Brand building through storytelling

Neither young nor a lady

It was the kind of restaurant where the tables are draped in damask and the leather-bound wine list goes on for pages. A rosy-cheeked waiter leaned over us, all solicitude and old-school courtesy. He took my order first and asked, “How would you like your salmon, young lady?”

I didn’t like being called “young lady” when I still wore ankle socks and Mary Janes. How typical of adults, I thought, to patronize little girls by pretending they were ladies, winking all the while. Now that I have gray hair and smile lines that are visible even by candlelight, this kid seemed determined to pretend that I am young. He must have thought it would kindle a glow in my heart, well-meaning whippersnapper that he was. Instead his question made me burn with quiet indignation. Especially when he asked my husband, “How would you like your steak, sir?”

Here we go again, I thought. Nobody addresses any male over 12 as “sonny.” But strangers have been calling me “dear” all my life, as if no female is ever truly grown-up. My podiatrist, an affable fellow who must be 15 years my junior, drops more “dears” in a 10-minute consultation than my husband does in a weekend. “Okay, dear, let’s look at that pesky corn,” the good Dr. X will say, to which I’ve always felt like replying, “Anything for you, honeybun!”

I’ve never actually said this. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

But back to the waiter. Arm ever folded behind his back, neat as a freshly starched napkin. Hands perfectly manicured. Every empty glass of water topped off, every crumb discreetly swept away. And everything he said to me embellished with the dread endearment. “Would you like hollandaise with the salmon, young lady?”  “Another glass of sauvignon blanc, young lady?” “And how is everything, young lady?”

I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But I knew I simply had to speak up when he asked, “Can I interest you in dessert, young lady?”

A waiter can always tempt me with a homemade lemon tart, and this one sounded divine. But with my order, I served up a side of modern manners, as gently as I could. “I know you mean well, but I don’t like being called ‘young lady.’ Times have changed. I’m old enough to be your mother, and that’s okay with me. I don’t aspire to be a young lady. So please don’t call me that.”

He blushed. He quivered with embarrassment. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry! I promise not to call you that again. What should I call you instead?” We settled on “Ma’am.” A bit stuffy, but it would do.

As we settled our account, he was still apologizing. “I didn’t want to cause offense. I’m just doing what my mother taught me. You know how it is with mothers and doing the right thing…”

I knew, alright, and said so. But here’s what I didn’t say amid the buzzing throng of diners and waiters. I took another step toward growing up that night. For decades, I tried too hard to be nice. (I too had a mother with strong views on such things.)  Now I’m free to be my best self—neither young nor, thank goodness, a lady.

Posted by Rona

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