The Ghosts of Dinners Past

I’ll admit when I chose this challenge I was concerned I wouldn’t have much to say about such a simple topic: HOW TO PROPERLY SET THE TABLE.  Crafting a relevant essay about proper table setting that anyone might find interesting seemed beyond my abilities. What I found was that parental guidance, in regard to manners, is a universal topic. Many people, not all related to me, shared aspects of their childhood dinner table expectations. One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog, is that it allows me to spend time thinking about things I rarely give thought to. Childhood memories are often linked to larger occasions or memorable events but with the focus on table etiquette I found myself envisioning the daily meal routine of my childhood.

Table manners and general etiquette were obviously important to my mom. Like blue eyes and long arms, many of the expectations I had for my children were inherited from my parents and passed down. Just as the folk tale Boy Who Cried Wolf  demonstrated the dangers of lying to generations of kids, there remains one singular figure from my family lore to illustrate the importance of good manners. Her name is unimportant, but my siblings all know to whom I am referring. The poor child has served as a living example of how NOT to act for decades. I don’t know any of the specific details, only that a young guest in our home, elementary school-aged, drank directly from the milk container. Opened the refrigerator, picked up the milk carton, placed lips to spout and took a drink.

The act in question occurred before my birth but has lived on through telling after telling. No one wanted to be called by the name that had become synonymous with bad manners. We knew not to drink directly from the milk carton but any similar infraction might call forth that name, like the ghost of Christmas past, and cast you in the role of Scrooge, himself. This was not a mean-spirited activity, it was always offered in a joking manner, but the lesson was understood. It served to impress upon us that our behavior, especially outside our home, reflected on our family as a whole. The implication was that the child was not at fault, but her parents, for not having taught her any better. Hence the repeated manta of every parent, “What’s the magic word?”

Maybe that is why I feel like I need to clarify something. When I said I gave up on my kids having to excuse themselves from the table, you might have envisioned young Suttees pushing back and leaving the table anytime they wanted. In reality, there was no asking to be excused. No need to ask.  We treated dinner table chairs like airplane seats. Until the fasten the seatbelt light was off, no one was going anywhere. Although I like to think we offered our kids independence in thought and action when possible, that did not occur at the dinner table. Much like my own childhood, dinner time was more dictatorship than democracy. I’ll acknowledge freedom is a better teacher than control, but as many young parents come to realize, the illusion of control exercised in a few select areas, keeps a person sane. Go ahead and judge. While you are judging, I’ll give you a great example to boost your argument.

When our basset hound, Luke, was a potty-training puppy we lived in a base-housing duplex without a fence. The living and dining areas were at opposite ends of a large room. The door to the back yard was near the dining end of the room.  If you opened that door fully, and someone was sitting at the head of the table, you would hit them. It was not a large place.  One night, we were all seated at the dinner table, and Luke started to whine at the door to be let out. Rachel asked to get up to let him out and Lee said he could wait until we were done. In rapid succession, Luke pooped. Three-year-old, Andrew, vomited then cried. Everyone yelled.  We were all excused.

Luckily, nothing like that happened at the ball. No one pooped by the table, no one sat on their feet, and no one vomited. Years ago, at the next table, someone did indeed vomit at the ball, on his salad, during grace. His name is also unimportant but his message is clear. You will not be remembered for all of the good things you did over your career, if you puke during dinner at the Marine Corps Ball. You might, however, be remembered in the blog of an acquaintance you probably wouldn’t recognize anymore.

This post has taken a rather disgusting turn, my apologies. Back to the ball.

I drank from the correct glasses and used the correct fork. Whether you can credit BMW or bd for that, I cannot say. Wasn’t hard due to the fact that there was only one fork. Frankly, I was also confused about what I believed, according to BMW, to be the dessert spoon because, sadly, no cake was ever served at our table. Only through keen observation and advanced tracking techniques were we able to spot and retrieve cake for ourselves, from a table tucked in the corner of the ball room.  Forks were provided at the cake table. Why the spoon?

I will leave you to play which one of these is not like the other.


