I was raised by wolves. This makes things like human manners and decorum a very foreign concept.
My mother on manners:
Don’t talk (lest you embarrass me and I have to kill you)!
Talk (lest you embarrass me with your shyness and I have to kill you)!
Don’t embarrass me (you get the picture?)!
Don’t leave guests unattended in the living room (and for this infraction, my sister Alys was beaten within an inch of her little life)!
Basically, I was raised in an environment that thought children should neither be seen nor heard. We only ate at a table together twice a year–Thanksgiving and Christmas. We looked at both holidays with dread, just waiting to screw up year after year–an easy thing when Mom knows all the rules and doesn’t tell you what they are.
My childhood friend, Tipper, lived in a very proper home. She lived in the fanciest digs of any of my friends in Washington Heights. Her parents were college educated. They made sure that though Tipper was materially spoiled, she was a vibrant, warm and genuine kid. Her mother was one of those PTA moms that was always involved despite being strapped to a wheelchair because of a disability. Her father was an anamoly in a neighborhood of single mother households.
I loved visiting Tipper, an only child, because she had a giant bedroom full of toys that had not suffered at the hands of little sisters. Still, I winced each and every time Tipper’s mother invited us over for dinner. I was slapped for being shy at one evening party. I was slapped for putting my elbows on the table at another. I was slapped for pretty much anything and as you can imagine, slapping does not a Miss Manners create.
My husband says I’m a raicist when I tell him I don’t want to learn white people rules. Ironically, I spent most of my teaching career telling my students that they had to learn to code-switch because it was a neccessity in being able to navigate a world of rules they wouldn’t naturally understand. I don’t really do justice to Dominicans everywhere when I pretend that my bad manners are a cultural heritage. There are definitely different rules about the way people talk and treat each other and the kinds of things little old Dominican ladies, the queens of the kvetch, share with each other. My cousins in the motherland though are paragons of manners: “Yes. Please. Thank you” come easily to them while I stumble along, mostly on my face.
I’ve been working on teaching myself to have manners ever since I ran away and escaped from the jungle into the real world. I’ve learned most of my manners from the modeling of good friends. It’s easier that way. The hard times are when people point out that you have no idea what you’re doing and they think they know the best way to fix it. Now, the hard part is realizing that I had just been about to figure out how to do it all when I decided to switch over to the Jewish world, a world of new rules.
As a Jew, I am surrounded by people who have spent most of their lives meeting up over elaborate dinners on a weekly basis. They are used to sitting around tables laden with three or more different types of forks, fish plates, dessert plates and the list just goes on. My husband joked during our presentation on conversion at LimmudLA that I have as difficult a time identifying which utensil to use as I do identifying what is actually being served before me. The most common question I ask, he says, is “What is that?!” and I ask it at every meal.
If conversion is like being transplanted into another world, then I am a cultural astronaut. I’ve been one ever since my escape from the asylum. Being raised by savages, I always feel that I am on the periphery of all cultures, learning to abide by the rules in the most haphazard manner. And now adding on a disability to the mix, I have to figure out which is more important…being healthy and staying healthy or being a good guest. Because where good guests, I’ve been told, don’t do yoga moves during dinner while the next course is being passed, good FMS (Fibromyalgia Syndrome) patients do.