It happened for the first time at the checkout counter of the grocery store. As I always do, I intentionally placed the cold items together. Then the dry items. Followed by the “last minute I don’t really need these but they’re on sale” items. I was in my zone. (Informal research at various markets has revealed that if I do not organize my purchases, I will arrive home with a disastrous buffet. Formerly dry veggie chips will be wet, cold items will be mushy and melted, and the blueberries will roll around my previously clean trunk like mini marbles but messier.)
I place the last item, which is a package of organic chicken, on the irritatingly filthy, rubber strip. I ask the young man, who kindly packs my bags, to please put the chicken in a separate one. (Yes, I’ve also observed that poultry liquid doesn’t mix well with pears or peas.). He smiles and nods ok. And then? I. Hear. It.
“Is that all ma’am?” I look around the area. I wonder to whom he is referring. No. I don’t see any flammable, puffy hair nearby. I search, too, for someone who may be younger but looks a few decades older than me. Nope. In fact, I am the only one in line. Even worse, I slowly realize, I am the only customer in the store! I grimly turned my gaze back toward the cashier. “Excuse me? What did you say?” He repeats IT. He says IT again.
So I ask him. When did I become a ma’am? He looks at me with his sheepish, sweet teenage smile. He said, “I don’t know. I never know when to say miss or ma’am.” I pause and take a breath. “Well I frankly prefer my name, but you couldn’t possibly know that. Unless of course you are psychic.” (He stares at me blankly; I drop the beginning of a possibly deep discussion.)
“I realize you’re being polite, which I greatly appreciate! But c’mon. Does THIS (I point to my smirking face) look like a ma’am? Yea. I have two kids. Two teens, in fact. Both of whom are generally quite gracious because that’s a high value in our home. (I process this as it leaves my mouth. For the umpteenth time I am shocked that I am officially the adult.). I kinda feel a bit cooler than a “ma’am.” He laughs with me and wishes me a good day.
Another young fellow walks with me to the car. Yet another moment of holy cow this child is my SON’S age! We continue this discussion, in which I remained perplexed and troubled. I ask him the same question. “When did I become a ma’am?” He says, “I always learned that was a polite word.” I tell him, yes, and it’s quite refreshing given the disturbing observations I’ve made in recent years of “people your age” and “younger generations” who are downright rude.
I give a spontaneous mini sermon. It would’ve been longer but the young man was spared; my car was parked close by. I stand on my invisible soap box, which by the way is portable! And I blather on about social skills and the lack of them due to video game mania. He listened and agreed. Thankfully the young man had manners, for which I was grateful. I am sure he tolerated my diatribe just to get rid of me!
And why is it that “sir” or mister” do not carry quite the same connotation? I had this debate with a few friends recently. I asked them when did we morph from miss to ma’am? I even looked up the definition. Yes. I love words. And I love to learn. According the Oxford dictionary, “ma’am” is defined as “A term of respectful or polite address used for a woman.” It’s also the term used to address a female officer in the armed forces and a woman of royalty. It’s a contraction from the word, “madam.” Somehow “madam” sounds more regal, elegant, and slightly more empowering. But I digress…
I got in my scorching car. I sat there and did not move. Despite the heat, I did not turn on the air conditioning. I was temporarily immobilized. I continued to ponder this word and the use of it. I still couldn’t believe that I am THAT age or look old enough or matronly in which the term “ma’am” is befitting me. And just to clarify, I am absolutely not a vain or superficial woman. It’s just that all words trigger memories, meaning, and context. I suppose for me the word “ma’am” conjures up a certain image or persona to which I do not currently relate.
I still act like a kid and feel energetic, enthusiastic, and often silly! I reflect on the brief chats I had with the two young men. Admittedly the content and conversation did sound rather “ma’am-ish.” No. I’m not there yet. But I do promise when I reach middle age, and older, I will continue to act like a teen and ask curious questions like a toddler!