘gentleman’ behaved and treated those around him. For example, a gentleman reacted to adversity with a ‘stiff upper lip’ -- without complaint, and certainly without tears.
I’m certainly not a Victorian either. Yet I carry a few vestiges of an older ethos, like cobwebs in the corner of my mind. These things mostly don’t fit in our time, and don’t one the whole do me again good. Like my dad, I am overly respectful of those in authority or who are regarded as important. Other things are merely eccentric: if I am walking down the street with a woman, for example, I often find myself jockeying to be between my companion and the street itself in order to provide her with some protection from being splattered with mud or degree. While many in our culture retain the notion of ‘ladies first’ (a notion I think regarded as harmless despite being a bit sexist), no one else I know was taught that the exception is that a gentleman precedes a woman up stairs so that he doesn’t wind up with his face too close to her posterior. I don’t think of this all that often, but there have been a couple of awkward moments at bus stops as I am rude by current standards while unconsciously following the politeness of a past time.
Sometimes one of these out-of-date rules has led me into humorous situations. I was taught that you don’t discuss a woman’s pregnancy with her unless she has told you that she’s expecting. This is not all bad: though I’ve said a lot of stupid things, I’ve never asked a woman who’s not pregnant when she’s due. But I will always remember the day that I encountered a friend I hadn’t seen in some time and was introduced to his extremely pregnant wife. As we chatted, my friend made a reference that there were changes coming to their lives. I couldn’t help it. Even as my mouth began to form the words, I knew I was going to look like an idiot. But, in the moment, I could not think of anything else to say. So I croaked out, “Oh? And what changes would those be?” My friend grinned and gestured at the swollen belly of his wife, who shyly smiled and blushed. I bet I blushed, too, knowing that I’d come off as foolish. Mostly, though, I’m not ashamed of my old-fashioned streak, even when it gets in my way. Yes, it’s a little different, but all of us have our tics. And being concerned with treating people with courtesy and respect is not a bad thing, even when it goes a bit far. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I feel the urge to go read some Dickens.