Emotionally Repressed Party Chatter

I’ve often been called uptight. I would tend to agree. I understand uptight people in movies. Everyone else thinks they’re the villain, emotionally rigid, or deranged. They just seem sensible to me. This comes, no doubt from a long line of, as Noreen calls them, “Uptight white people.” There are times, however, when the uptight problem turns into a self-abuse spiral. When I go to a speaking engagement, party, or conference, I spend the following day pondering what I may have done that was offensive. I typically have two primary offenses (there are probably many more, but I can only manage two).

First, I meet people who I have met before, but don’t recall them. I’m always careful to introduce myself, even if I’ve just been onstage, and say something such as, “It’s nice to see you, I’m Sean,” or “I’m so glad you’re here tonight.” Most people go with the flow and manage a pleasant conversation. Of course, once in awhile somebody challenges me, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” I know I’ve offended them, but the problem isn’t that they aren’t important, it’s that I can’t remember my own family member’s names.

My other problem is turning my back on somebody. I’ll be carrying on a conversation, and in the middle be interrupted by someone else, usually by yanking on my collar. I’ll turn to acknowledge them, and then, the other party feels that I have simply become bored and turned away. Once again, it’s a brain problem. I have a true talent for deep focus on one subject, but I can’t juggle more than one conversation. So, if I have turned my back on you, it is a reflection of my growing senility, not your company.

I was taught a few simple rules by my grandmother who seemed to live only to practice correct manners.

1. No one ever wants to hear, “I know your face, but who are you?” If you can’t recall someone, the best approach is to say something harmless, “That is a really fantastic tie.” Hopefully, he or she will say something to trigger your memory.

2. Alternatively, no one wants to be accused, “You don’t remember me. Do you?” Instead, if you see someone out of context, or haven’t seen him or her for some time, provide some information, “Jane, it’s so good to see you. I’m Peter Meriwether. We met at Alice Thornton’s club.”

3. Never provide unsolicited advice. It is rarely if ever wanted, even by hyperactive attention seeking children.  It is one thing to lean in quietly and say, “Jack, you might want to check your trousers’ zipper.” This is helpful and a friend will always appreciate the heads up. It is quite another to say, “Thomas, your family may have been in politics for generations, but let me give you some tips on the correct way to campaign.” This type of advice only reads as bitter, condescending, and unpleasant, regardless of the intent.

4. When the conversation dips, these are three comments to move it along: “Tell me about your garden. I hear it’s incredible,” “Now, what brought you to Darien (or wherever you are),” and “Would you consider your taste to be traditional or contemporary?” These are all safe subjects and give a platform for conversation. “Did you know your hair is thinning?” is really wrong.

My Uptight White People

Pistol Packin' Mama

Every family has tales of courage and great achievements. Mine is no different. But it’s interesting that everyone ignores the bad. If you spend time at a Thanksgiving with us, you will hear about my grandmother shooting the biggest bear in Colorado, how Rev. Henry Fry introduced the Emancipation Bill in Virginia in 1785, and how John Christian Bullitt created the city charter for Philadelphia. You won’t hear stories about Captain William Tucker's retaliation for the 1622 Jamestown Indian massacre. He negotiated a peace treaty and then poisoned the liquor at the treaty celebration. This killed about 200 Powhatan Indians. Nobody uses this as a nighttime story.

One of my favorite ancestors is Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks.

Lucy was born in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1752. In his book Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery, John Bakeless, describes Lucy as “a Virginia lady of the patrician breed, a benevolent family autocrat, with a character so sharp and definite that her twentieth-century descendents still refer to her as Grandma Marks.” The stories, filtered down to me are about her intellect and undaunted courage. She owned a large library, which was unusual for a woman at that time. She was an herb doctor which was probably better than doctors who believed in "bleeding.". And she was tough. Supposedly, during the Revolutionary War, she saved the plantation by wielding a rifle and driving away a party of drunken British soldiers. And, like my grandmother and her bear story, she was a great marks-woman. A tale often told is about a group of men who left Locus Hill on a deer hunt. They returned at the end of the day empty handed and exhausted. Fortunately, while they stalked the woods, Lucy shot a large buck in her front yard, and it was dressed and cooked when they returned.

Lucy’s life was filled with war, deaths, marriages, and scandal. Her son, Meriwether Lewis died, supposedly, from suicide. Until her death she maintained that he had been murdered. As an aside, most of the family continues to believe in the foul-play theory. John Hastings Marks, another son, died at a “retreat” for the mentally ill. Even after these deaths, and the deaths of her two husbands, Lucy continued to ride horseback, serve as an herb doctor, and run the farm. She was 85 when she died in 1837. Her stories have become part of the family yarn. Strangely, there are quite a few stories that involve women and guns. Hmmm.

Many thanks to Christine Adreae’s website on Lucy Merwiether Marks

Family tree courtesy of Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies © 2009 Jefferson LibraryMonticello