I was a boy. We were in a supermarket parking lot. I held my mother’s hand. We saw an old woman walking into the store ahead of us. She was frail, with a scarf wrapped around her white hair.
My mother pushed me toward the door. I knew what she wanted me to do.
“Be a gentleman,” she said.
And somehow, I knew what this meant. It meant I was to rush ahead of the woman and open the door for her. And when the woman thanked me, I knew which two words my mother wanted me to say.
Supermarkets did away with swinging doors a long time ago. They replaced them with automatic doors and the age of chivalry suffered another blow.
Today, the only way to open a supermarket door for an approaching female is to jog ahead, wave your hands in front of the electronic sensor, and shout, “Hurry!”
If she’s feisty, she’ll slide past you like she’s stealing third.
Being a gentleman was a big deal in my family. I never knew exactly what a gentleman was, per se, but I knew what he was supposed to do.
For starters, a gentleman always washes his hands before supper.
My mother never even had to say the words “wash your hands.” Instead, she would wear a stern face and say, “Hands, Mister.”
And that was enough. I knew if I appeared at her table with dirt beneath my fingernails I would be dragged behind the porch and shot.
My mother also believed a gentleman should walk on the curb-side of a sidewalk when accompanying a woman, or when letting her pass.
This was an odd rule. I never understood it until years later, strolling through Atlanta. I was with several of my friends. A young lady was approaching on the sidewalk. She wore a yellow dress.
I could hear my mother’s voice in my mind. “Be a gentleman.”
I moved to the curb and let the lovely pass. It was at this exact moment a truck raced past us. The truck hit a puddle and my jeans got sprayed with water.
My friends laughed, but I realized something very important that day.
My mother was brilliant.
I was also brought up to believe that a gentleman never wore a hat indoors. And because of this, I still can’t do it. You can’t unlearn old habits.
My father never passed through an entrance with his cap on, and I guess I take after him. My father also used his hat to greet females. He would either pinch his bill and tip it downward, or lift the hat clean off his head.
I wonder what happened to hat tipping.
But there was a sin more grievous than wearing a hat indoors, and that was wearing one to Mama’s supper table. People have been skinned alive for less.
I remember once, after I’d been riding the range, I galloped home for lunch. It had been a long day. I’d defended a small border town in Old Mexico, and prevented the stage from being robbed. But these feats didn’t impress Mama.
I pulled up a chair and waited for my cheese sandwich. But my mother would not serve it.
Mama only cleared her throat and said, “The last man who wore a hat at my table still eats his lunch through a straw.”
I removed my ten-gallon hat, along with my holstered iron, and plastic spurs. I reached for my sandwich.
Mama cleared her throat again. “Hands, Mister.”
And thusly, I would once again visit the bathroom to polish the old bar of Lava.
Anyway, I’ve grown up some. I don’t wear plastic spurs anymore, and I don’t eat cheese sandwiches. But I still do what my mother tells me.
A few days ago I took my mother out for breakfast. We met in the parking lot and walked to the cafe together.
Before we reached the door we were cut off. A man ran ahead of us. He was wearing a business suit, tapping on a cellphone. He opened the door for himself, darted inside, then slammed it behind him.
Right in Mama’s face.
He didn’t even notice her. I know it’s not the end of the world. And certainly, that man meant no harm by what he did. But if you ask me, this planet could use a few more gentlemen and a few less text messages.
I opened the door for Mama, then removed my cap.
She looked at me with a soft grin and patted my cheek. She gave me a glare.
“Hands, Mister,” she said.