Learning patience, one tea party at a time
My mother’s kitchen table is set with a gold-rimmed rose tea pot, two mismatched rose tea cups, two silver spoons and a rose sugar bowl. My ten-year-old daughter stands in front of me and waits. In a high-pitched voice she asks, “Miss Emily, could I pour you a cup of fruit tea?”
I put a careful smile on my face and say, “Why, thank you, that would be lovely.”
Inwardly, I groan. My to-do-before-leaving-America list flashes in front of me: meet accountant to complete the extension on my US taxes; purchase a year’s worth of toiletries of hard-to-find brands in Prague; call up my college friends to get an annual update and to congratulate the ones who’ve had new babies in the past year; get my family’s teeth cleaned; say goodbye to my aunt and uncle who have been in town cleaning out my grandmother’s house; attend Mary Poppins that afternoon at a regional theater.
Somehow having a mid-morning tea party didn’t make the cut.
But, here I am, being served. I watch as Anna tries to pour the tea. The spout of the tea pot is chipped and some of the tea drips on the table – she looks at me to see if I fuss.
After she’s poured my tea, she sits back down. “Would you like sugar?” She hands me a spoon and the sugar bowl. I take one spoonful and pass it back to her. She dips her spoon in too quickly and sugar crystals fly across the table. She looks at me again.
Resigned to enjoy myself, I smile. This time, it’s not quite as forced.
It is late July, and we are drinking Celestial Seasonings Raspberry Zinger from a two-cup Queen Anna bone china tea pot that originally belonged to my grandmother. Once my grandmother’s valuable household items (both sentimental and monetary) had been distributed among my mother and her sisters, my aunt called us to see the leftover items before she took them down to the thrift shop. Anna and my mother returned from my grandmother’s with a box full of assorted china tea ware. I was instructed to pack up what I wanted for Prague.
I’ve done this before. When my father cleaned out his parents’ house, I inherited a cut glass fruit bowl and a set of four retro espresso cups. When my great-aunt passed away, my mother brought me a painted china bowl with a daffodil design and four tea cups. While others in the family inherit wooden chests or living room chairs, dining room tables or bedroom furniture – I get porcelain. It seems strange to me to take European porcelain back to Prague; it seems it should work the other way. But it is the only thing that fits my suitcases.
Like a dutiful granddaughter, I wrap the porcelain in underwear or loose socks and tuck it between stacks of clothes in my suitcases. Once in Prague, I store the inherited china in the back of the cabinet. Occasionally, I see it when I’m rummaging for a dish. When my mother visits, she makes a show of cutting fruit and serving it in the cut glass bowl at dinner. But usually the china sits, safe and untouched in the back corner, waiting for a special day when I’ll have the time or be in the right mood to get it out, dust it off and use it.
This time, I tell Anna Lee and my mother that I have enough. I don’t have room in my cabinet in Prague to store more hand-me-down china. We have two working tea pots and more than a dozen various tea cups and mugs. The rose tea set has to stay at my mother’s.
Anna is heart-broken. She begs and pleads to take at least the tea pot and two cups. She wants them for tea with her friend Amalka when they play dolls. She’ll be careful.
I strike a compromise. We’ll have a tea party at my mother’s before we leave.
In the Czech Republic, we drink tea often. The children have fruit tea instead of juice or milk at school; during visits my Czech girlfriends often offer me green tea instead of coffee; my mother-in-law serves fruit tea with liberal portions of honey whenever anyone in the family as much as sneezes. If an adult sneezes, she adds a shot of rum or whiskey for good measure. Czech breastfeeding mothers drink special fennel teas to put their babies to sleep, and Czech babies drink herbal baby tea from bottles. Tea in the Czech Republic is usually drunk in tall clear glasses or thick, wide mugs. It is a drink meant to take the chill out of a drafty house at breakfast, to warm you after a walk outdoors or to help you relax after a day of hard skiing.
It is not the same as having a tea party with your ten-year-daughter at your mother’s kitchen table, using your grandmother’s English bone china on a mid-morning summer day.
Anna and I sip our tea slowly. She pours herself a refill and spills more sugar. I say nothing about the sugar. I can see that, unlike many mornings in the summer, today she is in a good mood. She is not grumpy or bored. She is pleased that I am sitting here with her, and that, for the moment, it is just the two of us in the kitchen.
I see my chance to ask her about school next year. She tells me that she’s excited about her new dance class and a little nervous about the Czech gymnasium entrance exams after the fifth grade. She wonders if she’ll have to study a lot and what will happen if she doesn’t get a spot. She wonders why she can’t have more time that’s just with me, and why her brothers are always around. For the moment, I am the best mother in the world, or, at least, I feel that she sees me that way. Her admiration is as sweet as the too-sugared tea I am sipping.
As we are finishing our second cups, her brothers storm into the kitchen, hungry for lunch and ready for an adventure. They demand to know why they can’t have a tea party too. I send Anna upstairs to brush her teeth and get two more tea cups for the boys. I watch little Sam pour a cup of tea without spilling and add two spoons of sugar, sending the crystals flying across the table just as Anna had. The boys drink their tea while I start making lunches. I promise a trip to the pool after lunch and a proper tea party for them another day.
Later that evening, I get out an old shoebox. I wrap four mismatched rose tea cups and the rose tea pot, sugar bowl and creamer in underwear and socks. I tape the lid shut and place the shoebox in one of my half-packed suitcases.
If all it takes is a pot of tea, a hand-me-down tea set and a quiet morning in the kitchen to show my children that they are worth my time, and for me to realize how much my time means to them, I am willing to fill my suitcases with tea sets.
It would make my grandmother smile to know that she’s opened a space for us to talk, one cup of tea at a time.