When I was a child -- way back when a Walkman referred to the school crossing guard, and the supermarket cashiers unloaded your groceries for you with a smile at the checkout counter -- there was no question about what we called our parents' friends or our friends' parents. "Mr. Walker" and "Mrs. Alexander" was the order of the day.
Anyone daring to break that particular social convention was greeted with a steely glarel, accompanied by the admonition that the offender better mind her Ps and Qs if she planned to make it through adolescence with her metal-wrapped teeth still intact.
To this day, at the ripe old age of 32, I still refer to my parents' friends (and my friends' parents) with courtesy titles. Even though I'm encroaching on their territory with kids, a mortgage and wrinkles of my own, I'd feel presumptuous in assuming that I was their peer and entitled to refer to them as such. For me, the titles are a sign of respect, a badge of honor that indicate they've borne trials I've yet to encounter.
Maybe the eroding of the "Mr." and "Mrs." is a result of single-named celebrities like Madonna, Oprah and Barney. Whatever the source, today's kids have an entirely different idea of generational distinctions than I did. My nephews call their elementary school teachers by their first names, and my preschooler talks about my friends in the same breath -- and in the same way -- he talks about his fellow diaper-wearers.
In some ways, this informality is good. By removing the barriers between the generations, we're like one big happy family. Kids feel more comfortable with adults, and hopefully, as a result, will be more likely to communicate with us at a deeper level.
On the other hand, though, I'm not sure kids are supposed to feel all that comfortable with adults. Shouldn't there be some rite of passage -- other than cellulite -- that distinguishes us from the younger set? Do I really want my son's 3-year-old cohorts calling me "Wain?" Haven't I earned the same sort of respect I gave my elders when I was a child?
But "Mrs. Ehmann" also doesn't sound right for me, just as being addressed as "ma'am" seems more appropriate for a woman a decade or two beyond me. "Hey!" I want to shout at that ultra-polite Blockbuster clerk who greets me with the dreaded "M" word. "Don't let these two kids and the SUV fool you! I'm still a 'miss!'"
There are a few options that bridge the two extremes. "Miss Lain" is one I've heard, which would be fine if I lived south of the Mason-Dixon line but just doesn't fly in the metro areas of either coast. "Aunt Lain" is another possibility, but it seems to indicate some level of intimacy that most of my children's friends have yet to establish. I mean, how much a part of the family can you be when the kid hasn't yet thrown up on you, made you a birthday present out of kidney beans or told you that you look "puffy?"
Most of my friends agree -- "Mrs." is too formal, and our first names sound too casual, but there's just no good compromise. And when in doubt, err on the side of sounding younger. Thus, "Wain" is beginning to grow on me. I do have one friend, though, who insists on being addressed as "Mrs." It's a bit surprising because she's one of the most laid-back, casual of my social circle (not to mention a year younger than I am), but to her, it's a non-issue. She called her parents' contemporaries by their formal titles, and her kids and her kids' friends should do the same.
After learning my friend wanted to be addressed more formally, I briefly considered following suit. Maybe it was up to me to make that passage into adulthood, much as I did when I decided, once and for all, that Good Housekeeping was more my speed than Cosmopolitan, and that bellbottoms are a bit too au courant for my baby-bearing hips.
When it comes right down to it, I have to say that this really isn't that big a deal to me. "Mrs. Ehmann," "Ms. Ehmann," "Lain" or "Wain," the kids can call me pretty much anything they like -- I'm happy they're acknowledging my presence at all. But if someone really pushes me, I admit to having a secret desire of how I'd like to be addressed. I think "Goddess" suits me just fine.
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