Every summer, 80-year-old Miss Nancy Dawson Rascoe holds camps in her 1812 house in Hertford, hoping to keep traditions alive in the young.
Nancy Dawson Rascoe serves midmorning coffee, nibbles an almond cookie, and begins to discuss the merits of “Yes, ma’am” in Southern culture. The dining room of her home, the 1812 on the Perquimans Bed and Breakfast Inn near Hertford, is arranged in accordance with tradition. The table is a setting of the Old South: china cups and saucers; silver serving dishes filled with cookies and strawberries; and goblets of ice water. Rascoe wears a teal suit, a floral scarf, and a matching headband. A comforting, rosy scent surrounds her.
“Yes, ma’am,” she explains, is a term used less and less in the South these days, and Rascoe wants to see it come back. It came from “Yes, madam,” in England, and “Yes, madam” came from “Oui, mademoiselle” in France.
“Southern manners are really based on court manners,” she says, her eastern North Carolina accent sweet and refined.
For the past 19 years, Rascoe has tried to keep customs like “Yes, ma’am” from fading. Each summer, she opens her double-porch, plantation-style house to children. She calls the sleepover camps House Parties for Etiquette for Young Ladies and Gentlemen. Most participants simply call it Miss Nancy’s Manners Camp.
Rascoe’s home has been in her family for almost 200 years. A plaque from the National Register of Historic Places hangs beside the front door, and portraits of family members are on the walls. Just outside the warbled-glass windows are picket fences, farmland, outbuildings, old-growth magnolias, and a well-worn path to the river. The home is a proper setting to pass on traditions.
Two North Carolina filmmakers, Martha Daniel and Caroline Paxton, found the idea of manners camp so compelling that they decided to document Miss Nancy and her campers in a film called Miss Nancy Minds Their Manners. A dining-room scene from that film provides a snapshot.
Rascoe, her hair held neatly in place by a lavender headband, jangles a silver bell and calls up the staircase: “Room 2, are you gentlemen ready to come down and set the table?”
Five boys, between the ages of 6 and 12, appear at the top of the stairs. “Oh my! Don’t you look nice! My goodness, you look handsome,” Rascoe purrs as they shuffle down the stairs. The boys have on khakis, white button-downs, and sport coats. Their sun-bleached hair is a little mussed, their ties a little crooked.
In the dining room, the boys juggle her heirlooms and breakables. Following Rascoe’s lead, the boys gingerly stack china soup bowls atop china plates and carefully lay out the silver. Their faces are wrinkled in a concentrated effort.
With the hydrangea centerpiece in place, the candles lit, and the cloth napkins folded to the left of each setting, Rascoe and the boys of Room 2 welcome the other campers to a blessing around the table. And then Rascoe and all 12 of her young dining companions sit down to a five-course, French-style dinner.
The first course is mock escargot — grated cheese melted in real snail shells — and it gives Rascoe the chance to explain the role of the cocktail fork. She gives gentle reminders on how to hold a knife, how to use your pinkie to balance a stemmed glass, and how to eat soup.
“Out to sea, back to harbor,” she patiently instructs as she moves her soup away from the bowl and back in. “Out to sea, back to me.”
During the course of the meal, some of the children drop napkins, others say they dislike the food, others pick up chicken and eat it with their fingers. They take fidgeting to new levels.
Rascoe weathers it all with dignity. She carries on with her meal, calmly reminding and demonstrating what good manners look like. When the boys of Room 2 have cleared the dishes and swept the crumbs into a silver crumb catcher, Rascoe takes each camper aside and discusses, in private only, what they can work on for the next meal.
“Never call anyone else down for his poor manners,” Rascoe says, “because that’s the worst manners of all.”
Table manners and social etiquette don’t matter, Rascoe believes, if there’s no meaning behind them.
“Manners have to come from the heart,” she says. “True etiquette stems from a caring heart for all people. To include all, to welcome all, to love all is more important than how to fold napkins.”
Rascoe grew up along the Pasquotank River in nearby Elizabeth City, surrounded by extended family. She learned her manners by following the example of her older relatives. Rascoe’s maternal grandmother, Edna Jones Granbery Nixon, was the biggest influence. As a child, Rascoe spent her summers with her grandmother at the Nixon Cottage on historic row on the Nags Head oceanfront. Nixon insisted on three sit-down meals a day, even at the beach. She’s the one who taught Rascoe to remember how to politely eat soup: “Out to sea, back to harbor.”
“She made it fun,” Rascoe says.
After high school, Rascoe left Elizabeth City to attend St. Mary’s Junior College in Raleigh and later the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in parks and recreation and physical education. She came home and taught school and summered at the beach. She married Peter Rascoe of Windsor, whose family also had a cottage on the Nags Head oceanfront. The Rascoes moved to Windsor, and Nancy soon stopped teaching to help Peter on their farm and to raise their three sons.
In the early 1990s, Rascoe’s mother asked Rascoe for a favor: to save Swampside, the grand, old Fletcher-Skinner-Nixon House on the Perquimans River in the Old Neck Historic District of Perquimans County. The house had been in the family for nearly 200 years, except for a brief stretch when another family owned it. The house originally sat on the cypress-lined banks of the Perquimans River, but long ago, a family member moved the house a few hundred yards away from the river to the swamp side of the property. Eager to get back to living on a river, Rascoe agreed.
