Etiquette for Impossible Situations

Beth Bates

Beth Bates

Adoptive Mothers

When, after ten years of unsuccessful attempts to conceive you elude the quagmire of home visits and are handed a healthy newborn, show your awe by saving enough money to send the child to college so she doesn’t begin her adult life drowning in debt. Or, at least give her a legitimate name. Not Raylene. Raylene is not a name.

When you finally meet the biological mother of your now-grown Raylene, fall at her feet in gratitude. Behave as though you’ve been waiting twenty-five years for an opportunity to thank her for giving you a baby; when at last you know the mother’s identity and address, act accordingly. At minimum, send her a thank-you note.
Well-Moneyed Sisters

When your only sister, who was silly enough to marry for love, visits your lake home for three nights over spring break, don’t require her and her teacher-husband to spend Easter morning scrubbing toilets, laundering sheets, emptying trash, and making beds while you and your captain-of-industry husband lounge in seersucker robes, sipping espresso, and reading the paper on your dockside deck. It is rough that the economic downturn has your husband making you cut corners, like going without your lake-house maid this year, but don’t demean your sister and brother-in-law because you’re bitter about your husband’s frugality. Look at it mathematically: 0 lake house maids (and other material hardships) = 1 tummy tuck, 1 new boob job, 1 neck lift, 1 personal trainer, 1 weekly in-home mani/pedi, and 2 trips to St. Bart’s this year instead of 1!
Younger Women Who Have Older Boyfriends With Grown Daughters

If invited by your boyfriend to attend his older daughter’s small, intimate wedding in Sonoma, and it’s the first time his two daughters will have met you—the first woman (a Gentile) other than their mother (a Jew) they’ve seen with their dad —politely decline. If necessary, risk conflict and insist on staying home while he flies to California alone.

If you decide to defy good taste by acquiescing to his pleas to accompany him to the small, intimate wedding of his daughter in Sonoma, don’t wear a short black dress splashed in crimson cannas, or strappy black heels. The daughters (and ex-wife) already think of you as a trollop, no need to dress like one. Self-deprecate by joking with the girls about how your presence completes their quota for dirty goyim. When the bride spits out her mouthful of champagne, choking out bubbles and kalamata bruschetta down the bodice of her ivory Vera Wang, resist the urge to pat clean her bosom with your cocktail napkin. Click your strappy black heels on down to the ladies’ lounge, and remain there at least one-half hour until the burn in your face has cooled from reliving your distasteful remark. Give the bride’s soiled gown a chance to dry.
Widowed Mother in Her Seventies

When your son-in-law calls you from the hospital early one Saturday morning to tell you that your 38-year-old daughter, your youngest of four, has had a heart attack in the night, cancel the weekend trip you have planned to Chicago for your niece’s birthday party. Even if it’s going to be “at a really fun Mexican restaurant in the city” and  “everybody’s going to be there.” Even if you’re “dying to try the ‘Ceviche Jurel y Coco’” you read about in Travel & Leisure (“Pacific yellowtail swimming in coconut milk, lime juice, tender young coconut slivers and cilantro—yum-o!”).

At the very least, swing by the hospital on your way out of town to visit your child in the cardiac ICU. Just in case.
Ostracized Siblings 

When your oldest sibling doesn’t invite you to your nephew’s wedding, and the entire family descends upon town for a warm weekend in June and leaves you out of the black tie, crystal, bubbly festivities for no apparent reason, and your brother with whom you’re on speaking terms can’t be bothered to fit in a lunch with you, it is acceptable for you to divorce your family. Like when you were in seventh grade and you decided you didn’t really need to be friends with those mean girls who prank-called you from Monica Peterson’s slumber party—you’re better off without them. Jettison.
A Final Word: On Ex-wives, Toenail Polish, and Cigars

When, in the post-nuptial Sonoma sunset glow at the edge of a postcard vineyard you are gathered around a sumptuous travertine table just a cork’s-throw from the chuppah, feasting and imbibing with your boyfriend, his ex-wife, their younger daughter, the bride and groom, and the groom’s parents, siblings and nieces, refrain from making conversation about the ex-wife’s toenail polish color. Do not ask if she chose the deep raisin shade to coordinate with her plum-colored suit, unless you enjoy terse replies and laser-stares.

Irrespective of Pinot volume consumed, under no circumstance are you to accept the best man’s offer to share his Arturo Fuente. 

Oh, what the hell. It’s a Hemingway. Smoke the cigar. 


(After a yearlong hiatus) Beth Bates is an MFA candidate (Butler University) and the Prose Editor for Booth: A Journal.

Also, new work appears in Used Furniture Review.


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