Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What's in a name?

My future son-in-law calls me by my first name.
Last week I attended a friend’s retirement party. Past retirees were there. Some, who I had not seen for a while, heard about Em and Ry’s wedding for the first time. I answered the usual questions:
  When?  “First weekend in October.”

  Where? “The Barn at Wesleyan”
  Who? “A college friend. Dated after they graduated. Been engaged over two years.”
Then, sitting down to dinner, a question I didn’t expect surfaced. A colleague  I had not seen for years asked “What will he call you?”
                “Call me?” I wasn’t sure what she meant.
                “Yes, how do you want your daughter’s fiancĂ© to address you?”
                As I considered the question, other marrieds at the table began to respond. “My mother-in-law  wants to be called ‘Mom.’  I always feel funny, but she asked me to,” said one.
                “I try not to call mine anything,” said another. We  laughed . But this tablemate wasn’t trying to be funny.
All this reminded me of how I came to call my mother-in-law “Mrs. Hayden” when Larry and I wed.
Of course, it was a different time – over thirty years ago – and place, in the sphere of social graces. Some behaviors considered rude then are considered quite civil now. This includes for women – the once scandalous act of baring one’s shoulders in church, and for men – the disrespect  wearing a hat at the dinner table use to convey.
But I didn’t call my dear mother-in-law “Mrs. Hayden” because etiquette guru Emily Post instructed me to. I did it because she always referred to her mother-in-law (no longer living) as Mrs. Hayden. How could a daughter-in-law go wrong if she did what her mother-in-law did?
Getting back to my dinner table friends, I answered the question first posed to me. “When Emily and Ryan were just friends, he always called me Mrs. Hayden. But since they’re engaged, he's made a point of calling me ‘Laura.’ “
             “So he refers to you by  your first name,” my friend said.

             “Yes,” I said with caution, not sure what she was getting at.
“That’s good,” she said. For some time, she had  been making  informal observations of how young in-laws address elder in-laws.  Her highly unscientific but nevertheless intriguing finding was “When they refer to each other by name, they get along better.”
A “which came first- the chicken or the egg” conversation followed across the table. Did the first-name address lead to respect or mutual respect lead to the first-name calling? No one could say for sure. But I did say, “After I had children it got easier. I started calling my mother-in-law Meme, like the grandkids.
                “And what will your grandchildren call you?” my friend asked.

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