Perfect Propriety at a Time of Tragedy, Vol. 12, Issue 10

The City of Boston, Massachusetts, has just undergone one of the worst weeks in its almost-400-year history, the bombing of the Boston Marathon and subsequent manhunt for its two suspects. Five people, including one of the suspects, were killed, and dozens more injured, some grievously. The bravery of many men and women has led Etiquetteer to reflect on how best to react in such situations:

  • Aid the wounded or get out of the way. Etiquetteer admires the unbounded courage of the first responders who rushed into the smoke not knowing what they would find, or even able to see where they were going. Those unable to follow their example, for whatever reason, do best to clear the way for first responders. The standard fire-escape announcement in theatres comes to mind: "Exit the building from the nearest available exit and move away from the building quickly."
  • Comfort the afflicted. Everyone reacts to tragedy differently. Some internalize their reactions and manifest them later; others exhibit emotions right away. Etiquetteer was deeply moved by the generosity of Brent Cunningham, who gave his medal to another runner, Laura Wellington. Ms. Wellington, a runner who was deeply distressed at not being able to find her family after the bombing, was discovered weeping by Mr. Cunningham and his wife. He gave her his medal - what magnificent sportsmanship! - and has now received hers, since she was able to receive her own only a few hours later. Boston saw many such encounters throughout the week. They are an example to all of us.
  • Be patient with the network, however frustrating. Telecommunications went haywire after the bombing, leaving many people unable to connect reliably with loved ones. This underscores the need to select a meeting place in advance, as many runners did with their families, perhaps even an alternate location in case the first is inaccessible. It's also a good reminder to stay calm enough to speak slowly and distinctly with good diction, so that you'll definitely be understood over static and background noise on the line.
  • Reach out to those you love. Everyone knows Etiquetteer's fondness for Lovely Notes, and those may come later. But telephone and electronic communications - brief, concise, and specific - mean a great deal. Etiquetteer, though never in danger, greatly appreciated expressions of concern via text message, email, and voicemail.
  • Use the arts to heal. Etiquetteer took heart reading that several museums and other arts organizations in Boston waived their admission fees in the days after the tragedy. In the words of MFA director Malcolm Rogers, “It’s doing something positive. You’ve just seen a horrible example of what a perverted human mind can do. What the works of art in our care show is what the human mind and the human hands can do at their greatest and their most inspired.” In the days after the bombing, people came together to sing - not only the National Anthem, from which many draw comfort at such times, at the Boston Red Sox game - but also in the streets to sing hymns, and to raise money for the victims. And let us not forget those who came prepared to sing hymns over picketers from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (who, to the relief of all, did not appear). All these expressions of Beauty are necessary for healing.
  • Restrain your greed. Etiquetteer was incensed to read that not long after the tragedy, 2013 Boston Marathon medals appeared for sale on eBay. Etiquetteer is not going to speculate on whether or not those medals were obtained ethically in the first place. But even if they were, this is too soon.
  • Think before you speak. Etiquetteer was deeply disappointed when the FBI had to chastise the media about its inaccurate reporting that a suspect was in custody and en route to the Moakley Courthouse. This led not only to a convergence of the curious on the courthouse, but also its evacuation. Nor was the situation helped by individuals spreading rumors or incorrectly reported facts via the many forms of social media. "Least said, soonest mended" and "Loose lips sink ships" are still good maxims. Get your facts straight and, if you can't, pipe down until someone else does.
  • Or don't speak at all. Unfortunately several people tried to take political advantage of the tragedy to further their own particular views, which is cynical at best and downright offensive at worst. The instance that seems to have provoked the most backlash was undoubtedly Arkansas state representative Nate Bell's comments via Twitter to work in the national debate on gun control. To which Etiquetteer can only quote the character Cornelia Robson in Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, who says "Cousin Marie says politicians aren't gentlemen."
Now that the surviving suspect is in custody and daily life in the city returns to its expected rhythms, Etiquetteer encourages everyone to use Patience and Kindness with those you meet, both in person and online.

