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Ask Tog, February, 2000

The Lady and the Duck

The duck plummeted to his death one misty autumn dawn, killed at the hands of a gentleman hunter and wrested from the murky waters of the swamp by his crack hunting dogs. The duck would lay dead in the trunk of a car for most of the day, then languish in cold storage until, many months hence, his fateful meeting with the lady.

The lady was born Page Pressley in the summer of 1910, entering the bustling world of a San Francisco being rebuilt after the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. Her father was a prominent doctor in San Francisco; her grandfather, an equally prominent doctor and former member of the state legislature in South Carolina. She was born into a family of privilege.

Children today would be horrified by the obligations of privilege in those early days of the last century. Page would graduate from a grueling stint at Miss Burke’s prep school in San Francisco, then go on to University of South Carolina. These were not years of idle socializing, punctuated by strong drink or whiffs of illegal smoke. These were years of hard study in the twin subjects of the era—scholastics and manners. Of the two, manners were of far greater importance, particularly to a young lady of her station.

In the last thirty years, we have suffered a collapse of manners in this country, the likes of which has not been seen since Attila the Hun separated from Mrs. Hun. We children of the ‘60s got the ball rolling, and our offspring rumbled that ball along until today, when rudeness rules, Dude! The video game ads of the ‘80s, explaining to you that you were a loser because a dork like you could never defeat the space plumber have now become endemic: You are a wimp because you use the wrong toilet paper; you’ll never amount to a hill of beans because you are too stupid to buy the right car.

But this is not a decrying of the death of civility, but rather a curious celebration of what once was, curious in that the meeting of the lady and the duck almost resulted in one death too many.

Before truth, the right fork

Politeness in those days was not second priority, and it was not a game for lazy bones. It required diligent study and constant practice.

The ladies and gentlemen that emerged from this gauntlet were not the hauty caricatures of a Marx Brothers comedy. Instead, they were pleasant, affable people, always gracious, always interested in ensuring you were comfortable and having a good time.

After college, Page took her Southern-honed manners with her into San Francisco’s depression-era workforce, quickly shifting from being the secretary of an upcoming CEO to becoming the wife of same. They would soon slip a few miles south to Hillsborough, where she and her servants would raise three children, including me. But that is a different story. This is the story of the lady and the duck, and their fateful meeting in 1950.


The evening had started well enough. Mom and Dad had arrived at the dinner party the requisite ten minutes late and were working their separate ways around the room, catching up with old friends and politely making their acquaintance with new. Mom engaged in what seemed a casual conversation with the host.

"So, Pagie, what do you think of wild duck?"

"Dead, or on the wing?"

"Served up on a plate for dinner."

"You didn’t actually answer my question, but assuming it is roasted, not tethered, I absolutely adore it."

"Well, good, because that’s exactly what we are having for dinner tonight."

And that’s indeed what they were having that night. As fate would have it, Mom was seated immediately to the host’s right, a place of honor. As fate would further have it, twenty-two ducks were served that night, and only one of them was badly spoiled. That would be the one served my mother.

Today, such an occurrence would be a non-event. Upon biting into said spoiled duck, we would at the very least spit it out, say, "eeeeeeoooo, this sucks!", then demand another. Should an understudy not be waiting in the wings, we would ship our plate around the table, demanding that everyone else at the table slice a contribution off their duck. Should it not be a formal dinner, the rest of the diners would likely tell us to screw off, go make ourselves a sandwich.

My mom had none of these options. Forty years of careful training forbade them. Instead, she ate the duck. The entire duck. Bite by bilious bite. All the while exclaiming to the host through the rising fumes just how delicious it was.

By the middle of the night, she was so sick she was afraid she would die. By dawn, she was so sick she wished she would. Several days would pass before she could stagger from her bed.

The host remained a good friend to my mother for the remaining thirty years of his life, and he went to his grave never knowing he had served her a spoiled bird. In spite of that duck’s best efforts, my mom would live another fifty years, into the first days of this new century, ever devoted to making those around her happy, even at her own expense and even as she watched her gentle world slowly crumble around her.

Hers was an era with its penalties to be sure, ptomaine poisoning among them, but it was also an era of grace and refinement. I would hate submitting once again to neckties, tight collars, and the even more constricting bondage of Amy Vanderbilt politeness, but I also mourn what we have lost in throwing ourselves into this rough and tumble of unbridled sloth and insult. Perhaps, somehow, we could find a middle ground, where the lady could refuse the duck without having to hurl it across the table.

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