Be kind, my darling girl. And be happy!
Spring was in the air—ripe, verdant, full of promise. And with the spring came the rush and clamor of weddings.
Marietta Muir stood on the porch of her cottage in her nightgown and robe. Across the gravel drive was the main house—her Sea Breeze. The old white wooden house with its black shutters and gabled windows was dark and quiet in these early hours. It was a handsome house, she thought, taking in the gracious staircase that curved out like a smile of welcome. To the left was the unsightly, leaning wood garage. In the center of the courtyard an immense, ancient live oak tree spread low-drooping boughs that to her appeared as a great hand protecting them all from harm. The tree and the house had survived generations of Muir ancestors and countless storms and hurricanes. That it could weather them all, scarred and bent perhaps, yet endure, was testament to the strength of the family.
Marietta lived in the small white cottage that had once been the home of her longtime maid and companion, Lucille. To her mind, it would always be “Lucille’s cottage.” Marietta had moved to the cottage when her granddaughter Harper had purchased the house from her, thus keeping Sea Breeze in the family. It was a good decision. Living in the quaint guest cottage, Marietta was free of the hassles and distractions of caring for that big house and all those possessions. She’d spent a lifetime tending the house, closing shutters for rooms filled with antiques, cooking meals, presiding over parties or going to parties, decorating for holidays, and celebrating the milestones of her family’s lives. She no longer had the energy, or in truth the desire, to do all that. Running a household and raising children were tasks for the young!
She held a cup of coffee in her hands and sipped slowly, enjoying the warmth. Now she could enjoy the peace of a lowcountry morning such as this when the air was heady with scents. She lowered her cup from her nose and breathed deep. Coffee still lingered in the air, but there was the pervasive scent of pluff mud this morning and the cloying sweetness of jasmine and other spring flowers that tickled her nose. Salt tinged the moist breezes from the ocean. Smacking her lips, she could almost taste it. And, too, there was that delightful freshness of mist and dewy grass that lingered like spirits at dawn.
Marietta awoke with the sun most mornings now. Nights were restless and she was eager to rise from her bed and greet the new day. At eighty-one years of age, each day granted was a blessing. And today was especially exciting. Carson was arriving home. Harper and Dora were positively spinning with anticipation. Now they could begin the wedding festivities in earnest, for in only two months’ time, both Carson and Harper would be celebrating their weddings.
Just the thought gave Marietta palpitations. So much had to be done. So much she wanted to say to the girls before they took this important step in their lives.
But what? What wise words could she share with them that would inspire? What words could she say that they could pull from their memories when times were tough and they needed reassurance and guidance to persevere?
When Marietta was soon to be married, her mother, Barbara, had taken her to tea for a private mother-daughter tête-à-tête. Marietta’s wedding day was only a week away, and a flurry of parties were being given by friends and family. Barbara had set aside this time alone with her daughter, to share with her the advice that only a mother could. That afternoon over Darjeeling tea, her mother had presented Marietta with a book of etiquette by Emily Post. Now that Marietta was setting up a home of her own, her mother said, she wanted her to have guidance at her fingertips for any question she might have regarding the correct deportment of a lady with a well-appointed house. Marietta had already been thoroughly instructed on the rules of conduct, the customs, and the expectations of Charleston society. “Yet,” her mother had told her, “refinement and charm are more elusive.”
She had placed the book in Marietta’s hands and said, “My dear girl, remember that this book only outlines for you the thousands of detailed instructions and protocol of polite society. But at the root of all etiquette and manners is kindness. These rules were not contrived to make one feel important or better than another. As Emily Post said, rules can be learned by anyone. Every human being—unless dwelling alone in a cave—is a member of society of one sort or another.
“Rather, think of etiquette as a philosophy of living and enjoying life with grace, compassion, and respect for others. If, say, someone at your dinner table uses your bread plate, do you make a fuss? Of course not. You must be gracious and make no mention of it. Why? Because you would not want to embarrass the other guest. To do otherwise is the gravest breach of etiquette. You see, while etiquette provides the rules for socially accepted behavior, good manners are how we apply those rules. Being a gentleman or a lady is a code of behavior that draws on decency, integrity, and loyalty—not only to friends and family but to principles. So be kind, my darling girl. And be happy!”
Marietta had held her mother’s words close to her heart throughout her long marriage. Emily Post’s Etiquette had guided her through thank-you notes, birth announcements, the introductions of dignitaries, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. But her mother’s words were the spirit behind them.
Mamaw smiled and snapped to action. With two weddings approaching, she knew exactly what she had to do.
She closed her robe tight and hurried back into the cottage. Inside, the walls and sparse furniture were all white. Splashes of color brightened the room in the lowcountry art and the blue linen drapes at the windows. She went directly to the one wall lined with bookshelves. This was the only change she’d made to the cottage after her granddaughters had redecorated it following Lucille’s death. Marietta loved her books and had had a difficult time choosing which to keep from her vast library. The furniture she had no difficulty parting with. But the books were like old friends.
Marietta knew the book was here somewhere. She’d never throw it out. Her fingertips slid over the spines of dozens of books packed side by side on a shelf. At last she found it. Emily Post’s Etiquette. She pulled it out and caressed the well-worn blue binding with satisfaction. Opening it, she found the folded book cover and the inscription on the opening page, With best wishes! Emily Post.
She went to the sofa, flicked on the lamp, crossed her legs, and, after slipping on her reading glasses, began to read, going through the chapters: “Introductions,” “The Art of Conversation,” “Entertaining at a Restaurant,” “Balls and Dances,” “Preparations for a Wedding,” “Table Manners,” “Protocol in Washington,” and so on. The tone was encouraging and concise, the instructions thorough and direct. She felt again the same awe and wonder—and trepidation—at reading the countless rules for specific situations that she had experienced as that young bride sixtysome years earlier. Marietta had to admit she’d forgotten some—such as calling cards—but for the most part, the rules of etiquette were as ingrained in her as her DNA. She read until the sun brightened the sky, her coffee cup was empty, and her eyes grew weary. She paused, slipped off her glasses, and let her hand rest on the book.