Read an Excerpt
The Last Great Tea Party
Andrew and I awoke to one of the coldest January days ever recorded in Milwaukee. The actual temperature was twenty-two degrees below zero, with a wind-chill factor of seventy below. Most schools in southeastern Wisconsin were closed because the risk of frostbite was too great for children waiting for school buses.
The furnace was running almost constantly, but the house was still cold. I was wearing two pairs of pants, a turtleneck, and a pullover sweater, and stood shivering in the kitchen. Just then, Andrew, my almost-six-foot-tall eighth-grader, walked in and asked in a perfect British accent, 'Say, Mum, don't you think it's 'bout time for a spot of tea?'
I laughed as I grabbed the teakettle to fill it with water. Andrew was in drama class that semester, and he was fascinated with his Scotch, Irish, English, French, and German ancestry, especially the different accents of each language. I looked closely at my son, whose father had died five years earlier, and was filled with appreciation at what a warm and easy relationship Andrew and I had developed over the years.
'Why, certainly, my good man,' I declared with as much drama as I could muster.
Andrew's eyes twinkled. He knew the scene was set. From that moment, we became English subjects. My British accent was muddled, but I tried to mimic the drama in Andrew's more perfected version. 'Do you fancy a spot of Earl Grey or Jasmine? English or Irish Breakfast? What flavor grabs your fancy this brisk morning?' I asked.
'Say, Mum, what is the difference between high tea and low tea?'
'Well, lad, low tea, which is usually called afternoon tea, is generally served at a low coffee or end table while the guests relax on a sofa or parlor chairs. High tea is served at a high dining-room table in the early evening, our traditional supper hour. More substantial foods are served at high tea, you see.' As a woman who had never had a cup of coffee in her life, but who loved tea, I was enjoying this opportunity to draw my son into my wonderful world of tea drinking.
Andrew rubbed his hands together as if warming them over an old English kitchen fireplace. 'So, Mum, let's have low tea on the coffee table in the living room. I'll make the preparations while you put on the kettle.'
Before I could remind my son that I had work to do in my home office, Andrew cleared the low, round oak coffee table of magazines, grabbed a cotton lace runner in the dining room, and spread it across the table-half closest to the sofa. Then he retrieved a centerpiece of silk flowers from the marble-top chest in the hallway and placed it behind the lace runner. For the final touch, he moved our small, solid oak mantel clock to the coffee table. The clock's rhythmic ticking, which could now be heard in the kitchen, made it seem that we were actually living in a drafty old English manor outside London.
Next, Andrew opened the china cupboard and retrieved my small English blue and white teapot, two delicate, antique, hand-painted bone-china teacups and saucers, the silver cream-and-sugar set, and a silver tray.
'I do declare, Mum, I can't see my face in the silver. It's in dire need of a good polishing.'
'I'll get right on it, Master Andrew,' I said with a wink.
Andrew set the table with two sandwich plates trimmed with flowers and gold paint that he found behind the silver. Then, in the drawer, he searched for two perfect napkins, settling on dark green linen, with a large, hand-embroidered yellow maple leaf on each corner.
'Here, the tray is ready. Gleaming, don't you think?' I proclaimed proudly. He smiled as a glint of his true English heritage shone through his eyes, and his face was mirrored in the silver.
As we waited for the water to heat and I carefully arranged sandwiches on the shining silver tray, Andrew dashed off to his room where he scoured his childhood collection of 160 hats, hanging on all four walls, for a proper hat to wear to what was most certainly going to be a very proper low tea.
My handsome son emerged wearing a plaid tam my godparents had given him after a trip they took to Scotland and England. Andrew had also slipped into an old man's floppy green herringbone sport coat I'd picked up at Goodwill to wear in my workroom on cold days. I stood back and looked at my son. The hat and jacket had transformed his tall, trim body into a gentleman as striking as an English lord.
'Mum, don't you suppose you need a proper hat and skirt for the occasion?' He winked at me and shooed me off to my bedroom to change.
I headed for my own five-piece hat collection and emerged with a simple beige wide-brimmed straw hat with a single feather protruding off to the side. To my cranberry-colored sweater I attached an antique round pin with multi-colored stones that had belonged to Andrew's great-grandmother. A long black matronly skirt pulled on over my pants completed my outfit.
We were the perfect lord and lady. The teakettle whistled. As I poured the water into the proper teapot and added loose English Breakfast tea encased in a large chrome tea ball, Andrew tuned the radio to an FM station playing classical music. He offered me his arm as we entered the living room and made ourselves comfortable on the sofa.
