DEAR MISS MANNERS: A former client of mine who was also the mother of a graduate school friend was on the first plane that hit the World Trade Center. So the obligation to anyone with any breeding is clear: You write as soon as possible and offer your condolences.
In this case, though, there were complicating factors: The daughter and I had had very little contact in the intervening 25 years, except for a few cordial e-mail exchanges. I didn't learn of the death until a month later. And while I know where my friend lives generically, the only contact information I had was her e-mail address -- at work.
Can you tell where this is going?
Is it now permissible to write a sympathy note by e-mail? Is one obligated to follow-up with a hand-written note? In my case, the logic of that was obviated by a subsequent back-and-forth by e-mail, amounting to a conversation, so I think a written note might have seemed odd rather than comforting.
Is it all right that I forwarded to my friend a fond e-mail about her mother (a sort of electronic eulogy) which I had sent to my own children? We need help. I fear that the situation will recur.
GENTLE READER: Let us hope not.
Nevertheless, the need to write letters of condolence will reoccur, even if peace prevails upon the earth, and Miss Manners is gratified that you recognize the obligation. We are only haggling over the form.
Your friend was evidently also gratified in spite of the form you used. It must have been awkward for her to receive a condolence message among her professional exchanges at work, and let us hope it did not overcome her there. And, of course, a handwritten letter would have been more gracious.
Miss Manners is aware of the marvelous contributions that the computer makes to correspondence. For example, you could have used it to track down your friend's address, directly or through your alumni association. E-mail is also a fine way to have a casual chat, as you did subsequently, but "I'm sorry about your mother's death" is not a casual, chatty statement.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Last night, some friends of my husband came over for dinner and a video. They brought a lot of fruit with them for us all to share as dessert. After dinner, I cut up some of the fruit and put it out on the coffee table for us all to share during the video.
As our friends were leaving, I spied some bags of fruit I did not cut up sitting on the counter. I offered some of the remainder of the fruit to our friends to take home with them. I thought that, while they brought it for all of us, it was really a lot of fruit, and our friends might enjoy it the next day.
After they left, my husband told me that he thought that it was rude of me to return some of the fruit to our guests; that our guests bought it for us and I just returned a gift. I thought that if we kept the fruit, we would be hoarding. I wonder if Miss Manners can clear this up. Is it rude to return something like this to guests as they leave? Or, is it rude (as I thought) to keep the overflow of our guests' generosity? I suppose this is similar to someone coming over to one's house with five bottles of wine, when everyone can really only drink two bottles.
GENTLE READER: It's not whether you keep the goods (although Miss Manners has heard equally indignant reactions from donors who were not offered their leftovers and those who were) but how you do it. Contributions to cooperative meals are not presents but should be acknowledged gratefully nevertheless. "Here's your bag of fruit," sounds as if you want to make sure your guests have no excuse for returning. "The fruit was delicious, but we can't possibly eat all that's left" would give them the opportunity to accept it back or insist that you try.