I come by my love for tea and all that goes with it honestly – it’s in my gene pool like fair skin and straight hair. It’s who I am and where I come from.
My mother tells me that my great grandmother, Gertrude, was a believer in tea parties for all age groups. She was a Victorian long after the era ended, and advocated paying attention to detail and doing things properly. The mother of seven living children, she definitely wasn’t a lady of leisure, but there was always time for tea. She adored beautiful china and fine linens, and passed this love to her four daughters in particular.
My mother remembers tea with her aunts and shared her stories when I was growing up. The aunts were all very different, and so were their tea parties. Clementine couldn’t resist colored Depression glass and how it reflected the light on a table. Tea with her was best in a sunny window with a white cloth to best display the glow. Leigh Ann lived for bold painted china-she was very dashing and modern; think Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame. She told stories of her travels that were so thrilling that my mother forgot to eat. Louise had the plainest settings, but all china and silver were scrupulously clean and sparkling. Tea at her house was very polished and Sunday-best; a sensation my well-ordered mother liked.
Of all of the sisters, it was her mother, my grandmother who was the best cook. Theresa Genevieve could make soft breads and melt in your mouth pastries that her whole family admired. The food was the focus of her tea parties, although she enjoyed pretty cups and saucers in different designs. It was also my grandmother who served tea outside in the garden during the warm days of summer. Her love of flowers, particularly Iris, added to the party mood.
When my sister and I were young, my mother would have tea parties for the three of us. We would each have a different cup that once belonged to my grandmother. Mom drank tea, while we usually had pink lemonade when we were small and cambric tea as our tastes grew. There was always a beautiful teapot, silver spoons, creamer and sugar, fine linens and dainty plates just the right size for little girls. Most of the time we had cookies or cupcakes only, but sometimes we had our lunch at tea time. It was during these tea parties that we received subtle instructions on how to act like ladies, as well as how to treat others; respectfully while using your manners.
In turn, we held tea parties for our babies; an assortment of dolls in various shapes and sizes. Our miniature tea sets were always incomplete due to breakage or loss but that didn’t matter. Mother taught us that it was much more interesting to mix and match anyway. Our doll tea parties consisted of sugar water for tea and flower petals for cookies and cakes; we both had plenty of imagination. This became a favorite pastime that we played often, in the backyard, the basement or our rooms. We also taught our friends how to play tea party as well, and sometimes they got to join us for the real thing.
The first year that I lived in my own apartment, I decided to have high tea for mom as a Mother’s Day gift. I sent her a carefully written invitation on pretty stationary and planned an afternoon just for her. I prepared finger sandwiches, bought Sara Lee pound cake and éclairs from the bakery (I was poor in both money and cookery). None of the tea accessories matched and the spoons were stainless steel, but, being a mom, she only noticed the effort that I made. We sat on garage sale furniture with a pressed board table and enjoyed each other in a new and different way. She sent a lovely thank you note afterwards, still teaching her daughter good manners.
Six years later, I was engaged. A tea party was the most meaningful way I could think of to show my love and appreciation for my bridesmaids and both mothers. Since my sister was my maid of honor, I thought that it would be especially evocative for her. The menu was far more extensive that my first tea party. I baked for days and created invitations with calligraphy and lavender ink. The tables had pretty linens with violet teacups and pots; though still, not all matching. I had to borrow some items from my mother, but by this point, I had most of them myself. My future mother-in-law was the best sport, tasting all of the finger sandwiches and gamely drinking tea although she is a “coffee person”. She later developed a taste for green tea and loved smoked salmon at the first bite. It turned out to be a memorable and enjoyable afternoon, one of life’s treasures.
I now have three children, a son and twin girls. My girls have their grandmothers red hair, my son her deep brown eyes. Our first tea party was when the girls were three and my son was five. We had all of the necessary details; hand-painted china, an embroidered linen cloth and napkins, and tea party food, though nothing too fancy. We put on our finest dress up clothes complete with beads and feathered hats, my son chose to wear a cape with a bow tie. We also picked all of the pansies that were growing by the mailbox and put them in the center of the table.
Teatime can be messy with young children. They insist on stirring their tea constantly and it does splash out of the cup but that’s what saucers are for. It didn’t matter that the table was a wreck afterward, nothing was broken or ruined. The children all felt special; more than just grown up, almost magical. Having tea that is not just in a mug creates an atmosphere and mood that is easily felt. The love of tea, and of family, that started with my great grandmother is now shared with my children. I know that they will pass it on, it’s their heritage.