By now, my character in our English play had evolved into a sort of beloved great-aunt who lived in a castle high on an English countryside and was absolutely delighted that her young nephew had dropped in for an unexpected visit. Suddenly, I wanted to know everything about this young man as I watched him carefully pour tea into the hardly-ever-used delicate teacups.
'So, tell me, Sir Andrew, what are your plans? Where are you going in this great adventure of life?'
Andrew leaned back on the throw pillows behind us as he sipped his tea and stroked his chin. 'Well, it's a long road, you know. I still have four years of high school after this year, then college. Sometimes I wonder how I'll ever afford to attend college.'
I reminded him that financial aid would be available just as it had been for his older sisters and brother. We talked about how he might get into one of his dream schools if he kept up his grades.
We slid into conversation about girls. Andrew looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows into the barren treetops and said slowly, 'The girls. I think they all think I'm a geek.'
'Oh, surely not! Why, Andrew, my good man, you're handsome, smart, funny. I bet the girls love you. You just don't know it yet.'
Andrew sipped the steaming tea. Then he turned and said, 'I don't fight much, so they probably say I'm a wimp.'
My eyes rested on Andrew's size-thirteen feet, which proclaimed that his six-foot growth spurt was not over. I reassured him that not fighting was much more manly, something the high-school girls would certainly appreciate.
As time passed, we talked about music, sports, weather, God, and the school mixer coming up the next week. We watched a squirrel on the deck outside the windows eating corn off a cob. I felt myself opening up to the sensitive young man before me. I told Andrew how scared I was the year before, when I quit my regular job to start a business in my home. I told him I was lonely sometimes. He nodded, poured a tiny bit of skim milk into his tea, and picked up another tea sandwich. I took a deep breath and continued, 'Someday, I'd love to meet a wonderful, interesting man with a great sense of humor and deep faith.' I looked into the eyes of my son, pretending to be my nephew in drafty old England, and said, 'I'd like to get married again someday, Andrew. I don't want to grow old alone.'
The cold morning turned warm and wonderful as we each took turns talking and listening intently to what the other had to say. We both revealed parts of ourselves that had been neglected. Every so often, Andrew poured more tea for each of us. As he picked up the tiny sugar tongs, he'd ask, 'One lump or two, Mum?' Then he'd politely offer the plate of tiny sandwiches.
On that cold winter day, when I was forty-eight and Andrew fourteen, we were transported into a world we both knew would only exist for that one morning. We would never again have a tea party like this one. Andrew would immerse himself in school, the basketball team, the junior-high band, his friends, the school play, the telephone, and video games at his best friend's house.
But it didn't matter because on that coldest day of the year, during those precious three hours as we stumbled through a mumbo jumbo of British phrases and inadequate but charming accents, my youngest child and I ate, drank, talked, shared, laughed, and warmed our souls to the very core. Andrew and I not only created a cherished memory, but we wrote and directed a play at the same instant we performed it. There was no audience, just Andrew and me, and cups of very good tea.
My Best Cup of Tea
A woman is like a tea bag:
you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.
paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt
I worked for three years in the Republic of Botswana in southern Africa. Coming from the lush green forests and many lakes of northern Wisconsin, this land that was mostly Kalagadi Desert, with its vast expanse of tan sand, tan prickly thorn bushes, and gigantic tan termite hills, was at first sight startling in its sameness—except for the cloudless sky, which was brilliant blue. It was a period of drought. But it did not take me long before I saw and was enchanted by the beauty of the Kalagadi and its people.
The capital city, Gaborone, had a reservoir for water, making it like an oasis in the desert with its glorious scarlet jacaranda trees.
Botswana had been a protectorate of England until 1966 when the country gained independence peacefully. The English culture had a significant influence on the Botswana culture, the most enjoyable being tea drinking. I was working with the Botswana Council for the Disabled under the Ministry of Health. When I wasn't working in the villages, which was most of the time, I occasionally attended the official meetings of Parliament in Gaborone. There was always a formal morning 'tea break' when the government's business stopped, and tea was served to everyone. Then the cups were gathered up, and the pending business continued.
The cups of tea that were a true communion to my soul were those in the villages. On one trip with Nchele, the local health worker I traveled with, we rode through the Kalagadi Desert over illusive roads deeply rutted in fine sand, only stopping for a potty break behind a termite hill. We were on our way to a family who had been reported to us as needing our help. They had a three- or four-year-old little girl who only walked on her knees.
