Even now, 31 years later, I still remember parts of our choreography.
The Peabody Memphis Ducks
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

At 43 years old, I have accomplished a number of things I'm proud of: a very happy marriage, three moderately charming children, and a book. (Out next year!) But despite all of that, if I'm being honest, I think I may have peaked back in 1989, the year I was a Peabody Duck.

Now, if you have been to The Peabody Memphis hotel—or read anything about it—you know that, every morning, a passel of live ducks descends from their rooftop home to the lobby via elevator. To the tune of John Philip Sousa's "King Cotton" march, the ducks strut down a red carpet and politely (because they are good Southern birds) take turns hopping up the tiny steps into the marble fountain, where they swim all day. Around cocktail hour, they bop back out, waggle their tail feathers to get the last drops of water off, and head back into the elevator. It's adorable—maybe as adorable as I was in 1989.

Elizabeth Passarella at Peabody
Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Passarella

That was the year my dance company, Ballet Memphis, performed At The Peabody, which was set at the hotel in the 1920s. I was 12 years old. As luck would have it, there was a group of us who were all around the same age, ability, and (most importantly) height. We were tapped to play the ducks and fitted for male mallard costumes, with green heads—never mind that we were all girls. Even now, 31 years later, I still remember parts of our choreography, how we walked single file with our hands on our hips to look like wings. There was a sequence: jump; wiggle, wiggle, wiggle; jump; wiggle, wiggle, wiggle (technical terms, obviously) where we shook our heavily padded tushes in the direction of the audience, and it totally stole the show. You may think I'm exaggerating, but the headline of the review in the local paper the next day was actually, "Ducks Steal Show at Memphis Ballet."

The Peabody Memphis
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

It was a good high for a preteen, and for years, the golden memories of our ballet-world Peabody eclipsed the real thing. That's often how it is with these grand historic hotels. They ebb and flow in terms of radiance and renovation, and when they are your own hometown fixtures, you take them for granted. My teenage memories of The Peabody consist mostly of disappointing New Year's Eves, when we'd annually try (and fail) to sneak into the 21-and-over parties on the mezzanine and end up stuck in the lobby with the tourists. I'd look around, hoping to salvage the night by kissing someone cute at midnight (the best I ever did was a peck on the cheek from my friend Murff's then boyfriend, Duncan), and my eyes would land on that marvelous marble fountain. "Jump, and wiggle, wiggle, wiggle," I'd think. Those were the days.

Then, when I got married, where else would all of my fiancé's family and friends who'd flown to Memphis from New York stay, if not The Peabody? So everyone arrived, and I got nervous. What if our grande dame didn't live up to expectations? But, of course, she did. All of the guests went bananas over the ducks. My in-laws hosted our rehearsal dinner in the ballroom, which I'm sure has a name, but we just call it "the room with the apple green walls." It was a gigantic, rowdy affair. The following morning, as my father-in-law inspected the bill, he said, "I'm pretty sure I own the hotel now." Everyone thought that sounded great.

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I've spent only two nights at The Peabody. One was my wedding night. The other was on my birthday a few years later, when my husband surprised me. Both were memorable, mostly because the beds there are insanely comfortable. In fact, my sister-in-law bought the whole getup—mattress, topper, and pillows—after sleeping on it at our wedding. But, with apologies to my husband, it's the morning after my wedding that I remember best. I woke up at 6 a.m. and spent half an hour in bed watching that sweet man sleep while I ate mini barbecue sandwiches and a hunk of our wedding cake that had been sent up with us after our reception. Then I began wandering the floors, making the rounds up and down the carpeted hallways, listening to all of the stories from the night before that I had missed: who'd had a dance off and who'd kissed whom. I ended up in the lobby—that beautiful lobby— in my pajamas, rehashing and laughing and soaking up the attention until 11 a.m., and then the ducks came downstairs and stole the show right back.

peabodymemphis.com, 901-529-4000, 149 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103