My mother’s words were magic wands that cast spells over miles and generations. Certainly, three of those words, “Be a lady,” seem to have given mystical powers to those who heard them.
We’ll start with my brother-in-law, Fred, and my mother, Ghita.
“Exactly when did Mom tell you to be a lady?” I asked, knowing that he was the Johnny Appleseed of Interesting Events.
Fred’s voice took on a tone of annoyance. “You know that Thomas, is crazy. Don’t you?”’ He grumbled, speaking of an old family friend.
“Of course,” I nodded.
“He never stops talking about his damn birds. The living ones. The dead ones. The ones that bite the hands that feed them. Their breeding. Their talent. The encyclopedias they’ve read and the books that they’ve reviewed.”
Then Fred told me the story. Of how, at a typical family gathering in the living room of my mother’s apartment, Thomas was blabbering on (and on and on). Meanwhile, Fred had become so frustrated, bored, and annoyed that, unbeknownst to himself, he had begun to show his irritation.
My mother motioned him out of the room.
“What’s wrong with you?” She asked.
“What do you mean?” Fred asked innocently. “I wasn’t doing anything. I was sitting there quietly, and I didn’t say a word.”
“Maybe you didn’t say anything,” my mother went on, “but your face!”
“What’s wrong with my face?”
“Your mouth curves down into a smirk, your jaw tightens, and you roll your eyes with scorn. You may think nobody notices, but we all do. Thomas included.”
Fred rolled his eyes again. “But he’s so boring.”
“Thomas being boring,” my mother said calmly, “does not preclude you from the responsibility of acting like a lady.”
“A lady!” Fred snorted. “I’m a man. How can a man act like a lady?”
Momentarily, my mother’s beautiful green eyes looked stern. But they softened as she said, “To be a lady means to be as gracious, gentle, patient, and kind as you can be with people like Thomas.”
Fred did not respond. He looked at my mother. His eyes shifted across the room, and he looked at the man whose incessant yammering had driven him half mad. He thought, “Thomas talks too much, but he is unsparingly generous; he is harmless; and his only crime is that he can’t control his vocal cords.”
Fred smiled. First, at a lesson learned, and then at my mother. He kissed her on the check, nodded, and they both returned to the living room. From that point on, Fred acted like a lady.
Which brings us to a day this past summer when he picked me up at the airport, and was driving me to his home for a visit with my sister.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Fred began.
I settled myself comfortably in the car seat. I love Fred’s stories.
“I had a difficult decision to make,” he said. “A dear friend died, and I didn’t want to go to the reception after the funeral. My ex-wife was going to be there, I hadn’t seen her in forty years, and I never wanted to see her again. But my son desperately wanted me to go.”
Fred went on to tell me that he and his son had been estranged, had rebuilt their relationship, and had become very close. “I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I dreaded an encounter with my ex-wife.”
Then (imagine a light bulb going on in Fred’s head), he remembered my mother. “Be a lady,” Ghita had admonished him. And it all fell into place. Fred went to his friend’s funeral, gave a heart-felt speech at the reception, and greeted his ex-wife with graciousness, patience, and savoir-faire. If he was gritting his teeth the whole time that he was speaking to her, nobody knew. Least of all himself.
“Your mother,” Fred ended the story, “was a wise, wise woman.”
Fast forward to a month ago when, for some reason beyond my comprehension, I told my friend Katie about Fred, my mother, and “Be a lady.”
Our conversational train moved on, and I forgot that I had told her.
Last week, Katie told me about a terrible experience at work. Her usual job is to drive a truck for a parcel delivery company. However, during the busy season, she can be assigned to anything from sorting packages, to stockroom inventory, to machine maintenance. When she checked out her work sheet that morning, she found that her ex-boyfriend, Bert, who had been ceaselessly harassing her over the two years since they’d broken up, was assigned to “ride shotgun” for parcel delivery in her truck.
Katie’s first response was rage. How dare they expect me to drive alone with him all day!
Then, she told me, she remembered Fred’s story. Repeating the words, “Be a lady,” over and over in her mind, she strode into her supervisor’s office and calmly stated, “I can work with Bert in the stockroom, in the machinery room, or in the packaging room, but I will not ride with him for eight hours in my truck.”
She nodded serenely, spun around in her clumpy work boots, and elegantly walked out of the room.
Katie’s supervisor’s paid heed.
Bert was reassigned; Katie delivered her packages; and tranquility found a new nesting place in her heart. My mother’s words of wisdom had triumphed once again.
If I could turn “Essence of Ghita” into pixie dust, I would put it in a bottle, fly all around the world, and sprinkle it in the breakfast cereal of every person on the planet. If I could remind neighbors during arguments or disputes to be “as gracious, gentle, patient, and kind as you can” with those who (like foolish Thomas and Katie’s supervisor) are not dangerous, but merely unaware, I would do that, too.
But I don’t have a magic bottle; I can’t fly; and manufacturing pixie dust is not included in my repertoire of talents.
All I have are Fred’s story and my mother’s three words.
Would that it were enough.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.