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When the rich laugh (and die)

Along the winding garden path of my life, I have discovered that F. Scott Fitzgerald was basically correct when he remarked, "The rich are different from you and I."

I have observed that many, who are rich from many generations back, are impeccably well-mannered. Their conversation is thoughtfully polite, thank-you notes are written on engraved, heavy stationary and their mannerisms are gentle and small.

They would never embellish with wild hand gestures like the ones I use, and they take microscopically small bites of their food, always eating Continental style, with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right, used to delicately push the morsels of food onto the silver.

Also, I have noticed that the nouveau riche, those who earned their money in one generation, often easily adapt to the well-placed manners of old money. These observations bring me to today's story of a down-home Southern cook, who encountered the very rich on their Italian-marbled turf.

"Darlin'," my friend, St. Markham, said in his cultured Southern accent, when I answered the phone. "I have rung you up to invite you to a glittering event of the social season."

I adore St. Markham, of the Savannah Street Markhams, and am always eager to be in his company. He was born not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but rather with a full place setting of Tiffany's best.

"I would be most pleased and privileged, if you would accompany me to the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island for an evening featuring Miss Paula Deen. I, of course, have purchased an entire table and am, therefore, a grand patron. You, of course, will be my date. It is black tie and I do so hope I can count on you to accept."

I did, without hesitation. The evening arrived and there was the blonde St. Markham looking all handsome and spiffy in an Armani tux and gold brocade bow tie. Since Mama wasn't around to yank up the front of my dress all night, I wore a black sequined dress that revealed the slightest amount of cleavage and a pair of rhinestone encrusted Manolo Blahniks. I paled in comparison, though, to the perfectly appointed women spectacular in Prada, Gucci and Valentino.

When Paula Deen, the Southern star in the Food Network galaxy, entered the stately grand ballroom, applause erupted. After a quick introduction, she hit the stage to demonstrate a dessert recipe, dressed in a simple black pantsuit and low heels. She began talking, but stopped. "I need to take my chewin' gum out so I can talk." She promptly popped it into her hand and laid it on the table next to the eggs, butter and condensed milk.

Now, I'm a country girl myself, but I had a feeling that wasn't going to digest well with the rich masses. I glanced around the room as the patrons, including St. Markham, laughed heartily. Now, here's the thing about the very rich: You never know when they're laughing with you or at you. They're much too polite to let the difference be known.

As I glanced at St. Markham, he reached across to grab my wrist tightly and pull me toward him. Still smiling through gritted teeth, he whispered, "If you ever do anything like that, I shall personally and without conscience or hesitation, murder you myself."

"Don't worry," I replied. "I don't chew gum."

When the homespun star announced her shoes were hurting her feet and kicked them off, many well-sculpted, expensively waxed eyebrows raised almost imperceptibly. I, on the other hand, when dismayed, roll my eyes and shake my head. I usually cook bare-footed, too, but I got the impression that they don't. At least not in public.

Fitzgerald was right. But the rich are only different in life. When death comes, all differences fall away. Dollars don't count then.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."