In Memory of Two Great Ladies, Vol. 6, Issue 32

It was bad enough losing Brooke Astor earlier this year. Mrs. Astor was perhaps the last Truly Great Lady known throughout the United States, and she left a legacy of Good Works and Perfect Propriety behind her when she died at age 105.

There are two types of Great Lady. The Grande Dame is the type we’re used to, distinguished by wealth and a casual attitude toward it, flawless manners and presentation, ascetic figure, a general air of noblesse oblige, and Devotion to a Cause. The second type is characterized by a wealth of spirit, effusive manners, a comfortable figure, a general air of good humor and compassion, and Devotion to Those Around Her. The world became a lesser place last week when it lost two Great Ladies, one of each type: Cathryn Keith and Mary Alice Hollingsworth Hairston Gibson.

Mrs. Keith’s devotion to her particular cause, Boston Ballet, shone as an example to others for around 40 years. She not only contributed generously but gave of herself: creating the Ballet’s boutique, stitching costumes, shelving office supplies, and even getting on her knees to tackle the office filing. Etiquetteer approached her about this more than once – she was, after all, in her nineties by this time – and her answer was always "I’m helping to build a cathedral."

She cared about everyone involved in the Company. We often think of Grandes Dames as having their noses in the air, but Mrs. Keith was not That Sort. She was glad to be part of the "chain of human sympathies." Indeed, her kindness to others made one want to extend kindness to her. Her excitement over receiving a surprise plum tart, an invitation to tea, or a photograph of her beloved Rupert Brooke warmed the heart. Last week she left behind many friends, countless friends, who no doubt feel sad that they can no longer offer her favors.

The one area of Perfect Propriety on which she and Etiquetteer differed concerned funerals. Mrs. Keith always insisted that there be no funeral or memorial service for her, no gathering of any kind. She once told Etiquetteer that she’d been to a funeral with everyone weeping and crying and sad, and she wanted no part of that. Etiquetteer must gently disagree. Tears aside, comfort may be found in coming together as a group to remember the dead and to acknowledge feelings of sadness. (Etiquetteer loathes the term "celebration of the life," which ostentatiously denies legitimate feelings of grief when a loved one dies.) But one does not contradict the wishes of Great Ladies – and Etiquetteer can show you the scars from when he has – and will privately lift a glass and reread Rupert Brooke’s "Dining Room Tea" to her memory.

Very few Grandes Dames are made any longer; Etiquetteer can only think of one under the age of 50. Mere wealth isn’t enough – though many wealthy ladies think it is! The other type continues to populate our Great Nation in larger numbers, and let us hope it always does.

Cousin Mary Alice, a cornerstone of any large family gathering, was such a Life Force on her own that it is difficult to think of her having Gone to her Heavenly Reward. She lavished her talents on those around her: making wedding and prom dresses for neighbor women, going into the Mississippi public schools to teach crafts, serving as church organist (and as a pianist at Sunday worship for every family reunion), and as a prodigious correspondent, even into her nineties. Under what many would have considered insurmountable odds – try raising five children on your own – she achieved two college degrees and a successful career in human services.

A Great Lady also exhibits integrity, and Etiquetteer loved hearing the story of how Mary Alice resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when Marian Anderson was denied use of their Constitution Hall for a recital back in 1939.

While she seasoned her conversation with the spice of reminiscence and the salt of an occasional naughty story, Mary Alice also paid attention to the troubles of others and could offer a word or a shoulder to encourage one to Keep Going. Even at age 93 her exuberance continued. What her mother called her "merry heart" she wore on her sleeve and her lips. As one of her family said "You know the angels are throwing a party for her in Heaven now!" Etiquetteer, who could not travel to Mississippi for the funeral, will certainly do so, but on a smaller scale.

[All Etiquetteer's efforts to find a photograph of Mary Alice among his voluminous files have come to naught. When Etiquetteer can locate one it will certainly be added to this page.]

So we see that the shared characteristic of Great Ladies is their ability to give of themselves. What better legacy could these ladies leave?

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