To my grandmother, the silent film actress Ramona Langley, a little white lie was as indispensable as a little black dress. Both, in her opinion, helped the world go around in a more agreeable, amusing and civilized way.
Ramona Langley (1893 - 1983)
My grandmother was once entertaining a group of friends for dinner when her housekeeper, Maddie, tripped carrying in the turkey, sending the unfortunate bird flying off the platter and onto the floor at the feet of the guests. What to do? One could not possibly serve food known to have touched the floor. Without missing a beat my grandmother said, “Maddie, bring in the other turkey!” And when Maddie returned with the hastily cleaned bird, everyone pretended to believe it had never taken a swan dive onto the carpet.
When it came to rescuing an imperiled social situation, my grandmother never hesitated. Once a dinner guest accidentally broke one of my grandmother’s expensive wine goblets, and the poor woman kept apologizing in an agony of embarrassment. Finally my grandmother picked up her own wine glass, dashed it to pieces on the edge of the table, and said, “My dear, it’s only a wine glass.”
Ramona Langley (center) in She Was Only a Working Girl
One cold, rainy afternoon in Paris, Rich and I were returning from a visit the church of the Sacre Coeur in Monmartre, and in the overheated taxi, I set down my umbrella and shed my hat and gloves. When we pulled up to the hotel, I gathered my things and climbed out. The driver pulled away, and I realized my little black hat was nowhere to be seen. I sprinted off in pursuit of the taxi, which was proceeding slowly up a narrow, crowded street lined with fruit stands, bakeries and cheese sellers. Dozens of Parisians paused in their shopping to raise an eyebrow as I raced up to the cab and pounded on the back fender to signal it to stop. The cabby jammed on his brakes. The entire street seemed to hold its breath as I flung open the passenger door and reached inside.
It was at this precise moment that I realized that my little black hat was actually on my head.
What to do? What would my grandmother do?
I emerged from the cab smiling and holding up my gloves as if I’d just retrieved them from the back seat. The entire street seemed to let out a sigh of relief, and the cabby gave me a cheerful wave and drove off.
That night, over glasses of wine, I told some friends about the incident, and one of them promptly said, “Maddie, bring in the other turkey!”
To many of my friends and relatives, that phrase has become a synonymous with the quick social save, especially one involving a little white lie. It’s been quoted and bandied about for years, a phenomena known as “going spiral.” Unlike going viral, which indicates something that rapidly enters widespread public awareness, going spiral means circulating around and around within a private group. For example, the comment “I don’t know where I am, but I don’t feel lost,” voiced many years ago on a long-forgotten road trip, gets quoted at least once every time I’m with certain amigos struggling to find the right route. Sadly, with today’s ubiquitous GPS systems, this phrase may soon pass into obsolescence.
But people will always break wine glasses, drop the main course on the floor, and commit any number of social solecisms that require an adroit touch to pull the moment back from the brink of social catastrophe. And if I am lucky enough to find the right words to avert such a disaster, I hope you will be on hand to say, “Maddie, bring in the other turkey.”
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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