My Grandmother Van Zandt was a lovely lady, but held very Victorian /Edwardian sensibilities throughout her life (born in 1908, she lived to be 92). She was very formal. She had, however, a delightful sense of humor, and one of the most beautiful laughs I have ever heard. I still remember its musical sound.
I sometimes heard a more gentle, almost pointed, version of her laugh when she would be talking with others and the conversations would move into areas that really were not appropriate conversation. She would say, “You don’t mean it?” This phrase would be surrounded by her elegant laugh. I asked her once what she meant by that phrase, and why it made her laugh. Grandmother answered that she hated gossip, but that it was rude to confront people about their gossiping, so instead she developed a reproach that was aimed toward making a point, but not in a way to embarrass or hurt.
When someone was spreading gossip, she would turn her head slightly away, offer a gentle laugh, and say “you don’t mean it?” — all with a tone and look that suggested that she either thought they were teasing her, or that they really shouldn’t have suggested such a thing. She might have to utter her phrase more than once.
Gossip, to my grandmother, was anything that was second or third hand, unkind besmirching of another’s character, an obvious lie — even a half-truth, or something just meant to do damage. It came sometimes from a “pack mentality,” and desire to attack the outcast — a bloodlust. What she could not, and would not tolerate, was for someone to take pleasure in another’s failure or sad circumstances, and to relate them to her in a way that made them seem worse, or added to them by suggesting something more sinister, or an underlying evil intent. She also felt that gossip, and what it represents, came from our own insecurities, and a desire to justify our own failures.
Like a magician’s slight of hand, if we can draw attention from ourselves by pointing at the weaknesses and failures of others, then we can maybe trick ourselves, and those around us, into believing we are better than our victims. “Gossip is a sin,” my grandmother would say, “that we must fight against, it titillates and therefore is difficult not to listen to, or participate in by spreading — all of us must fight the urge.”
“And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” [James 6-8].
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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