“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci
It was a good party, small in number but lively in conversation, as seven gathered to celebrate my mother-in-law’s seventy-fifth birthday.
As college football and holiday movie talk got traded around the table, I wondered of the changes witnessed by Janice over the last seventy-five years. I wondered about her glad times and what she was most proud of.
And looking around our table, I also began to wonder how birthdays were observed in the year she was born.
Janice is a big believer in keeping life simple. She didn’t want a big fuss made on her account. What she wanted was a simple birthday meal; and while we honored her request, I imagine a Sunday birthday dinner seventy-five years ago would have been a more elaborate affair.
Certainly, they would have dined using cloth napkins rather than paper; and china rather than Chinet®. And surely Sunday dress has become more casual in Janice’s lifetime, as at least half of us were wearing faded blue jeans to mark this special occasion. It made me wonder whether table conversation had also become simpler over time.
I knew I had a book at home that could answer my question. Published the same year as Janice’s birth, the 1935 edition of The Ethel Cotton Course of Conversation is bulky, containing twelve lengthy lessons. Lesson Nine offered the information I was seeking — five rules to observe for conversation at home:
1. …Discuss topics only of interest to all.
2. Introduce a subject of special interest to one member of the family and see if you can succeed in getting the others to take part.
3. Try to discover what each has done of particular interest during the day.
4. When callers are present, share a joy, not a sorrow, except to ask for advice.
5. Ask a leading question of each person present to permit [each] to express themselves.
It appears good conversation, seventy-five years ago, was not such a simple affair.