My friend looked at me with an expression of dismay, “Well”, she said, “I don’t know what to do now”. I was at a loss too. Her husband was lying dead on the driveway with my favorite scarf jammed between the ice and his grey hair. He was splayed out in the look of death, absolutely relaxed, feet in odd positions, his snow shovel abandoned beside him.
The First Responders, there with their truck, were neighbors and past students of her husband, as they often are in rural areas where firemen are volunteers. They stood together quietly. “Let’s go inside and have a cup of tea”, I said. My friend was certainly in the first moments of shock, and although teary, she was her usual thoughtful self, getting chairs organized for everyone and finding cups. The men quietly moved her husband into their truck while we were inside. She gasped though, when she saw her husband’s hat on the back of a chair, saying softly, ‘his hat’ and patting it protectively.
So we made tea, a restorative drink and an important human ritual. First we have to boil the water, and then steep the leaves in the water. All this takes a certain amount of time and cannot be rushed. The water must boil, the tea must steep. It is a calming ritual because we must stop and sit and wait. While having tea we gathered ourselves, and waited for the officials. My friend prepared herself to call her children. We took a moment and talked about her husband, and how well loved a teacher and coach he had been.
A brewed cup of tea or coffee is an offering of friendship, an invitation to sit down and be heard. If someone offers to make you a hot drink that means that they like you, and want to make you feel at ease. When we offer an upset person a hot drink we are giving them time to gather strength as well as caffeine and sugar to fuel their next move.
I have discovered that I love reading about hot drink rituals as much as partaking in them. My favorite authors use the tea or coffee break as a sensual reflective moment. I first noticed this with P.D. James. I don’t read any murder mystery writers except P.D. James, and my favorite moments in the James novels are when the detective Dalgliesh is on a road trip investigating a crime. The detective loves to get into his car and go on a trip, and he also loves a good cup of coffee.
I bet I could find a lovingly detailed description of a good cup of coffee in every James novel. The aroma of just ground coffee beans rises up from the book. A feeling of joy in the small comforts of life seeps into your bones as Dalglieish settles in before a fireplace with his fine brewed coffee and a puzzle before him.
I became a ‘red tea’ drinker because of Alexander McCall Smith’s series set in Botswana, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I was addicted to this series during a very stressful period of my life. The books calmed my nerves and lifted my spirits when I was a shattered person, nerves frayed, digestive system shot. When the wonderful Precious and her assistant decide to make a pot of tea it meant the ladies had to stop and think, or give special time to hear a visitor’s story. During the time that I read that series I went out and bought some Rooibos tea and started to drink it rather than over doing black tea.
When my life had settled down and my body had stopped being on high alert, I moved away from that series and went back in time to a writer I loved as a child, Tove Jansson. We were in the midst of a long dark winter, with snow piling up on the roof and storms burying us every weekend when I found my old Mommintroll books that my Mom read aloud when I was little. By the time I was 11 I would ask for them for presents and I had read them all.
I started to read the Moomintroll series to my seven year old daughter that winter, settling into our cozy bed every night and traveling to that odd world. Here too I found the hot drink ritual. Moominmamma, who clearly resembles me at this point in my life with her big black purse full of useful things and her motherly skills, is always the one to brew a pot of coffee for the family, no matter what the disaster, flood or comet.
Settling into a picnic on an island it is Momminmamma who buries the butter jar in the sand in order to keep it cool and starts a small fire to brew up some coffee. Her insistence on continuing the small pleasures of life in the face of any other excitement makes her the comforting presence in the books.
When she brews coffee it reminds me of my intense memories of the family cottage. As a child, and as an adult, lying in a bundle of warm blankets with the cool air around your face, opening your eyes to sunshine on the trees and the sound of someone tinkering in the kitchen. Water is being poured into the old coffee pot, the gas has been put on, and soon the delicious smell of coffee will waft through the air.
I read a short story in a magazine a long time ago in which a few images and an offered cup of tea stayed with me and lingered in my mind. I knew the story was by Rohinton Mistry but I did not know the title so it was hard to track down. The images of the story stayed with me, and it was by doing some vague searches online that I finally found it. My first searches turned up nothing at all because I kept including ‘tea’ in my search. When I remembered to include a red stain on the white garments I found the story. Not everyone has my obsession with the tea ritual.
It was my memory of a red stain of beetle juice on the older gentleman’s white clothing that lead me to right story, Rustomji the Curmudgeon. I remember a fussy old man and a younger wife. The older man was having a tiring and troubling day as a day trip to a religious event is unsuccessful and instead he gets involved with some street confusion or uprising, and returns home with his good white clothes stained by red juice from someone’s spit.
In fact, I could not remember all those details at first. My mind was focused on the tea at the end of the story. Mostly I remembered how much I had enjoyed the journey of the story. I could see the red stain in my mind and smell the dust of the streets. And I felt the calm of the orderly home, and the loving offer of a cup of tea. I wanted to read the story again to study the effect. There was a contemplative circular effect that had struck just the right tone, and the cup of tea at the end of the story had resonated like a note on a bell.
The story made me stop and think about marriage and happiness. Always egocentric in my analysis of literature I may have been looking for an answer to a question in my heart. I thought the offer of the cup of tea was the essence of a good marriage. When she lovingly offers the tea you realize that they do have a better marriage than you would have first thought. Her offer of tea described or defined her love, and made him seem lovable. She created love, by offering the tea, and hence created her marriage.
I thought about the tea for some time. Marriage is not just about two characters and their compatibility; instead it is about what they create together. It is a third thing, something created by two people working together. A cup of tea offered, is the action and definition of love; it is a necessary tradition in a relationship and in all human relations.