I’d been thinking for awhile that, as a mother, I needed to do a better job of teaching my children about good manners. I’ve always set a nice table, and have tried to instill in them an air of graciousness and gentility at mealtime, but I’ve been feeling like I need to up my game with linen napkins. I’ve always believed in linen (or at least cloth) napkins, but it’s a hard rule to follow when life gets busy and children are messy and laundry is a most hated chore.

Still, our meals could benefit from a lesson in gentility. Dinner starts out with pleasant conversation but usually devolves into the three of them running in a circle around the dining room table, and I’m lucky at that point if a certain one in particular is not naked. If she’s not completely naked, she’s at least lifting up her shirt and yelling, “Mardi Gras!”

Which brings me to my perceived failure as a mother, and a recent trip to New Orleans which inspired me to do better.

New Orleans is my absolute favorite place on earth, because of its shabby, crumbling elegance, its interesting blend of cultures, and its party atmosphere.

We were there with lots of friends for a wedding, and we all went to breakfast at Brennan’s, of course, which is such a beautiful and old fashioned experience. When our reserved table wasn’t ready right away, which no one was upset or concerned about in the least, the staff apologized anyway, and brought out a silver tray with brandy milk punch in beautiful crystal glasses for everyone in our party. I want to live in a world where brandy milk punch is the cure to all ills. Perhaps we could export large quantities of silver trays and crystal glasses to the Middle East, and someone could pass it around to the warring factions to help everybody calm down and enjoy a nice sip for a little bit.

When we were seated and ordered our brunch, a friend of ours who believes that men and women should absolutely be treated equally in all circumstances, took issue with the fact that the women in the party were invited to order first. I’m all for equal rights, but I loved this old fashioned nod to chivalry, and I also enjoy sitting firmly atop my pedestal. This led to an interesting conversation about what equal rights actually mean.

It also led me to want to do better with my children, for they do live in a world with crises of war and famine, and with questions of equality and social justice. Thinking in-depth about those ideas, and discussing them in a civil way with friends who disagree, is necessary to navigating our modern life, and it’s also interesting, and part of important civil discourse. But I want my children to carry some of that old-school gentility with them, too, which brings me back to the linen napkins. They are, for me, aspirational. They represent the loveliness that I strive for, a loveliness that is not easily or readily attainable, but can be mine with a little bit of effort.