An Ode To Tea

Caroline Kramer

© Copyright 2004 by Caroline Kramer


Tea is everything, it is a comment and a distraction. It is and activity and a love affair. The sound of water bubbling in readiness and splashing happily onto leaves. It is joyous it is sad. Tea is in my blood. My husband once joked that if you cut an English person open tea would come gushing out. It is true, in my native land morning, noon and night are punctuated by tea drinking. Where I come from we brew it with boiling (not just hot) water and add a splash of milk and sometimes a sprinkle of sugar. Never cream and certainly there is not such a concoction as half and half. Milk, or if you are fancy, may be, lemon.

A winter morning and frost has crept up my single pane of window glass. Outside the world is still, except for the occasional commuter car, beating the rush into London. I creep downstairs, stepping over the squeaky stair, fearful of losing this magic time to too many people. My father sits in his chair in the living room, enjoying his first cigarette of the day and I rejoice, not in that fact, but in the bubbling, hissing kettle on the old gas stove in the kitchen. The flame is roaring and it sits waiting to burst into a shrill song of boiling.

The living room is always dark, perhaps my father prefers the solitude before the first light of the day – but I am not intruding. We sit quietly, anticipating the whistle. I know then the spell will be broken, he will rise and move towards his carefully laid out mugs and pot. He will warm the pot with the first slosh of water and then wait, lighting a second smoke. The kettle jiggles and sputters on a low gas. He inhales deeply a few times and then balances the cigarette precariously on the counter-top. He cannot forget it – singing the formica work surface would be a deadly sin.

He tips away the warming water and carefully counts out three spoons of tea from the caddy. Loose leaf tea, PGTips. The spoon lives in there, buried in those little pieces of brown.  It has a Dutch Windmill at the end of its silver handle,  a reminder of those days when my father rode his motorcycle around Europe for kicks. Then he turns the flame up to a roar and the kettle once again screams in agreement, the water comes rushing out into the teapot – every last piece of flavor will be caught by its heat.

“Going back up?” he asks as I turn to leave. I nod. This tea is better than the solitude of downstairs and a rush back to the little warmth that remains between my yellow sheets and pink blanket. There I hide in anticipation until I hear footsteps on the stairs and my bedroom door pushes open. A mug of steaming hot tea arrives on the floor next to my bed – it is strong and milky and full of love. It is the one thing that my father does for me every morning. When I am older, sometimes I will fall asleep. It is six thirty, and I wake to find a cold cup with a sad milk circle floating around on top. I feel guilty and carefully tip it down the bathroom sink so that no one feels hurt or rejected by my soporific carelessness.

Tea. That first cup of the day. The second at breakfast. My rejection of coffee. Instant tea which we bought in the school lunch room and drank from little paper cups – a poor imitation. Tea in green and yellow hospital china as grandmothers lay dying and parents had bits and pieces removed or mended. Tea from my yellow pot in a college dorm room – we drilled holes in the bottom and put plants in when the handle fell off.

“Tea?” asks Gilly. Here in these grand surroundings I, nervous of consequence,  say,
“Please, that would be great.” Will our tea divide us beyond the point that our differing economics ever could? This is not a house that one comes by accidentally and do not even presume to think you are rich until you can casually own one. Five floors, up and down mostly – this is London after all. A cool million or two. Madonna has one around the corner. The play room was rented out as an apartment before the boys – it is the size of half my house. My house would also have an excessive price tag, but is not actually mine, it comes with the job My husband is a clergy man.

Tea for clergy, of course, is ridiculously important. Refusing tea is like saying the grandchild is ugly, accepting an agreement to stay longer than time allows. Be stricter on the cookies and cakes than you are on the tea or definitely walk between appointments. Parish tea comes in all sorts. Bone china and chipped mugs. Teabags and leaf.
“What sort of tea do you like?” is a vital question when the priest is known to be calling. Never, ever say you love it when you don’t or you will be drinking that Lhapsang stuff, which tastes like charred baked beans, until kingdom come.

News about your tea preferences spreads fast, especially when, like my husband, you are a foreigner. That an American will drink hot tea with a drop of milk is seen as extraordinary and catapults him to a level of acceptability that most of his fellow countrymen could never hope to attain. Coffee would elicit a whole different response as if in a simple beverage request there was an attempt at cultural revolution, incarceration of all things British in the grounds. That is not to say that the English never drink coffee, they do, passionately, but just that it is an invasion into something quintessential and sacred when proposed by a foreigner.

So Gilly asks about tea and I wonder whether she will be just ordinary. Certainly she will have variety, some Earl Grey, some decaf but all I want to be offered is unfussy regular old black tea. I am not the snob my mother thinks she is, looking for china and loose leaves. I live in understatement, it is the middle of the day and we have little children crawling around our feet eager for the joys of the playroom.

