By John Thomas Tuft
It is a little before dawn when she makes her way down the hallway, after splashing some water on her face, pulling the old housecoat with the flower print close around her. The slippers on her tired feet have molded themselves to the corns and callouses, swollen ankles and wobbly toes. Life’s imperfections are what make it worth the trouble, currency to present to whomever dares to man the tollbooth on the highway to happiness and a life well lived. She steps into her domain, the soul of her home, the expression of her desire to serve with humility and grace…and unmistakable pride, a modestly appointed kitchen. In a society seemingly determined to turn every life-sustaining chore into one more scheme in a consumer economy, she follows her heart and its well worn path of care. Which requires tea. Lots of tea.
Her wealth is measured in quarters and dimes, nickels and pennies, and the thought of spending the cost of a meal for her family on a single drink of coffee from a gleaming franchise boasting of its arrogance is as extravagant to her as the thought of ordering a new dress for herself from the Sears catalog for no other reason than that she wanted it. She fills the kettle and sets it on the stove. This is her time, this is her sanctuary and the first cup of tea to greet the day is her sacrament. If there does happen to be an extra dollar, and no one needs new shoes, she tries to determine who around her is in need. For she considers herself to be blessed, and not beholden to the world’s demands for screaming what she wants into the vortex. The kettle whistles and she takes down her special tin of Earl Grey and carefully selects a bag and places in the chipped mug. Pours the boiling water over it, carries it to the table and sits down to let the steam steep her own thoughts.
NeeNee knows that soon her husband will stir, but this is yet her time. He will spend time in devotion, reading a well worn Bible and muttering well worn prayers, trying to exorcise the demons within that have driven his anger all of his life that the Almighty is so demanding. He wields it like a sword, demanding purity of himself and others, never daring to admit that he is terrified of his own mortality like it is a fire breathing dragon coming to rob him of all pleasure. He is a good man, she knows, but it has been hard. Fifty years, seven children, lots and lots of tea. Oceans of it, marking the passage of time like the tide, trying to dissolve hurts and fears, wash away worries and unmet wants. And celebrating, quietly. And rest. Most of all a time of rest. A cup of tea is her oasis in a desert of constant demands.
NeeNee’s tea is her prayer. A slice of lemon serves to quicken the spirit, and elevate the ethos of her supplications, seeking light and calm, a strength stirred from within. The hands cradling the cup bear the stigmata of sacrifice, a silent witness of swollen knuckles and inelegant scars. The small bottle of ‘nerve’ pills sitting beside the tin of tea bespeak her utter fear of confrontation and the remnants and echoes of her own mother’s very demanding and critical voice. But everyone has their ghosts, she reassures herself. She uses the hem of her housecoat to clean her glasses. Paradise is a cup of tea and a good Agatha Christie story, perhaps a pleasure to savor later in the day. Her eyes tire so readily now, and her greatest fear is of no longer being able to read her books with this cherished elixir.
NeeNee’s tea is the balm of Gilead for a wounded soul, parched by unrelenting reminders of fate’s carelessness and the perils of grief. She brought seven lives into this world, now one has slipped away. They are supposed to leave home, but they are not supposed to leave her alone. Is this a test or a task? She rises to reheat the water and freshen her tea. Perhaps it is neither. She pulls the housecoat tighter, fighting the morning chill. She takes down a jar of apricot jam and slides some bread into the toaster. A good cup of tea can only be improved upon with some toast. And for this moment…and perhaps only for this moment…that is enough. It can wait. It can always wait. Can’t it? Until that next cup of tea…
Words are magic and writers are wizards.