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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 têteà-
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.
Were these rules relevant to a young bride today? she wondered.
Would Harper and Carson find them daunting? Would
Dora have utilized these in her marriage to Cal?
They were not her daughters, but her granddaughters. They
affectionately called her Mamaw and their bond was strong,
indeed. She had done her best to instruct the girls in proper
manners when they’d spent summers with her at Sea Breeze,
but she didn’t oversee their upbringing or guide them day to
day. She had no worries that Harper knew her etiquette. In
England, her family was in Debrett’s. Dora’s mother, Winifred,
bless her heart, did her best. Even if Winnie knew the letter of
the law and not the spirit. Carson, however, was a wild card.
Raised by Marietta’s son, Carson might as well have been raised
by wolves. Looking back, Marietta saw that she’d failed Carson
by not insisting that the young girl live with her in Charleston
rather than with her father in Los Angeles. Yet the girl had a
natural grace and a passion for living that no amount of education
could teach. Carson knew enough manners to get by. Marietta
sighed. How to set a table, at the least. The rest, Marietta
knew, Carson could learn.
Mamaw tapped her lips, considering. Certainly for the parties
and the wedding ceremonies, protocol played an important
role. Especially in the church. Goodness, without protocol
they’d all be walking around utterly clueless what to do next.
Protocol was reassuring in such times, and Mamaw was confident
that she could guide the fledglings in the proper procedures
for the ceremonies. With a slight lift of her chin she
thought that sometimes being old had advantages.
As for the rest . . . it might be true that some of the rules
of etiquette from the past were outdated. Yet didn’t etiquette,
like language and customs, evolve and adapt to current times?
Treating others with kindness, consideration, and respect was
timeless. All should be aware of how their actions affect others
in their daily lives.
Marriage was hard work. As in the vows the young brides
and grooms were going to say, there was indeed sickness and
health, poverty and wealth, till death do us part. Only in the wis-
dom of experience could one hear those words and understand
the depth of their meaning.
Marietta had lived a charmed life in many ways. Yet she’d
also endured the sadness of miscarriages and the crushing blow
of the death of her only child. Edward had been her support
during those trials, but when he died, it was her dear friend
Lucille who had seen her through the darkness to the light.
Then Lucille, too, had passed, and Marietta was alone again.
Her granddaughters were a solace, true, but she’d also discovered
a different sort of comfort and companionship in an old
So, perhaps, marriage wasn’t the only answer for a compatible
relationship? she wondered. Partnership and friendship
were important ingredients. Still, she believed marriage was an
institution set up by society to protect the concept of family.
Marriage offered security and stability in a world quickly losing
values, customs, and traditions. This she wanted for her granddaughters.
Yet, in the end, her mother had only wanted Marietta to be
happy. Happy with her husband, happy in her society, happy in
her home. Isn’t that what every mother wished for her daughter?
Shouldn’t she wish only that for her Summer Girls?
She sighed and cupped her chin in her palm. So what to
say? Lord, she prayed, help me find the words. Then she smiled
again and the answer came readily. She would tell each young
bride the same words her mother had told her so many years
ago. Simple words that had withstood the test of time.
Be kind, my darling girl. And be happy!