Thanks for sharing your etiquette memories and tips! I appreciate you spending your time, and a bit of your head space, with me.  Knowing you are reading helps me keep writing, so if you wish I’d just stop already, it’s your fault

In case you were wondering:

Ball gifts this year.

Before you go…I can’t find anything that says you can’t remove your shoes to dance at a formal event so apparently no etiquette rules were broken.


We are going back to basics this week. I’m going to pretend it hasn’t been months since I last posted and you are, too.  Bossing people around is not the best way to start a post about etiquette, but here we go.

Our latest challenge is to LEARN HOW TO PROPERLY SET THE TABLE.  This time of year with the approach of the Marine Corps Ball and Thanksgiving it seems a fitting challenge.

I have a solid base level knowledge in this category.  My mom was a big believer in setting the table so I’m aware that the fork goes on the left, the knife on the inside right and then the spoon.  The glass goes upper right.  We put our napkin to the left, under the fork. My mom probaby knew, and even more likely, told us that the knife blade always faces the plate, but I can’t say that I’ve paid a bit of attention to that over the years. Growing up, we rarely had any need for anything beyond this setting.

The Emily Post Institute (EPI) calls this setup the Basic Table Setting and includes a handy tip for remembering the order of plates and utensils. They suggest using the word FORKS and following the letters as your guide from left to right, F: Forks, O: Plates, R:?,  K: Knives, and S for Spoons. Pretty helpful, really, as long as you don’t get confused about that missing R.  Reminds me of the mnemonic that my eighth-grade Science teacher, Coach Stoll, taught us to help memorize the order of the planets: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza Pies.  I was always confused about the word pie at the end. Unnecessary. Not only is there not an additional “P” planet after Pluto (is Pluto still a planet?) and why use the word pie at all? Could just be nine pizzas or even nine pies. Is that a regional food reference that Coach Stoll grew up with?  Does anyone else from Highland East Middle School remember this? Does anyone from any school remember this?

Growing up, I did not have a lot of rules. I’m the youngest of six, so maybe over time my parents just figured out what was worth battling over. Or maybe they were just tired. Either way, if I went to school, tried to learn something, carried my pile of clean clothes up the stairs to my room in a reasonable amount of time and generally spoke to them with a modicum of respect my parents let me be. In return, I did all of those things, and for the most part, tried to not to disappoint them.

The one area of life that was governed by strict rules was the dinner table. I received more corrections during the dinnertime period than during the course of a regular week. Sit up straight.  No elbows on the table. Feet front. Finish your milk. That one might not fall under the etiquette heading but I definitely heard it every night. The queen mother of dinner table infractions was sitting on your feet. I internalized that scandalous move to such a point that to this day when I see a kid (or worse, an adult!), sitting on their feet, or cross-legged, at a dining table it makes me wince. I try not to stare. We were also expected to excuse ourselves from the table. My kids were expected to adhere to these rules, too. The excusing rule bit the dust early, I think once the third kid arrived and dinnertime exits multiplied exponentially I just gave up.

The Thanksgiving place setting growing up, meant china, wineglasses and fancy goblets. I don’t think we added a lot in terms of plates and utensils, they just got nicer. As an adult, we’ve gotten to spend only a few Thanksgivings with our families. The Thanksgiving meal for military families reinforces the concept that family often includes people not born of the same parents but borne of the same circumstance. We’ve eaten at tables set beautifully, on card tables packed into someone’s living room, at our own table with dogs begging at our feet.  Not once did I think about whether my knife was turned toward the plate or if my fork had the correct number of tines.

Like my mom, the Marine Corps is a big believer in etiquette. Parade etiquette, ceremony etiquette, dining etiquette. The list goes on and on. Especially in the officer ranks.  As the wife of an enlisted marine, no one talked to me about etiquette.  When we moved to Quantico for The Basic School (TBS) when Lee was a newly commissioned Lieutenant, I was inundated with etiquette tips and training. I still have the book Parade Rest, which answers questions about everything from calling cards to dress codes.  Every November, the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday and storied history with a time-honored ceremonial ball usually with dinner, dancing, motivational video and cake! It’s a fun and moving event that comes with a lot of tradition.

