Vital Signs

We Say Grace, We Say Ma'am . . .

The news descended with crushing force: I must be getting really old. Rising from the dinner table, I had pulled back my wife's chair, and our waiter complimented me. He complimented me for the kind of civil and reflexive action to which my generation was bred in the post-World War II years? Ah, yes; he said he didn't see that sort of thing much anymore.

Brothers and sisters, this was Texas—the Old/New South. The restaurant in question caters to the better sort, as this clientele was known in less egalitarian times. Our waiter "doesn't see" things like men pulling out ladies' chairs for them? Probably not, I guess. As I said, I'm getting old. (To cinch the point, I can remember when Rosemary Clooney was bigger than Elvis.)

Granted, manners—like mores—have been in decline probably since the sweeping bow—plumed hat in hand, left leg extended—went by the boards. The kind of 20th-century civility to which I was bred, 40 years ago, might have disgusted the truly gentle men of President Washington's day. They might have supposed the thing we needed most—we greased-up swains in our white sport coats—was a good hiding with a malacca cane. They might have been right—notwithstanding the great rule of life that you do your best with what you have.

What we had in the South, in the 1950's, was a quaint, very much inherited,...

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