(An earlier version of this material appeared several years ago on the Worshipping Your Wife blog under the by-line of Lady Susan’s daughter, Nancy. For this reprise, Lady Susan has been kind enough to provide several updates and useful additions.—Thomas Lavalle)
The bells are a wonderful tradition that the men of our matriarchal family have embraced. When my son-in-law, Dennis, and family visitors Michael and James hear bells, they come running! It’s one of the first lessons Dennis learned when he met our family and one of the first lessons he passed on. “Go to the bell, and ask what you can do,” my sister Julie instructed him. And he did, the very first weekend he visited us.
In our family the women gather in the living and sitting rooms while the men congregate in the kitchen. The men not only prepare dinner but look after the women, keeping coffee fresh, serving drinks, and lighting cigarettes. It’s a great way to show respect for the women and acknowledge male subservience. The problem was that when needs arose, women didn’t want to call for someone and they certainly didn’t want the men constantly interrupting.
My sister came up with a solution. She got the idea from a visit to an old Edwardian mansion, now a museum. The wall of the servants’ quarters had lights, one for each room in the house. When one lit up, a servant quickly went to see what was needed. What a great idea! But instead of switches and lights, why not bells? The ladies loved the idea. The bells were bought, the men trained, and it has worked like a charm. If one of the women needs something, she simply rings the bell. A man comes, serving tray in hand, curtsies, and politely asks, “How may I serve you ladies?” It’s an opportunity for him not only to serve the one who rang the bell, but to take orders from any or all the women and to gather up glasses, cups, and ashtrays.
Some “house rules”—we call them “protocols”—that dictate proper behavior regarding the bells:
· When a bell rings, a gentleman sets everything else aside to go to it; bells are his priority. ALWAYS!
· Men are “on the clock”; when a bell rings he has a generous 20 seconds to respond.
· If a group of men is in the house only one of them should answer a bell, but all must take turns doing so.
· A tray is mandatory; everything, even a pack of matches, is served from and removed on a tray. Medieval knights had shields; the males in our family all have unique serving trays.
· A formal, fancy apron and, at a minimum, ballet flats are also mandatory.
· Aprons MUST be clean! A soiled apron should be replaced immediately; one is NEVER used to serve a woman! NEVER!
· Once he receives an order, a man’s priority is to fill it, quickly and correctly.
· All requests taken at the same time are served at the same time.
· Men should not comment or engage in conversation when answering a bell. Men are ONLY there to serve and should act accordingly.
· Men speak ONLY when spoken to!
· Politeness and deference are the rule: “Ladies, how may I be of service?”; “Yes, Madame,” “Yes, Ma’am!”
· Men MUST curtsy or, at a minimum, stoop and bow when entering or leaving a room.
· Women should expect to be served and should not use please and thank you with any male. A women is encouraged to be direct and abrupt with males. Her communications with him, if any, should reinforce feelings of her superiority and of his subservience.
Let me add that the bells aren’t just for serving at dinner parties. If I see something that needs to be cleaned up, for example, I’ll ring a bell and summon Dennis to take care of it.
And bells aren’t just for women. Most of the men in the family also have one, but their purpose is, of course, quite different. A man will present his bell to a woman or group of women he wants to be privileged to serve. Dennis does this every day with me. He brings me his bell and a mixed drink—on a tray of course—and presents them, telling me he’s now at my service. I take full advantage!