Little Mrs. Manners

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From garden clubs to country clubs, Savannahians seem especially equipped to navigate high society.  Is it good genes or good rearing—and how can we pass this gift on to our children?  To find out, Andrea Goto breaks bread with the best of them. Photography by Katie McGee.

Little fork, big fork, knife, spoon.  Little fork, big fork, knife spoon.  It’s a refrain I put to music in my head one day during my childhood when Mom asked me to set the dining room table.  Some 25 years later, it’s still filed away in my memory alongside the Lord’s Prayer and the “50 States” song, playing back the two times a year I host a dinner (or cook, for that matter).

As a child growing up in a middle-class home in the Pacific Northwest, I was empowered by what I thought was a complete understanding of all things Emily Post.  My sister and I knew to sit up straight at the dinner table and sweetly coo “please” and “thank you.”  When my friends came over for dinner, my mom would watch in horror as some slurped their milk or fisted their forks.  I was both embarrassed for them and sorry for myself because they would not be invited back.

So armed with the ability to chew with my mouth closed and distinguish a salad fork from a dinner fork, I confidently made my way into my adult life.

And then I moved to Savannah.

The Hostess City is ripe with raucous revelry, to be sure, but the debauchery is carefully cloaked in decorum—polite cheek kisses and bless-her-hearts.  Not having an innate understanding of these codes seems to push some of us “come heres” to Savannah’s social sidelines.

A Fork in the Road

My undoing was a fortress of forks.  My husband and I had been invited over for a “very casual” Sunday dinner by a lovely Savannah couple we’ll call the Belvederes.  As soon as Mr. Belvedere greeted us at the front door with cheek kisses, I knew we were in trouble.  He was wearing pressed khakis, a starched button-up shirt and—wait for it—a baby blue cashmere sweater tied around his shoulders.  I, on the other hand interpreted “casual” as a small step up from workout wear.

Mr. Belvedere graciously escorted us to the parlor where I sat awkwardly on the edge of a velvet sofa and—perhaps too eagerly—accepted a cocktail.  At that moment, I caught a glimpse of the dining room table in the adjoining room, weighted down with what appeared to be thousands of glasses, plates and silver.

“Is someone else joining us?” I asked hopefully.

“No, just the four of us,” he chirped.

When Mrs. Belvedere, impeccably dressed in pants, pleats and pearls, called us to the table, I noticed, to my horror, four forks of varying lengths at each setting—two to my left, one to the right and one above my plate.  I was surrounded, cornered like a wild dog.  I wanted to wave my white linen napkin in defeat.

Above My Raisin’

The feast-of-forks incident unleashed a flood of insecurity within me, which I quietly suppressed for a number of years, believing that only bluebloods could unlock the secret book of etiquette and that  I would live out my days taking cues from those more formally trained than I.

Enter Grace Merritt.

Grace is a former fashion model who has spent the past 30 years schooling Savannahians on the rules of etiquette through the Millie Lewis Modeling and Development Center and as a director of the Savannah chapter of the National League of Junior Cotillions.  The first time I speak with her, even though it’s over the phone, I’m so nervous that she’ll be able to detect my rough edges that I suddenly develop an English accent as a defense mechanism.

The lively, slightly gravely voice on the other end of the line, however, is completely disarming.  She’s not an orator, she’s a human being, complete with “ums” and “uhs.”  And so begins my first lesson: using proper etiquette is not about pretending to be something you’re not; it’s about having the confidence to be who you are.

“I take pride in seeing the young ladies and gentlemen who come through our program build their confidence,” the Savannah native explains.  “Giving them that confidence allows them to achieve in all aspects of life.”

Millie Lewis enrolls an average of 150 children each year, which makes me think I should see a lot fewer kids watching iPads at dinner and smarting off to their parents.  But Grace informs me that her classes are not intended to reform little spawns of Satan.

“We’re not a disciplinary school.  I don’t teach you to be polite to your mom and dad,” she says.  “My approach is more about reiterating what we’re hopeful is taught in the home.”

So if Grace won’t play the role of the polite police or accept the responsibility of parenting my child into a Pollyanna, what do I get?

She patiently explains that, in addition to providing model-specific training, her program covers etiquette, good health and nutrition, voice and diction training, personal grooming and wardrobe planning.

“I take what is taught at home and show my students why those things are important in social situations,” says Grace.

Saving Grace

When Grace invites me to see her in action by attending a private table-manners training dinner with four students ranging from ages 9 to 15, trumpets sound.  Angels sing.  The seas part.  Under the guise of investigative reporting, I see this as an opportunity to earn my stripes as a bona fide blue blood who knows her fish fork from her oyster fork.

The dinner is held at a private club in The Landings where we have a room to ourselves, because, as Grace explains, “If you take them to a public restaurant, then they’re being watched.  And the last thing I want is for my students to feel intimidated.”

But it’s too late for me.  I already feel schlumpy and awkward as I make the acquaintance of my fellow diners—lovely, poised and confident girls who introduce themselves one by one, each firmly grasping my hand and intently locking eyes with me.  I laugh nervously and avert my eyes every time.

As soon as we take our seats, the lesson begins with an illustration of the “eating position”—sitting upright, a palm’s width from the table—versus the “resting position”—a relaxed pose to indicate that we have completed the course.

“What would you call this position?” I joke, slumping into my chair and throwing my head back post-Thanksgiving-feast-style.  The girls’ giggles are quickly snuffed out by our focused instructor.

“We practice what we do do, not what we don’t do,” she clips—at which point I resist the urge to make a “doo-doo” joke.

That’s not to say the class isn’t fun.  Even while Grace continually scans the table, gently reminding us of a seemingly infinite number of steps—“offer to the left, serve yourself, pass to the right” and “we cut with our right, place the knife, switch hands and enjoy the bite”—we giggle at one another’s missteps and personal habits that seem nearly impossible to break.  For me, it always comes back to the fork.

“Between each bite, you rest your fork,” Grace instructs.  “So you try to estimate about 15 minutes for each course.”

“You’re kidding, right?”  Buddha doesn’t have that much self-control.

“That’s the difference between eating and dining, isn’t it?” she replies, smiling.

Breaking Bad

By the end of the meal an hour later, I’m mentally exhausted.  Changing my habits feels like forcing my knee to bend in the opposite direction.  But, having been at the short end of the fork too many times, I understand the value of the lesson and vow to practice what I learned here at home.

“I tell the parents that their kids can’t practice these things week to week with just me,” Grace explains.  “These things have to be taken home and implemented at every opportunity.”

The next night, while eating with my family, I really try to set down my fork between each bite, but every time I do, I feel like I did when I was trying to train my daughter to go to sleep on her own.  I wanted to rush to her, pick her up and never put her down again.  But I couldn’t.  I had to show myself, my child, and my fork who was in charge—and the confidence that comes with that knowledge is priceless.

Mrs. Belvedere, I think I just earned my pearls.