Sitting here on this cold winter’s day, staring out into woods covered thick and white from the worst snowstorm this region has endured for over a hundred years, I breathe the scent rising from a cup of tea on a coaster by my left hand.
I think of her.
English and proper. Keen blue eyes, aquiline nose, hands clasped at her waist and the strap of her pocketbook held in the crook of her elbow.
I spent the bulk of my childhood and adolescence in her care and under her exacting tutelage. In fact, I spent more time with her than all her other grandchildren and great-grandchildren, combined. The woman all but reared me. The result of this is that I know all the ritual and rules of serving tea, whether it be a formal High Tea (late tea) or a simple-yet-elegant Low Tea (afternoon).
She trained me with painstaking deliberation, making sure I understood everything from who does the pouring to how the milk and sugar are added to the cup (There is a correct way to do this. No lie).
Often, her friends from work or church would come to tea and my job was to be helpful-yet-invisible. When I was old enough, she even let me carry the tray with all the tiny sandwiches, fruit, and cheeses. Even now, the scent of sliced apples and smoked Gouda fill me like an exotic dream.
The best part of these events was the opportunity to be close to her, to work beside her, to have her peek over my shoulder and make sure the slices I made where just right. Not too big. Not too small. She sang under her breath. I listened. I memorized the lines on her face and the dark spots on her hands.
She gave me a sense of belonging to something and someone important, someone who—by virtue of her existence—bore witness to how life itself could be survived with grace and dignity. Being her solitary protégé’ gave me status, if only in my own eyes. There was unspoken approbation in being allowed to carry a beautiful china teapot and delicate cups from the kitchen to the living room where the ladies sat, waiting.
I longed to please her and shrank from her disapproval. She never raised her voice to me or struck me, but when those blue eyes glittered at me in anger, I found it unbearable.
Her death was the worst catastrophe of my adult life. Family politics kept me away from her as she slipped away, her own mind so lost and in shadow that she could not call for me. Her funeral and burial became tools of vengeance used against me with seething madness and rage. I kept my feet under me because I had learned from a true pinnacle of quiet dignity the power of silence and the knowledge that God sees all.
The day my grandmother died, my daughter was babysitting and it fell to me to drive across town, pick her up, and tell her that her beloved Oma had passed. I watched as Liz walked toward the van, her long legs seeming heavy and unsure, and her eyes downcast. We drove away. I could see her in the rearview mirror. Her forehead rested against the window, her red-rimmed eyes blinked away tears. How could she already know? Impossible. I’d told no one.
Finally I said, “Liz, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Oma has died.”
She nodded her head, squeezed a torrent of tears from her eyes, and whispered, “I know. She came to tell me good-bye.”
I said, “She came to you?”
“Yes. In Jenny’s room. I was playing with her, and Oma came to me and told me good bye.”
We did not speak the rest of the way home. How could we? What is there to say to such a revelation?
I suppose I could say that if my grandmother would take the time to touch someone and say good bye, Liz would be an understandable choice. A sweet and sensitive child, she and the old woman met soul to soul on some invisible plane and knew each other very well.
I have always believed that the cataclysmic way my world spun out after my grandmother’s death happened BECAUSE she was dead. Had she lived, none of it would have happened. She would not have tolerated it. At her funeral where I sat alone, my hand reached to grab hers, to feel her close to me, to feel her comfort me and let me know she loved me.
Had she lived—my stalwart champion—I would have been spared.
The first Christmas after her death, my daughters had a Christmas Tea in her honor and invited all their friends. Because of my intense education in such matters (an education that spanned over two decades) the tea was presented perfectly, to the great pleasure of all the young ladies present.
Next month, it will be fourteen years since her death. I still feel her close to me. I dedicate every Christmas dinner to her and to her memory. It’s a very English affair right down to the crackers after dinner and the paper crowns.
I have her tea cups sitting on the cupboard in my dining room. My children will have them when I go. I wear her small diamond on my right hand. My granddaughter will have it when I go. On the island in my kitchen, canisters of loose-leaf tea stand side by side. My son-in-law can scarcely pass by them without opening and sniffing inside each one.
Each of my daughters knows well the intricacies of preparing and serving a proper tea. My granddaughters will know, too. And there will be stories of my grandmother. Stories she told me herself. Her mother, her father, her sisters, friends she had, places she liked to go as a little girl, songs she loved to sing. I even know of her favorite secret hiding place where she fled for solace as a young girl, needing a small parcel of time and a safe place to hide as her own mother slowly died.
I can see it just as she described it and I understand. The girl sat by her mother’s bed day after day and night after night, just to be close to her. And the girl sang softly. Her gentle voice was a comfort to her mother.
But the mother passed and the girl had to grow up much too fast. In her heart, kept in yet another hiding place, she tucked away all her stories. Eventually—many years later--she wrote a few of those stories down and showed them to me. Being a writer myself, I recognized the gesture of trust and vulnerability. Her soul laid open to my eyes and my soul receiving her with respect and genuine humility.
They say that, eventually, the pain of losing a loved one passes. “They,” of course, are lying. You learn to carry it, but it never goes away.
My friend Donna stopped by after work the other day. I fall back on classic English understatement when I say that Donna’s life, at present, is profoundly unpleasant. She slumped into a chair in my living room, beside the fireplace, and put up her feet. I said, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
She smiled and said, “A cup of tea? Oh, yes. I really would.”
I made her some tea and brought her a small plate of gingersnaps. Freezing winter wind lashed the windows outside but inside, Donna and I were warm and safe. She held her cup of tea in both hands, sipped it, and we talked.
This is what tea is for. Human comfort, the blessing of easy conversation, connection and communion.
My grandmother’s wise lessons have outlived her and they will outlive me, too. They will also outlive my children and be passed on to my grandchildren. These are the important things in life: wisdom, grace, dignity, and how to make a good cup of tea.© Camille Moffat 2010
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