tea and empathy ~


Hello. My  name is Britton and I haven’t had any tea in 7 hours…

I’m nuts about tea. Crazy, obsessive, elitist (and possibly boring :)) on the topic. I love coffee as well, but that’s another post…

I have almost as many tea ‘cookbooks’ as the more traditional type. There are (at least) six tea sets in the china cabinet,  including two hand-painted by my grandmother, who also loved tea sets. That number doesn’t include the celadon set my husband brought back from Korea, the antique Persian set he bought me in Saudi Arabia, the hand-thrown pottery set in our wedding stoneware, or the various tempered glass ones I mostly use. Did I mention I love tea?

If you don’t love tea, you should stop here. If the fragrance of a SFTGOP1 First Flush Darjeeling doesn’t make you swoon, then you may be beyond saving. An aside ~ in Singapore once, at (of course) the old Raffles, I drank a Darjeeling I still remember. Sitting in the unintentionally shabby-chic dining room, I inhaled a haunting floral nose, swirled colour like dark honey in my cup. You hear from some that Darjeeling tastes of Muscatel wine, but really? That was the only Darjeeling I’ve ever had that did. I still love Darjeeling — although not as much as China blacks, particularly Keemuns.

Tea comforts. When my world falls apart, I can create one small island of order: boil water, watch it climb the glass walls of the kettle. Measure out the Hao Ya A w/ the scoop Glen bought me in Dhahran. About 2-3 scoops, depending on the pot, in the filter. Warm the pot which one? the small glass 2-cup? the larger 6-cup? the Aynsley or the Wedgewood…?, throw out the water, place the filled filter in the pot. Pour the boiling water over. Steep four minutes. This is the ritual that rescues ~ focuses the galloping mind in its own Anglicised tea ceremony. Calm.

Sometimes just a cup will do. So I pull out one of the many tea trays — a small one, perfect for a glass cup, a smaller filter and the honey pot my niece gave me. Rooibos chai is good to soothe. So is verveine. Some of the flavoured teas out now are lovely in the summer. And most are even better with honey from a silver spoon. 🙂

Elsewhere — in poems, in essays, in letters and journals and who knows where — I’ve written about learning tea. Long ago, in a galaxy and time far far away In a desert city, in a box of a trailer, alone w/ the wintry desert shamal and new motherhood, I learned tea. It was my life line. Or rather, the other women huddled together for support were my life line. A Brit, a Madrasan (now a Chennaite? ), an Aussie, three Texans, an Okie, a Canadian, a Vermonter… an eclectic group, my tea family.

Some of them already knew tea — the Brit, of course. And the Canadian and the Aussie.  The Queen’s brew has a long, wide and colourful history. Here in the US, we drink coffee — proof of our rebellious natures. But no one ever turned to coffee (which I also enjoy) for comfort. Few people write poetry to coffee. And rarely do people worry about ‘too much tea.’ That would be tea’s younger and more aggressive brother.

the author's
the author’s

In that long beginning, when I was learning tea and motherhood and loneliness, my tea family shared our lives over pots and pots of tea. Lyn, the tall Brit who mothered me in the way all eldest children crave,  patiently instructed me on the intricacies. First I had to buy a pot. Which I did — at the seconds sale at Harrods once, on a layover in London — a lovely curved Aynsley teapot, as old-fashioned as its cottage flowers. I must have bought a couple of cups too, probably four.

I know there was a teapot first. And black tea — always four minutes, never five. Usually English breakfast, those first years. Sometimes Earl Grey — was it Martha who loved it so? Occasionally Darjeeling. Later? Lyn would pick us up wonderful teas from Fortnum & Mason’s, teas as beautiful as Paris, as sophisticated as Bangkok.

So much of what I know now is the gift of women. How to mother. How to bargain. How to live through grief and come out the other side still capable of joy. Many of these things I learned from my tea family, none of whom I see now. One is on my Facebook, and her daughter — who once played in the bathtub w/ my older son — is now a mother older than I was then. Others I lost track of in moves, lamenting their loss.

In those far-off days, I still ran. And sometimes I would run the track in furious anger, homesick and terrified of the alien spaces I inhabited: landscape and motherhood and marriage and all that comes with ‘adulting.’

the author’s

But when Ione — another of my tea family — and I sat down over tea, in the quiet breakfast room overlooking two small boys playing on a swing set, I belonged. For probably as long as there has been fire, women have steeped the gathered leaves and twigs of plants in water placed in a skin, a gourd, a bowl of clay. And shared their stories.

What is it about memory? A fragrance, a fragment of song, something as small as a shard of coloured glass, and time respools. I am standing in the long narrow living/dining room of a trailer, with sand sifting in through drafty windows. The sound track is the laughing voices of women thrown together by time and circumstance: not quite sisters, more than friends. The fragrance this time is the bergamot of Earl Grey, no longer one of my favourites. In a cup, it’s just tea. Except that nothing we remember is ever quite that simple.

Published by: Britton Gildersleeve

Writer Britton Gildersleeve grew up in Southeast Asia, moved to the Middle East when she married, and returned to Oklahoma to raise her two sons. Now that they're grown, she and her beloved live in Virginia, where she can be closer to sons, daughter-in-law, & grandsons. Sometimes she hears voices, so she writes ~ And she drinks a lot of tea.

Categories Hao Ya A, memory, teaLeave a comment

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