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No one is born with good manners. I know this because it took my mother about 40 years to get me to write timely thank-you notes—and I'm still working on that one. I'm also the father of two middle school-aged children who need to be reminded of the basics at almost every meal—put your napkin in your lap, sit up straight, get your elbows off the table, don't play with your food, don't interrupt when your sister is talking, wait to eat until everyone is seated, and so on. It can be a lot to remember when every particle of your being is telling you to do the exact opposite. I sometimes get a kick out of watching my 12-year-old son stare down a plate of enchiladas (his favorite) while my wife, Susan, dawdles in the kitchen, perhaps pouring a glass of wine before sitting down to dinner. You can see the suffering on his face, as if he's not going to make it through the next 60 seconds.

Overall, I think we've done a pretty good job of house-training them, but I can't accept any of the credit. It's all about their mom. She's the enforcer, the one who can stop them right in their tracks with a well-timed glare. She's the one who prods them with gentle reminders when they're out at a restaurant or a family gathering. Her threats can also be very effective— "Do that again, and the phone will be gone for a week"—but it's the positive example she sets for our children that makes all the difference. It's the stuff she learned from her mother and her grandmothers, and it's also her intuitive ability to put people at ease, no matter the situation.

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We wanted to capture some of that wisdom and asked eight women to share personal stories of the extraordinary women in their lives. No one says it better than author Lee Smith, whose mother, nicknamed "Gig," was a schoolteacher with manners that extended far beyond the kitchen table. "She embodied all of the attributes: her kindness innate, her warm eyes and good humor never varying, her patience endless, bearing her misfortunes with grace and even style, always respecting others and standing up for what she believed in."

Every one of these stories is an appreciation of the heroic women who keep us all in line. On that note, I think I owe my wife a belated thank-you for raising some well-mannered kids, and I owe my own mom, well, everything. Happy Mother's Day.