The Healing Properties of Tea
I was almost afraid to open the box, never having received a gift so precious. The outside said in big bold letters, “Porcelain Toy Tea Set.” I ignored the word ‘toy’ and focused on porcelain. Surely porcelain, whatever that was, made it very special.
When I added the tea set to my Christmas list, I never dreamed that I might actually get it. But sitting there in front of the tree was the Classic Blue Bird design, just what I had circled in the Sears Christmas catalog, the Wish Book. My mother only shopped at Sears. Never anywhere else, except the grocery store on Thursday mornings and the newsstand where she bought my father’s newspapers every Sunday. Just Sears. She placed her order over the phone and picked it up at the catalog store in town.
That Christmas, just like every year, there were no names on the gifts. My brothers and sisters and I rushed downstairs to the living room to see seven unwrapped gifts around the tree. One for each of us.
In my haste to get to the tree, I nearly tripped on the hem of the heavy flannel gown I wore. The traditional Christmas Eve gift from my grandmother, it felt like cardboard and was a size too large, but at least it was better than the ugly, too-small slippers she gave last year.
My two older sisters quickly selected their gifts, though I can’t be sure what they were, and my younger sister was engrossed with some sort of baby toy, so the tea set must be mine.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the box. The picture showed white dishes with a dainty blue pattern. A tree with two birds sitting on the branches was surrounded by a scrolling blue border in a swirling design. I had never seen birds like that, but decided that they must be the kind of birds that live in Japan. White birds with blue feathers, a big head and short, pointy blue beaks.
The box also said “An Oriental-inspired formal tea set she’ll use proudly.” Formal. See, it was important. I knew it. Service for six with teapot, creamer and sugar bowl. I quickly scrawled my name on the box, labeling it as mine, claiming ownership in my best six-year-old penmanship.
An orange Nerf ball sailed by, followed by my brother lurching in front of me to retrieve it. Instinctively I moved to guard my new possession.
“Ha! What do you have there? Is it for your doll babies?” he taunted. “Let me see!”
I silently held my ground, defiant even though I knew he had ultimate power. Soon he became bored with bothering a little sister and resumed throwing the Nerf ball at the new basketball hoop fastened over the door of the hall closet.
My attention turned back to my special present. Gingerly I removed the box top, anxious to see if the set was as I had imagined. Inside, the contents rested in their own special pink partitioned sections. Plates with cardboard dividers, a stack on each side. One type of plate was a saucer, and one was for sugar cookies (at least that’s what I decided). The creamer and sugar bowl were located in little pink square spaces between the plates. Above them were the cups, each nestled safely within their own little divider. The teapot occupied the prominent center section, with the lid to it and the sugar bowl to the right of it.
All of this was new to me. At our house, we only served iced tea, and we certainly didn’t have a teapot of any sort. Our dishes were plain and chipped and mismatched, and none of them had flowers. Functional, not beautiful. That’s the way it was – we had things that had a purpose. Pretty things were unnecessary.
I had no idea why the set included something called a creamer, but if it was in there, it must be necessary. I asked a girl at school about it and she said that her mother puts milk in hot tea. I’d never seen anyone drink hot tea, and didn’t even know that tea could be served hot. Putting milk in it seemed strange, but if that’s what they did in Japan, then it must be right.
I was so cautious that I never opened the box when anyone else was around. I didn’t want my brothers to use the plates as miniature Frisbees, or break the handle off the teapot in their clumsiness. No, this was special, and it was mine, and I was determined to protect it.
On days when I believed it was safe, I filled the teapot with iced tea, and if I had any cookies, I put them on the plate beside my cup. I poured a tiny amount of tea in the little cup, placed it on the saucer, and then slowly sipped in the most formal way I could imagine. And when I was done dreaming of being born into a different family during another time, I carried the dishes to the sink and washed each one carefully. Instead of leaving them in the drainer to dry, where they were in danger of being chipped or broken, I dried them individually and put them away in their secret compartments. Then I tucked the box in the back of the closet, hidden from anyone who might be rummaging for the magic eight ball or the Parcheesi game.
Today when I notice the tea set on the shelf, I am amazed that it has survived at all, and even more incredulous that every single piece is still there, intact, with each item right where it belongs. The blue pattern is faded in some spots, having rubbed against the corrugated liner during countless moves, but overall, it is just as I remember it. The birds are still perched in their same positions, frozen in time.