Unless you’ve undergone a lobotomy, you certainly are aware that our world is a roil with dissension, violence, anger and aggressive behavior. It is easy to sit back, view the day’s events and sigh, “Ah, for the good old days.”
Of course, the way we define the “good old days” is probably dependent on how old we are. For those of us who are over fifty we might think back to those far more halcyon days of our childhood and early adulthood. If you’re younger than that, you might think of those good old days as the time just preceding the last iPhone release.
Back in my “good old days” I remember a particular neighbor by the name of Mamie Howlett. She was a widow who lived in apartment 9B – just next door to our apartment. From my perspective as an eight year old, she had an exceptionally red face which I learned was a function of the makeup she wore. I never met her husband but I did know of one of her relatives – a nephew by the name of Mike Wallace. (For those of you who are still unaware that history began prior to George W.’s presidency, Mr. Douglas was a very well respected television news commentator).
For whatever reason, Mrs. Howlett had a special fondness for me. My family used to invite her to join us for dinner every so often. I think as I consider this in retrospect, that was because she was alone and my family felt sorry for that emptiness. (My folks regularly invited orphans of any age to join us for dinner. They just felt that was the right thing to do).
Mrs. Howlett asked me to join her for lunch in her apartment once every other month or so. It was always on a Saturday – and she always cooked the same thing – Chinese. Well, it was about as Americanized a version of Chinese as could be procured. Lunch always consisted of a heated up meal that came from one of those double cans of Chung King – the kind with the veggies in the larger bottom can and the sauce and meat (normally chicken) in the small top can. Of course, this concoction was placed atop a layer of crispy fried chow mein noodles.
Well, we continued to invite Mrs. Howlett to dinners and she continued to invite me to bi-monthly Chung King Saturday lunches for about three years. I had just started the fall school session when I came home one afternoon to be greeted by my grandmother who had a particularly serious look on her face. She took me aside, put her arms around me and said, “Sweetheart, Mrs. Howlett passed away this morning. I know you liked her – we all did – and I know she liked you very much. I’m so sorry.”
I was dumb struck. I mean, I was aware of this vague thing we called death in a sort of intellectual way. I knew Columbus had died as had Shakespeare and a lot of famous people about whom I had read in my history books. But this was the first person I really knew who had died. Mrs. Holwett’s passing set me back on my heels and caused me to start doing some serious thinking.
The questions I began asking had been posed many times before by many far smarter people than I. Like so many, I wanted to know, “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” But to me, the most pressing of the questions I had was, “What should I be doing while I’m here?” You see the first two of those I realized even at eleven could not be proven – whatever a person’s opinion of the answer. But that third question … well it was pretty undeniable that we were here and there should be a good answer to that. Fortunately, my grandmother came to the rescue with at least the suggestion of an answer.
It was several weeks after Mrs. Howlett’s funeral. After school I came home to the smell of home baked bread. On the days that Grandma baked bread, she always cut the heel off one end, toasted it and spread it with Land of Lakes sweet cream butter. She was a simple woman and there was nothing that she found as wonderful as a before dinner snack. She always accompanied this with a half cup of black cold coffee, left over from the morning’s breakfast meal.
This particular day, she sat down next to me with her bread and coffee as I was about to start my homework and for no reason that was apparent to me asked, “Sweetheart, do you know the three most important words in the English language?” Because we were a family that expressed emotion quite easily and often, both verbally and physically, I almost immediately replied, “I love you.”
“No,” Grandma said. Those are the next most important three words. She picked up the last piece of the bread that was on her plate and as she ate it, a warm glow came over her as she was having what to her was one of life’s greatest delicacies. She breathed a deep sigh of contentment and then said, “The most important of all are, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You.'” And having imparted that profound bit of knowledge, she got up from the convertible sofa on which she had been sitting and left the room.
I have no idea what moved her to say what she told me that particular day. But with the dramatic entrance and exit, I realized that her words were important. So I began thinking about them – particularly since I was already trying to figure out how to conduct myself as I mentioned earlier. What I took away from this specific conversation was that being polite to others was the starting point for leading a fulfilling life. I didn’t see how that was going to make me rich or improve my appearance – but I had a great deal of faith in my grandmother and pretty much took her word as gospel – so I tried to use those three words regularly. In fact, back in my “good old days” a lot of people used them.
A good friend and I have breakfast together at one of the local casinos once or twice a week. Monday was one of those days.
I parked in the garage and took the elevator down one floor to the casino and restaurant entrance. The last barrier to entering the property are three sets of heavy glass doors.
I was in front of the one closest to the elevators and began to open the right door when I saw a very tall Chinese woman about ten feet away. I pulled the door back and stood there holding it wide open until she could walk through. She saw me holding the door and a big smile came over her face and as she walked through said, “Thank you so very much for your courtesy.” I responded, “You’re quite welcome. Enjoy your day.”
As I was about to walk through the door I saw a couple I took to be in their eighties about ten feet from the door. So I stood back behind the door and held it open until they passed through. The wife was a bit more nimble than the husband who had some obvious difficulties walking and when she had entered the elevator lobby she turned to me and said, “I don’t know you but I like you. It’s so refreshing to meet someone nowadays who is courteous to others. Thank you. You made my day.”
Well, I have to tell you that I might or might not have “made her day” but receiving that compliment certainly made mine.
There are many organizations that claim to be involved in a movement to rid the world of hatred, prejudice and all else that plagues humanity. Their methodology seems to be going to the source of these inequities, shouting down people whom they believe espouse them, destroying public property in the name of purging the earth from violence and otherwise acting in ways which are generally uncivil. I don’t see how this sort of behavior is going to effect positive change. Perhaps that’s just me.
But since we live in an age where movements are afoot and aplenty, I thought I might throw my hat in the ring and advocate for the creation of yet one more. I’m going to call it the Three Little Word Fellowship.
This Fellowship doesn’t have a complicated structure or platform. There are no lengthy by-laws which a member should read before signing on the dotted line – as there is no dotted line. The Fellowship doesn’t accept donations so there is no need for us to seek IRS charitable status. And because we have no income, we don’t provide membership decals for your car nor will you be receiving a monthly newsletter.
The Fellowship is open for membership to people irrespective of age, race, religion or lack thereof, or any other self-constructed characterization which identifies a person as someone who is “different”.
Needless to say, since we don’t have a staff, we don’t have a website and as we have none of the above there is no opportunity for members or friends to “like” us. But the Fellowship isn’t seeking a lot of anonymous “likes”. We’re hoping to make the world a better place by asking those who choose to join us do one simple thing.
The Fellowship encourages our members to use the three little words, “Please” and “Thank you” every time they have the opportunity and to encourage the enrollment (if we can call it that) of people who appreciate their courtesy of becoming members as well. It is my firm belief that using courteous words can become an habitual behavior, one that becomes as automatic and natural as breathing. And that kind words often transform their users into doers of kind deeds. The church catechesis used to describe “Good Works” as “An outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible Grace.”
Don’t worry. There are no undercover police checking on how well you are fulfilling your terms of enrollment. And once you’ve become a member, you can leave the Fellowship if and when you want. But then, why would you want to?
Granted, we might not change the world which is a pretty big place. But we can change that part of it which we encounter on a daily basis. And even if no one comes up to you and says that your courtesy “made their day,” you will know you did the right thing and that inner sense of doing the right thing is worth far more than the praise of pundits and presidents.