She and Peter obtained the old house from a relative, and Peter started restoring it. The Rascoes did much of the work themselves, to the standards of the N.C. Division of Archives and History. They connected the house to the river with a long walking path that leads straight from the front door to the dock. They moved into the house and opened it with its current name in 1992.
A cousin suggested that Nancy offer etiquette camps for children.
“I was inspired,” Rascoe says. “I thought, ‘What if they came and stayed like a house party in Gone with the Wind?’ That would make manners fun.”
Rascoe loved summer camp as a child, so she knew exactly how to make sure the children didn’t get bored: sports. She would intersperse croquet, swimming, canoeing, and tennis with etiquette lessons.
The first session in 1993 consisted of a handful of girls from Elizabeth City. Rascoe led the etiquette lessons and sports; Peter Rascoe, known as Big Peter, cooked; her best friend, Virginia Wood Hall, led the Bible study; and Marion Paxton Jones, known as Miss Blue, Nancy’s helper at the inn, cooked, cleaned, and played the piano. The Rascoes were in their early 60s, but they welcomed the energy to their house.
For the children, the formal, indoor setting inspired politeness during the lessons, and the big yard and river dock were fun. “There’s something about that house and being there in the middle of nowhere that takes you back to a simpler time,” says Anna Zevenhuizen, former camper and counselor.
All six of Rascoe’s grandchildren have attended; one, Lucy Mae Rascoe, was a junior counselor in 2011.
Twelve years ago, Hilda Sitterson came to camp as a nanny to one of the campers. Hall could not do the Bible study because her mother was sick, so Sitterson offered to fill in. She’s been here ever since.
“Hilda had this vision from our Lord that we were to train these children in thinking about the basis for their manners,” Rascoe says. “The manners had to come from their heart. … What Hilda wanted to do is to work on the inward manners to match the outward manners. And, oh, that has just enhanced our summer program.”
In the five days of Manners Camp, children learn Bible verses and quotes that relate to kindness and unselfishness as well as the basics of manners. They learn how to set and clear the table, serve one another, and dine formally.
They’re taught to write tea invitations, thank-you notes, and get-well cards; to ask for someone on the telephone (“Never say, ‘Is so and so there?’”); to shake a hand firmly (“no wobbly fish”); and to look a person in the eyes when having a conversation.
They learn the correct way to make a bed (“pretty side to pretty side with hospital corners”); to fold a towel (“inside to inside, flip over, and don’t let the tag show”); to remove dabs of toothpaste from the sink before leaving the bathroom; and to leave the end of the toilet tissue in a neat triangle for guests. They learn the language of decorum — bath cloth, not washrag; wastebasket, not trash can.
Rascoe has had plenty of laughs over the years. Like the little boy who said, “Miss Nancy, I have to powder my nose.” Rascoe is a combination of protocol (“Never use a toothpick in front of someone else!”); humor (“I know not to lick my fingers, but I surely did it. I need a brushup!”); love; and faith.
The camp has grown to four sessions per summer, for ages 6 to 12. Miss Blue died in 2010, and Peter died in 2011. But at 80, Miss Nancy is still active with the children. With an assistant director and counselors, she has help, but she still splashes and canoes by the cypress trees in the Perquimans River, gives tennis lessons on the Hertford public courts, and drives the van to the Chinese restaurant in town for the final night’s dinner.
“As my mother said, ‘Be childlike but not childish,’” she says.
After just five days of camp, the children are ready to show off their skills in proper public speaking, playing host, and greeting at the Graduation Tea.
Parents and relatives find seats on the antique sofas and chairs in the wide foyer hall while the children gather on the upstairs landing, peering over the banister to see who’s here.
One at a time, Rascoe calls each camper to come and give his recitation to the crowd. She carefully calls out the child’s full given name, preceded by master or miss. Each nervous camper descends the stairs and walks past Rascoe.
“Etiquette is today what it has always been,” each camper recites from Emily Post, projecting his voice to the back of the room. “A code of behavior based on kindness, consideration, and unselfishness. Something that should not and will not ever change.”
Nancy Rascoe combines humor with sincerity as she explains proper etiquette to others. She has different ways of saying different things. Some are direct rules for specific manners; others are simply overall philosophies on life. But anybody who knows her puts all of her sayings under the same category: Nancy-isms. Here are just a few:
On eating soup — “Out to sea. Back to me.”
On asking for someone on the telephone — “Never say, ‘Is so-and-so there?’ ”
On how to shake a hand — “No wobbly fish.”
On making a bed — “Pretty side to pretty side with hospital corners.”
On folding a towel — “Inside to inside, flip over, and don’t let the tag show.”
On toothpicks — “Never use one in front of somebody else.”
On faith — “Children need those Bible verses to fall back on.”
On how to say “washrag” — “Bath cloth.”
On how to say “trash can” — “Wastebasket.”
On being polite while explaining good manners to someone else — “Never call anyone else down for his poor manners because that’s the worst manners of all.”
On aging — “Be childlike but not childish.”
1812 on the Perquimans
385 Old Neck Road
Hertford, N.C. 27944
Molly Harrison is a freelance writer and editor living in Nags Head who writes about the people and places of the Outer Banks and northeastern North Carolina. Her most recent story for Our State was “Dancing on the Dunes” (July 2012).