I was a hippie kid.  My hair was tangled.  My cheeks were dirty.  My room was a mess.  But my bed was made with military corners and my mother put cloth napkins in my packed lunch. 


Her father had been in the Air Force and she'd grown up with five siblings, and no matter how bohemian she became, she could never quite shed her finishing school instincts. 


This is a woman who, after being arrested for hitchhiking, used her one phone call to order a pizza, who lost a job at a grocery store on her first day because at lunch she joined a group of protesters out front picketing on behalf of migrant workers.  She was anti-authority to the bone. 



But at home, dinner manners were essential.  No elbows on the table.  No chewing with ones mouth open.  One always asked if one could be excused before one left the table.  We may have been eating millet casserole and homemade bread, but that didn't mean we had to be uncouth about it.  


When the phone rang I knew to answer it, "Cain residence, this is Chelsea speaking."


My friends practiced different rituals.  I was always getting in trouble for calling their parents by their first names.  "My mom doesn't like to be called Judy," I would be told.  "She wants you to call her Mrs. Jones." 


"That's fascist," my mom would say later.  "Take your elbows off the table."


It was hard to keep straight.


A few months ago, I was unpacking my childhood books for my daughter and came across an old favorites - "What Do You Say, Dear?" by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.   The book presents situations and quizzes the reader for the proper response.  For instance:


"You have gone downtown to do some shopping.  You are walking backwards, because sometimes you like to, and you bump into a crocodile.  What do you say dear?"


The answer?  "Excuse me."




"You are picking dandelions and columbines outside the castle.  Suddenly a fierce dragon appears and blows red smoke at you, but just then a brave knight gallops up and cuts off the dragon's head.  What do you say dear?"


The answer?  "Thank you very much." 


I opened the book and found an inscription. 


It wasn't from my mother.  It was from the Snow Queen.  (Though the handwriting is remarkably similar.)  When I was a kid, the Snow Queen would leave me presents.  My mother would be in the kitchen and she'd hear a knock at the door and she'd call me, and I'd check on the porch and there would be a stack of books from the Snow Queen.  She was half guardian angel, half literary bandit.


The inscription reads: "Winter Solstice, 1976.  Snowbird - On Earth, the planet you live on, people use good manners as a sign of respect and love.  I hope that this book will help you to see how much fun god manners are.  Love, the Snow Queen."  


It's such a lovely marriage of the zany unconventionality of my childhood (the Snow Queen) and the sweetly establishment (the emphasis on manners). 


I immediately started working on teaching my four-year-old to ask if she can be excused before she leaves the table.  She got it right away.


The military corners may take longer.



Editor's Note: Chelsea Cain is the New York Times bestselling author of the Gretchen Lowell Series. Evil at Heart, the third book in the series, is due out on September 1st.

Message Edited by PaulH on 08-13-2009 07:57 AM
by Stephanie on ‎08-15-2009 11:59 AM

I am a proud life-long owner of What Do You Say, Dear?  and just wanted you to know there is a companion book: What DoYou Do, Dear?  


Excellent books (for adults, too).  I think your Snow Queen had the right idea, all the way around.


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