“Why” was one of my favourite words growing up. I would like to say this was indicative of my highly inquisitive and curious nature (e.g. “Father, why is the sky blue?”), but truth be told, the word “why” crossed my lips more than any other in response to my mother trying to get me to do something I didn’t want to do. “Billy, make your bed,” my mother would tell me. “Why?” I would ask. “Billy, finish your vegetables,” she would command. “Why?” “Billy, be nice to your sister.” “Why?”
These discussions were typically short-lived because my mother would eventually lay down the trump card of all maternal communications: “Because I said so.” And as clever as I like to think that I was in my youth, I could never come up with a proper retort to this.
Enter my grandmother, Leesie. During one of her visits, she witnessed one of these exchanges with my mother, this time around the seemingly endless battle over my table manners. “Billy, get your elbows off the table,” she said. “Why?” I replied. And just as my mother was drawing breath to respond, Leesie jumped in. “Because Billy, if you don’t get your elbows off the table, you’ll never dine at The Plaza, then you’ll end up like your poor cousin Simon…and, well, we all know what happened to him.”
The Plaza Hotel and good manners
Though I had certainly heard of The Plaza Hotel, I had never heard of poor cousin Simon, so I was instantly intrigued. “Uhhh…what happened to Simon?”
And then Leesie proceeded to regale me and my brothers in the tale of cousin Simon who, despite the constant efforts of his dear mother, refused to get his elbows off the table, put his napkin in his lap, hold a fork properly, not eat so fast or chew with his mouth closed. “Simon’s mother tried everything to get him to change his uncouth ways, but to no avail,” Leesie explained with a sigh. “His stubbornness wore that poor woman down, and after years of trying, she simply gave up.”
“Years later, and Simon is a young man in New York City, fresh out of college, ready to put his mark on the world. Through a family connection, Simon was able to secure an interview with a prominent banker, who suggested they meet for lunch at the legendary Plaza Hotel. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly until lunch arrived and Simon started eating, or more accurately shovelling food into his face with his fork held wrong, both his elbows and his napkin on the table, food spraying out of his open mouth as he talked with it full.”
“Well, the collective gasp in the dining room was audible,” said Leesie, “as one and all stared in disbelief and disgust at Simon’s table. The room fell completely silent except for the lonely clip of the Maître ‘d’s heels as he scurried over to Simon’s table and said in a hushed voice just loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Sir, please leave The Plaza Hotel at once and never come back here again.’ Simon was going to argue with the man, but he could tell it would be no use. And while the banker and others watched, Simon shuffled dejected and humiliated out of The Plaza Hotel, never to return again.”
“Needless to say,” Leesie continued, “Simon didn’t get that banking job, nor did he get any job in New York for the reputation of his awful table manners spread throughout the city. And so, unable to find work, Simon slipped into poverty, where he remained until his untimely death at the age of 25.”
“So you see Billy,” said my grandmother, “good table manners may seem silly to you now, but you will be glad you have them later in life. For good table manners are the sign of a good man, and a good man gets hired, gets married and always gets to dine at The Plaza.” And then she grasped hold of my hands, looked me in the eyes and said, “That, my dear boy, is why you need to listen to your mother and get your elbows off the table.” And so I did that very night, and my elbows have stayed off the table ever since.
The art of being a master storyteller
My grandmother Leesie was truly a master storyteller, and as children, we were not only entertained by those stories but also enlightened and inspired by them. Leesie was brilliant at telling stories that made a point that in turn made a change in the way we saw a situation, felt about it and acted as a result. She understood how much more powerful it was to motivate people towards a desired action versus commanding them toward it, and she used stories to create that motivation within us.
My mother was always very clear with what she wanted us to do (still is, God love her). Leesie was very skilled at using stories to help us understand and appreciate why we would want to do it. She seemed to have a story for any situation, and it wasn’t until we were much older and she was approaching 100 that we learned just how many of those stories were made up. But whether those stories were rooted in fact or fiction didn’t matter; we were all the wiser, richer and infinitely more well-mannered as a result of them.