Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Moveable Tea

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past." Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby

If you see me carrying my "moveable tea," be aware I'm not alone. You probably won't see them, but I will be accompanied by two ghostly figures from my past, a genteel couple from the Deep South -- Ellis and Vannie.

They are the embodiment of the fact that even our smallest actions are informed by the past.

I was reminded of this the other night when I brought tea to a parent meeting. The mother of my son's friend said she was impressed, that I had thought of every little detail related to serving tea, hot and cold. And she was right.

I brewed organic darjeeling tea leaves with spring water and placed it in carafes, rinsed out with hot water, to seal in the heat. Even though I like my tea plain (why gild the lily?) I sliced lemon, poured milk into a small container, fine sugar into another. I resisted the urge to make sugar syrup, I would save this particular piece de resistance for another time. Spoons.

But the iced tea I made with tea bags, Lipton, it just tastes better cold. Spring water, again, heated slowly in the sun in a glass jar for a smooth taste. Ice. Tongs. Glass ice bucket. All carefully placed in appropriate insulated bags for the trip. That night I did not include finger sandwiches, tea bread and sweets because that wasn't my assignment. But all go into the "moveable tea" when appropriate.

"You really know how to do this," said the mother.

Yes, I do.

Years ago, when I arrived in Washington, D.C. from Alabama, I was quite unexpectedly bereft. I had spent years plotting my escape to the bright lights, big city. And I'd gotten my wish. But I missed my childhood friends -- especially the best and most honest person I know, J., who I had known since we were 5. Who happily played loving Mary to my feisty Laura (Little House on the Prairie) for untold hours out by the woods that cradled both our homes.

And why had I moved so far from my college familiar K., who could turn a dry cleaners trip into a high adventure. Why did I think I could leave behind our rowdy mountain compound horseback rides, followed by the rejuvenating communion of a silent row on the pond. The precious company of my little sister and her husband, who I had known since he was a bashful little boy. So many things I had casually tossed aside.

And then I found Ellis and Vannie. Or they found me.

Straight out of a storybook, this warm, beautiful couple from Montgomery, AL, famous for their southern hospitality, lived near me in a big beautiful corner rowhouse on Capitol Hill. Their yard burst with flowers and greenery tended by Ellis, a political operative who became a successful self-taught artist in his later years. They entertained regularly. Everyone was invited. They especially loved other southerners.

They told stories about their rich past. They had a clothing shop in Montgomery where Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald came everyday while recovering from a nervous breakdown in her hometown. Each day, she came in and bought just one snow-white linen handkerchief. Nothing more. Vannie would get a rare sad look on her face, "You know, Scott just ruined that girl."

And Hank Williams. Ellis had known the country music legend as a poor boy, shining shoes for pennies on the street. Then as a famous singer, he had to come into Ellis' shop one day and cut off his spendy wife's accounts. Embarrassed, he paid off what she owed and then said, "We're not married anymore. That's it."

I had no idea how many things I would learn from this couple. I'm still learning from them. Ellis was a chameleon. He had several careers due to a voracious appetite for life. He was quiet because he loved to listen to others talk. But he had a wonderful quality that I couldn't define until Vannie took me aside one day and explained it, laughing as always, her long straight blonde hair swinging around her shoulders.

"Ellis has a twinkle, you know," she said in her inimitable deep, slow drawl. A twinkle is a look in a person's eye that signals a playful personality, someone who is so curious about life and people that he or she finds it impossible to judge annoying personality quirks that can be so off-putting for many. You can see it right away. The physical aspect is a sparkle, a little glow, a glimmer, if you will.

Under their tutelage, I learned to look for and find the twinkle, which comes in people of all sizes, shapes, ages and colors. I never know when one will appear. When it does, it makes my day.

Over the years, Ellis and Vannie got old. The entertaining stopped. They couldn't go out. So I came up with the idea of the moveable tea. Via trial and error, I baked this and that and stored things and carried them over and kept at it until I managed to make it work.

They were honored. They were tired and sick. But for the short time that they were able to attend the moveable tea invented in their honor, the twinkle was back. And it extended to everyone in the room. This happened several times before before they passed away, a mere weeks apart.

So when the calls go out for volunteers to do this and that, I raise my hand and suggest various versions of the moveable tea. With practiced hands, I pull it together, wheel it in and start setting up.

And as that happens, a grand, beautiful blonde is holding up a long elegant hand with an emerald ring on one finger, the one reflecting the color of her eyes. She is laughing and pointing out the young woman who looks just like Zelda, before Scott "ruined" her. And Ellis is staring at a vase of flowers tumbling from a vase, possibly to paint later. And I see the vase is beside a quiet man surveying the room, eyes catching the light with a certain familiar sparkle.

And for no reason that anyone present can see, I am laughing too, with my old friends in a great room filled to the brim with paintings, flowers and old school southern charm. They are gone, that grand couple, but I carry them with me still.


  1. I adore this idea, this concept of the moveable tea....and all the memories folded within the loving ritual. i am inspired!

  2. Thank you so much for reading, Angela. And for your gracious remarks. The moveable tea takes on the character of the person fashioning it, a living thing, in practice. So please feel free to borrow it, I would love to see pictures of yours, in fact!

  3. I love the moveable tea idea - and I love the reason why it came to be.

    Such a sweet story.

  4. Thank you B. I was reading a blog by a young woman who said she had been told she looked like a young Zelda and her picture was there and it was absolutely the case. I'd just gone to the parent meeting. And it all rushed together in a picture in my mind. So I rushed to the computer and got it down. I love when that happens!

  5. Great idea and wonderful description of the classy couple. I always liked the Great Gatsby era. It seemed to be a beautiful time, but they had their troubles as well.

  6. Thank you, Syd. Looking for camera to post a picture of one of the paintings E. gave me. And so true re Gatsby era!