It was a very hot, dry, teeth-clacking jostle for three hours in a four-wheel-drive Jeep. Botswana had been suffering drought for three years. The sun and heat made mirages of silvery pools of water ahead of us on the desert sand. As we approached the family grounds, a scrawny goat nibbled on a stunted thorn bush, the only vegetation surviving the three-year drought. As we walked past the water barrel, we could see that it was nearly empty of the precious water the family had to carry from a very distant standpipe. As we neared the family's 'yard,' which was bordered by a foot-high enclosure made of packed mud and manure, we called out 'koko,' the polite way of announcing one's self. The father called out 'tsena' (enter). A cloud of dust enveloped us as the children began to dance around us, squealing in joy.
As soon as the mother saw us coming, she went to the water barrel and scooped out a small amount of precious water with a battered pan already blackened from ages in the fire. As the water heated, she put in a handful of bush tea leaves. We sat on goat skins placed on the packed sand, and the tea was poured into a large tin cup, then offered to me. The mother offered it with her whole heart and a smile as brilliant as the blazing, hot sun, as though the water barrel had been full. As we all shared that one cup of tea, I knew there would never be a better-tasting cup of tea in all the world.
Shirley J. Babcock
Tea is a meal for all seasons;
it's also suitable for all occasions.
'Why does he always have big projects on a Friday afternoon?' I wailed when I walked in the door after work.
'What's the matter, dear?' my mother-in-law said from the kitchen.
I threw my purse onto the counter. 'Oh, my boss. He had me work late again. I didn't get out of the office until six o'clock. Now here it is almost seven. Why does he do that before the weekend?' I walked over to the refrigerator and opened it.
'Don't worry about dinner. I made lasagna,' she said.
'Oh, that was nice of you. Let's chop up a salad to go with it.' I pulled out the lettuce, cucumber, and tomatoes. We shared a cutting board, and chopped and sliced together, filling our bowls.
The lasagna came out of the oven hot and bubbly. It was delicious, but my mind swirled with thoughts of all the work waiting for me on my desk Monday morning. I was still miffed at my boss. We rinsed off the dinner dishes and put them into the dishwasher. My husband was on a three-day business trip, and this was the first night of my mother-in-law's visit. She'd be spending a few weeks with us before returning home.
'I'm sorry I came home in such a crabby mood. I didn't mean to take it out on you,' I said.
'Don't worry about me. I can handle it. It's you I worry about. You shouldn't get so upset over work.'
'I can't help it. My boss drives me crazy!'
'There were bosses like that in my day, too. There's only one way to deal with them,' she said.
I was all ears, ready to hear the words of wisdom on how to put my boss in his place, how to tell him not to give me an overabundance of work, how to make him appreciate all that I do for him. 'What's the secret?' I asked.
'A cup of tea.'
'Tea? How can that help?'
'Let me show you. Sit down here on the sofa,' she said as she patted the end.
I did as she directed. I sank into the soft pillow back and kicked off my shoes.
'Now close your eyes and relax. I'll be back in a few minutes.'
I could hear her footsteps on the tile and knew she was in the kitchen. I listened as the cupboard door creaked when she took out some cups. The water ran in the sink. Then I heard the ping-ping-ping of the burner lighting on the gas stove. Minutes later, the kettle whistled.
'Okay, open your eyes,' she said.
She stood in front of me with two steaming mugs. Dangling from the side of each was a string with a square piece of paper at the end.
'Here,' she said as she handed me one of the mugs.
I took it with both hands. It wasn't too hot, just nice and warm. 'Thanks,' I said.
'Don't thank me yet. Sit and enjoy.'
She joined me on the sofa, and we sat with our cups in our hands. I took a sip. It was good. 'What kind is this?' I asked.
'It's a favorite of mine. I bring it with me wherever I go.'
I felt myself relax as I sipped the tea, warmth flooding through not just my fingers and hands, but through my whole being. I felt calmer.
'So this tea—it makes bosses go away?' I asked, smiling.
She laughed. 'No, nothing will do that. But it will make you forget about it for a little while.'
We sat, drank, and enjoyed each other's company. We talked about some of the things we wanted to do while she was visiting. Time flew by. Soon, we were both down to the last drops in our cups. I got up and took the mugs to the kitchen sink.
'That was really good,' I said, then covered my mouth as I yawned. 'I'm ready to put on my pajamas and go to bed.'
'Me, too,' she replied.
'How about tomorrow night we watch a movie after dinner?' I said.
'Sounds great. I'll even make you another cup of tea.' She began climbing the stairs to the guest room. 'Good night. See you in the morning.'
'By the way, what was the name of that tea?' I asked.
She stopped halfway up the steps, turned her head toward me, and smiled. 'Sweet Dreams,' she said.
B. J. Taylor
©2007. Patricia Lorenz, Shirley J. Babcock, and B. J. Taylor. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Tea Lover's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Patricia Lorenz. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.