She gives me no choice – a confidence I find pleasing, that her offering will be acceptable to me. Two mugs arrive on the counter from an immaculate cabinet. Chunky earthenware and not a fussy fine china. The match, of course, not like my house, where finding two clean mugs is a challenge and they hang precariously on a mug tree on the windowsill, there is no cabinet space for them. Most of them are emblazoned with something, a holiday destination, a grocery brand, the local bus company. They have come to us gradually and accidentally. They tell our lives in mass printed transfers.

There is the plain yellow mug from my job in government when I chose a sunny color to enliven my office desk. There is the black and white check which someone gave me when I left for college – there was a set of these once. There is the Oxford Bus Company mug and the red one that says Nescafe – a betrayal for a tea drinker but it was left in a car we bought in college. There are several mugs from Churches -  St Anne’s, St Peter’s – and one covered in frogs from a teenage vacation in St. Ives – bought with hard saved allowance. There had been two but my brother broke one. The same store had yielded frog figurines and a tea towel. A coup for the fourteen year old frog collector.

Gilly’s mugs are carefully chosen and that I decide is the difference between us. Her life is a series of careful decisions mine revolves around contingency. Hers is planned, mine runs from crisis to crisis. She develops menus for dinner parties. I buy whatever is on sale and call a few friends at the last minute. We can forgive each other for this. A tea bag is casually dropped into each mug and hissing water poured over. As the tea takes its color she offers milk,
“Milk’s in the door of the fridge, if you want it, put a dab in mine,” and she retrieves Joshua from the polished floor and goes to find a diaper. This is where I am, casual tea with a woman who had a child on the same day as me. She already trusts me to do her milk for her.

From my little house to her huge one children and tea unite us. Children alone would not have sufficed but she uses tea bags because they are quicker. Function over frivolity for a person like me who is forced to live in a world of function is appealing. I squish the water out of the bags and look for a trash can. In a world where I could be so lost I can function around tea. We all know how this works. The milk sloshes into each cup. I hope we are going to be friends.

Tea, the place we return to. After funerals to mask our grief and weddings to cover our tiredness. After winter fireworks to warm us and after the beach to soak us. Tea. Nothing fills us more. When words fail, tea provides. Divorce, abuse, love and war. Tea gives us the space to consider and comfort. Time taken brewing and making is time for easy talk, time for the weather and friends. Time to lay down the burdens. Tea takes long enough. Sipping slows us,
“Drink it while it’s hot,” we implore. None of us can. It just allows us to breathe awhile, breath filled with the essence of the drink, bergamot or blackness. Just to be.

My tea arrives – a mug of hot water with a stringed  tagged bag on a saucer.
“This is no good,” I want to shout at the waitress. But patiently I thank her and plop the bag in, watching as the color hesitantly eddies in the not boiling water – it has nothing to rush to.
“Could I have milk?”
“Yes milk not cream, thanks.”
“I’ll see if we have some.” My precision seems fussy to her but I have learned that half brewed tea with cream is just too much for my, now foreigner’s, constitution. The time will come soon where I will give up on ever ordering hot tea and long for the old tea shop with its huge gallon tea pot, shining and full of care.

I am now odd and people bring me tea because they know I will like it and they will not. They do not bring it to share but rather to clear out, to solve a problem. Fancy tea which I know I would never have bought. Fancy tea which is full of delicate flavors when I long for plain, understated, workhorse tea.

Now I can plan and dream and not run from problem to problem because we are paid more here, were are not so reliant on charity and good luck. But my tea eludes me. I return home for a funeral in England and come back with box after box of leaf tea but there will be little sharing – no one else cares about my little love. A very kind gift of an electric tea kettle, stainless steel, makes me angry as it highlights my isolation – don’t they understand that tea is not a solitary occupation?

My mother-in-law kindly tries to indulge me, drinking tea, for a while, but soon wanders back to coffee, without saying anything. Perhaps she is embarrassed at her failure to be like me or apprehensive at my very ability to be me. To be me who does not want coffee, but on occasion. To be me who finds the taste abrasive and is proud of my red European passport. Me, who does not want to be a coffee drinking American but would rather be a tea drinking Brit, even in this glorious isolation.

Americans admire perseverance but think me stubborn in my accent and habits. Tea is only a fascination here, never life blood. It is an after thought and not a substance. It is a question half asked, never an answer for everything. It is a thing to be drifted through, not an obsession. Even if you love the drink you will never understand tea unless you live and breath it. Unless every day is permeated with it. Unless memories have great drips and dollops of brown liquid generously dotted all over them.

Tea is a pride and a joy. It both defines and transcends. It dares into places where fear and pain rule and comes away with some little relief, some intangible comfort. It is a soliloquy and a chorus. It is part of me, it is in my blood.


Hot tea is not iced tea and iced tea is not British. These are my small thoughts on tea drinking and personhood.  I live in VA but was born near London where I lived the first thirty years of my life and forced my poor American husband to live for seven years. I have four children and spend my time writing and clearing up after them!

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