DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a single man of 39, and I was seated on a bench, indoors at the local pharmacy, waiting the (seemingly interminable) 40 minutes for the pharmacist to fill my orders.
A darling little girl of about 3 years old, in a frilly pink dress, was seated to my right. I looked to the head of the line (about 15 feet away) at the pharmacist's checkout counter and saw a young woman whom I took to be the child's mother.
This little girl was anxious to show off her new shoes and backpack, and she initiated a conversation with me. I smiled indulgently and warmly feigned interest in what she was showing me.
The woman at the counter spun around to see what was going on. So, in order to allay her fears that I might be a kidnapper or pedophile or something equally awful and topical, I smiled reassuringly at the woman and doubled the volume of my voice so that she might hear the innocuous content of my conversation.
The little girl was thrilled with my attention to her -- so much so that she, unbidden, literally climbed over the padded gray armrest to my right and sat in my lap! She continued inventorying to me her new pink and silver school supplies, as I kindly cooed interest over them, trying to see what magic they obviously held for her. The innocent forwardness of the child didn't bother me in the least; I am a substitute teacher, adore children and am good with them.
But when the mother saw the child in my arms, her eyes widened, she flew over, snatched the bewildered child from my lap and delivered me the most hateful and accusatory facial expression imaginable.
If this weren't dismaying enough, the pharmacy checkout lady -- when she finally handed me my meds -- narrowed her eyes to slits, and icily dismissed me.
Miss Manners, just exactly what was I guilty of here? Has American society gotten this sick, distrustful and alienated? And we live in a small Texas town, no less! How could I have handled the situation better?
GENTLE READER: Miss Manners understands that she is expected to do a number about the outrageous implied insult of a mother's objecting to finding her daughter sitting on a stranger's lap, and then to bemoan the state of a society that produces such vile suspicions.
But the fact is that society is better off acknowledging the dangers to children that, unfortunately, have always existed. If you think that children ought to be kept charmingly innocent in their trust of strangers and that adult strangers ought to know that they can trust you to cuddle with their children, there is no difference in maturity between you and the little girl.
If, however, you are a teacher who has the interests of children at heart, you should have begun the lesson this child's mother should have taught her. You should have firmly placed her back in her chair, saying in a matter-of-fact tone, "Now you sit there, and I'll sit here. I can see your pretty things just as well, and this way, you can stay within sight of your mother, which I'm sure she told you to do."
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am writing to inquire about your feelings on adults feeding adults in public places, such as restaurants. I have seen this occur while dining out.
GENTLE READER: You cannot imagine how many feelings Miss Manners spares herself from entertaining by the simple device of not peering at other diners in public places.
Similarly, she is sparing herself from worry that you might be referring to the perfectly polite practice of helping someone who has physical difficulties, and not just complaining about the silly practice of adults thrusting forks at one another while saying, "Here, try this."