My most cherished memory of my French grandmother was one that likely blends several memories, in the way that accessing memories inevitably alters them.
I would be walking alone home from school, anywhere from five to eight years old. In my sleepy hometown of San Juan Bautista, California, where there were more chickens than people, it was typical for me to see hardly anyone on this weekday routine. And there, underneath the overpass of the highway that obscured my view into the distance, I would see her emerge, smiling, toting a shoulder bag, and I knew she had a gift for me.
My grandmother’s gift giving would forever imbue these particular items with nostalgia every time I would see them.
The first gift was a very green, shiny granny smith apple. This she would usually have in her bag, and would hand to me first. I’m not sure if she did this because of the name, or because it was her favorite. This became the favorite apple of my childhood.
The other would be chocolate. Sometimes I would visit her, across the highway, at the only hotel in town. I knew as soon as she went into her drawer that I would shortly be in possession of a chocolate bar. I don’t remember the brand, but I always remember it tasting better than anything I could buy at the local market.
Lastly, but mostly, my favorite gift was a croissant. Not your wholesale supermarket cardboard box of croissants- a real, flaky, layered, handmade buttery pastry. We were fortunate enough to have a Portuguese bakery in our town, and my grandmother gave her certified French stamp of approval.
That particular insistence on quality of food left an indelible mark on me. Particularly that subpar isn’t an option. Either you get the real deal, or you don’t get it at all.
The key difference is how the French handle gratification. I once read about how French children are better behaved than American children. The author pointed out that a certain concept was readily applied by French parents: delayed gratification. A willingness to say no, until the preferable choice was available. American parenting choices were dictated by instant gratification: which option will get food in my mouth the quickest?
If you are willing to sacrifice quality, you can probably eat a croissant-like thing, anytime, anywhere in America. If you only want an authentic, quality croissant, expect to eat croissants much less often.
This principle of having standards permeated everything my grandmother did, especially in her presentation of self. Putting elbows on the dining room table were unacceptable, and she’d gently remind me any time I did so. Any lapse of manners did not go unnoticed; she was relentless. The elegance in her handling of things and her general manner commanded this adherence to standards.
I jokingly say I was raised without manners; the exception were the visits from my grandmother. At first, these were instructions that I obeyed without protest, despite preferring otherwise. In adolescence, I came to see them as frivolity- as phoniness perpetuated unnecessarily. As a young adult, I awkwardly learned that these were required of me to even be considered eligible for Grown-up Club. Arguably higher learning is really for acculturation into adulthood. Finally, as an official adult, I see their value. My great aunt Tati concisely eulogized my grandmother: “she was very elegant- but humble.”
Manners are a subset of standards, a way for interacting with others. Generally this means navigating social settings in considerations for others. Saying excuse me is considerate, shoving and bumping your way through a crowd is not. While I am aware that manners vary, and that many are archaic, the consideration of others is still their original, core function.
To this day I still lack horribly in manners. I slouch in my chair, sometimes chew with my mouth open, and/or forget to wear deodorant. I generally eschew any formality I deem unnecessary. Something being proper, that aspect of manners, I am least concerned with. I’ve always been uncomfortable with formalities. However, if I have a guest over, and they are not comfortable, whether it’s the chair they’re sitting on, the thirst that requires quenching, or hunger that needs feeding— if these are left unattended to, then I am not a proper host. To me, this aspect of manners, matters most.
About two weeks ago, I learned my grandmother passed away. Days later, with generous help from my sister and her husband, I flew a three legged, 20 hour plus trip into Biarritz, France. A beautiful, seaside city, where one could walk from almost anywhere and, within minutes, find a patisserie that, of course, sells croissants. Ironically, I did not have one, not even a single discreet nibble from ones I gladly bought for family, or the ones frequently on display in my great aunt Tati’s home. Dietary restrictions aside, I could not bring myself to have one.
A few days in, my family and I were all sharing a lunch of the usual French staples: cheese, bread, pate, fruit, and wine. We were serving ourselves when my great aunt remarked “Oh, Memé would not have liked this.” Of course she did not mean us being together and eating. Rather, that we were eating off paper plates. To serve food on such things, to my grandmother, would just be bad manners.