Qualms were a sensation unknown to Miss Manners. If you invariably do everything right, there is never any occasion for that sudden "whoops" that starts a downhill slide of misgivings.

So it was rather a shock for Miss Manners to experience a slight semblance of this feeling in regard to, of all things, a dinner-table practice. Miss Manners' dinner table is not, as you can imagine, lax.But twice in a week, different people had expressed shock upon discovering that at the Miss Manners family dinner table, napkin rings are used in the traditional way. That is to say, each member of the family has a different napkin ring (in this case, the designs are different, but it is also customary to have similar rings with identifying names or initials), replaces it on the napkin after a meal, and thus is able to receive the same napkin for use at the next meal.

"Do you mean to say," each of her interlocutors had asked with widened eyes and mouths, "that you don't have fresh napkins at every meal?"

Well, yes, that is what Miss Manners had meant, if not what she had necessarily meant to blab. Just as ordinary households have the sheets and towels changed once a week (not twice a day, as fastidious tycoons with full-time laundresses are said to demand, since tycoons require afternoon naps on fresh sheets to soften the stress of all that money), ordinary households have the napkins changed every few days, barring accidents or finger-food orgies.

Or so Miss Manners had thought. It was the expressions of surprise that prompted her qualms. Are other people doing a load of napkins every day, one for each meal that each member of the family takes at home?

Since Miss Manners agrees that in an ideal world there would be no recycling of used napkins, ought she to be spending her time attending to the home question rather than the world's etiquette problems?

Not really. The world of etiquette is not unfamiliar with compromise and trade-offs, and Miss Manners can live with recycled napkins in order to have time for doing other things, and in order not to create a water shortage.

It was only later that Miss Manners discovered the real meaning of those questions.

It seems that she has survived into a world where people believe that napkin rings are useless but decorative items to be put out on the company table.

Of course there are always fresh napkins out for company, which is why napkin rings were strictly an informal, family device that would be considered ludicrous at a dinner party.

But it seems that there are also now fresh napkins out for each family meal - not because household laundry has increased, but because "napkin" has come to mean something made out of paper. Cloth napkins are thought to be too much trouble in a busy modern household.

Miss Manners urges a revival of the daily use of cloth napkins, along with the labor-saving napkin rings. Contrary to anti-etiquette propaganda, various prematurely abandoned tableware devices were not invented in order to put sensible people to unnecessary expense and trouble. On the contrary.

For example, finger bowls have survived only where they are least needed - at formal dinners, where there is little likelihood of finger food being served.

The effete versions on doilies, with floating rose petal, to be put to one side untouched by the diner, disguise the fact that finger bowls properly serve the purpose of a moist towelette in a package.

Salad knives have pretty much passed out of use (but not at Miss Manners' table), but it continues to be impossible to cut a wedge of lettuce or tomato with the side of a fork.

In regard to napkin-ring usage, Miss Manners has been asked whether it isn't disgusting to reuse a napkin. Not if you also use another quaint old tradition that has also fallen into disuse. Table manners.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - My stepfather always liked to stock up during grocery sales. When my mother was widowed at 81, the staples he had accumulated would have been beneficial to her, especially since she could not drive a car to replenish her supplies.

But my cousin, who had traveled 200 miles to the funeral, announced that my mother did not need all these foods, and instructed her husband to load their car with canned fruits and vegetables, cans of coffee, etc. She urged her husband to help himself to my stepfather's colognes and other personal belongings, which my mother had planned to sell.

My cousin is not a needy person. She is much better off financially than my mother or I. What could I have said to discourage these taking ways? If I had protested, my mother would no doubt have insisted that she would not need the food.

GENTLE READER - Are you telling Miss Manners that an elderly widow's relatives used the occasion of her husband's funeral to rob her of her food supply?

Every time your poor old Miss Manners thinks she has glimpsed rock bottom in human behavior, someone comes up with a new trick.

You could have said: "Please don't disturb Mother's household. I'm sure if she finds that you were left a legacy, she will let you know."

If there were any polite protest from your mother, who sounds like an exemplary lady, you could have gently said, "Mother, dear, I don't want you bothered at a time like this - please let me handle this."