The EPI has a tip that could be useful this ball season. Hold your hands in front of you and touch the tips of your thumbs to the tips of your forefingers to make a lowercase ‘b’ with your left hand and a lowercase ‘d’ with your right hand (bd).  This gesture serves as a reminder that the “bread and butter” (b) go to the left of the place setting and “drinks” (d) go on the right.  Maybe you’d like a more high-speed tip? Feeling like you need more than FOrKS and bd are able to provide? Might be time for BMW. This helpful tool was sent to Lee as part of an information packet for his ball this year.


BMW, similar to the bd method, but less likely to cause embarrassment when you are seen holding up a little b and little d during a formal dinner. Even though I know the glass goes on the right, every year it seems like I can’t figure out which water glass is mine! This little reminder might help or maybe I should skip the cocktail hour.

Unless you are a member of the royal family or a frequent guest at high-dollar fundraisers you probably don’t have to decipher complicated formal place settings on a regular basis. If you are a fundraiser regular, please tell me how you ended up reading this blog? For the rest of us, whether it’s a wedding, a military ball or some other occasion where you find yourself confronted by a formality outside your comfort zone just remember that it’s usually about the people and not the fork placement.

We aren’t sure exactly how many balls we have attended in Lee’s over 32 years of service but we’re going with 32, some years we’ve gone to multiple balls, other years deployments and other issues intervened. This year, as we attend our 33rd Marine Corps Ball, I will wear a dress I’ve worn before, watch a ceremony I’ve watched…32 times, and eat a meal that, most likely, will taste like it’s been microwaved. What will make the evening is the people: young marines tearing up the dance floor, long-distance friends we’ve known for years who we now live near again, faces I can finally put with names I hear from Lee every day. Eating with the wrong fork or taking someone else’s roll would be embarrassing but not life-changing. I’ve got a couple of tips for you.  Learn to laugh at yourself. Extend kindness to others, be kind to yourself. Everyone is trying their best. Ask questions if want clarification but don’t take it all too seriously. Try to enjoy each moment. These times won’t last forever. Whatever you do, just don’t sit on your feet.

Do you have any etiquette tips for me? I’d love to hear your thoughts on place settings and celebrations! Care to share any embarrassing etiquette stories? For now, I’m off to the ball! My prince charming will call our Uber and we will celebrate the holiday tucked between Halloween and Thanksgiving, the Marine Corps Birthday. I’ll be back to report on the event soon, in the meantime, practice your FOrKS, sit up straight and finish your milk.

Before you go…I have to mention the ball gifts we get every year!  Gift might not be the right word since I think we actually pay for these ourselves but it’s the thought that counts right? In the early ball years, all we received was glassware, of all different types. Cocktail glasses, wine glasses, beer steins, you get the picture. Each one staged as part of our table setting. This is not a coordinated effort to get attendees a perfectly diverse set. Remember, these balls are at different duty stations, different units with different ball committees. Eventually, coffee travel mugs and beer koozies joined the group. One ball we got flasks, very cool actually, printed with historic USMC recruitment posters. I don’t personally have a need for a flask but they looked great. However, someone stole most of them off of our table. I feel like that’s the last year our gifts were placed on the table. Coincidence? You decide. Recently, we have received our gifts in advance.  We’ve gotten pocket knives and wine stoppers, respectively my least and most favorite of all the gifts. We have travel mugs and coasters that we continue to use years after we received them as ball gifts!

1988 Ball Glass
First USMC Birthday Ball Gift, Camp Pendleton, CA 

Although I understand the need to branch out from glassware, I have to say, I kind of miss them. Each one usually has the unit name and the year of the Marine Corps Anniversary.  Maybe it’s because I’m roughly 153 in Marine Corps spouse years but it’s cool to be able to look at your glass collection and relive your memories in real time.

Oh, and speaking of gifts, one last etiquette tip from my mom. Don’t forget to write your thank you notes!

Table Setting Guides

Silverware Art by Elisabeth Suttee