Poised

`MORE poise, less boys.'' That was my mother's recipe for ladylikeness - recommended to my sister, who firmly resisted it. In the '30s you didn't need to be in your teens to figure out that it was the boys and their cronies who rode the motorbikes and escaped the tea parties. In any case Mother was hopelessly unqualified to hand out that kind of advice. She had never tried to be a lady. Ask the family friend who, in the middle of a lecture given in our hometown, happened to peer down from the balcony and witness a silent struggle in progress in the body of the hall. My father and I were sitting on either side of Mother, who was dead set on removing her coat. She shrugged it off her shoulders, we replaced it. She shrugged it off again, we put it on again.

Very puzzling it must have been for the onlooker who didn't realize that under her coat Mother was wearing a dickey - a sort of half-blouse designed to be worn under (only under) a coat or jacket.

If Mother had been tougher and actually won the battle, the result would not have been wildly indiscreet. Those sitting behind her would have been vouchsafed a wide display of snow-white hand-knitted undervest, but her front would still have been modestly shielded by the dickey.

Naturally my father and I assumed she had forgotten her blouse was, well, incomplete. But no. As she explained later, she was hot and, being hot, unable to concentrate on the lecture. How foolish of us to rate public opinion higher than her comfort and her education.

Lady Essie (not her real name) wouldn't have agreed at all. She was a real lady. When she landed in a somewhat similar pickle, it wasn't of her choosing. Besides, she held public opinion in high esteem and knew precisely how to deal with it.

One lovely summer day she had invited the local Girl Guides to hold their annual rally in the grounds of her stately mansion. Poised, Queen Victoria fashion, at the top of the flight of stone steps that led up from the lawns to the terrace, she embarked on her gracious speech of welcome. Awe-inspiring is the only word for the scene. But then came the terrible moment. Mid-speech, elastic being what it was in pre-nylon days, her silk undies slowly drifted from their mooring, entangling her ankles as they landed. A lesser mortal would have resorted to embarrassed, hobbling flight. But not Lady Essie.

Without missing a word, losing the rhythm of her sentences, or showing a suspicion of a blush, she stepped deftly out of the imprisoning dainties and, with one swift movement, dropped them into one of those ornamental stone urns that flank every stone staircase in every British mansion. It was done so deftly you couldn't be absolutely certain you had seen it.

For totally different reasons, neither my mother nor Lady Essie embarrassed easily.

Then there's that friend in London who's equally hard to discombobulate. Wit always saves her.

Once, uncharacteristically, she quarreled with a friend. Almost at once she was overcome with shame but found a quick face-saving solution.

``Dear,'' she said to her friend, ``are you sorry I was so beastly to you?''

``Yes, indeed I am. Very sorry.''

``Well, if you're sorry, we will say no more about it.''

I suppose men in those days must have had the same kind of problem. Being a gentleman all the time can't have been easy. Unfortunately men talk less about their lapses.

I do know that when my father was a young man, he tried out his first bike, pedaled a few yards, spied an extremely ladylike friend of his mother's, politely raised his hat to her. And promptly ran her down. I don't know what he said. Could he wriggle his way out of the embarrassment? Could he persuade her (and his mother) that it had never happened? I do wish I had asked him.

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