Tea Parties


By Karen Finnigan



            This has nothing to do with politics. If you must know, I’m an Independent.

            But not long ago, my grandkids threw a tea party in my bathtub. Their reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, using tea bags secreted from my kitchen stash and cold water from the faucet, brought history to life for them. No tea, no taxes, they chanted. While I drained the tub and rescued the remainder of the tea, I complimented them on their inventiveness. Then I sat them down. There is another side to this history lesson, I pointed out, another point of view I wanted to share:

            Their great-grandmother recently downsized and asked me, her daughter, to take her china cabinet. This was the repository of the family’s treasured bone china, mostly English/Scottish in origin, so, of course I said yes. Never mind that the cabinet reposed in Seattle; while I was in Idaho and my only vehicle a four-door sedan. The price of gas was skyrocketing. Was it worth it?

            From an aesthetic standpoint, of course. Antique dealers would covet this mahogany gem, from lattice work in its upper glass-doors to brass pulls on its lower doors. And the inside--solid mahogany corner shelves grooved so cookie plates could stand behind the teacups. In my Scottish/Canadian background, teacups were the collectible of choice for several reasons: Delicate bone china (you can see the shadow of your fingers through it when you hold it up to the light). Elegant designs of pastel florals or vivid royal weddings (I own a Charles and Diana teacup, while my mother’s collection contained a coronation cup from the uncrowned Edward VIII). Gold filigree that does not go in a dishwasher, but is lovingly hand washed and polished dry.

            I still remember standing on tiptoe to peer through the glass the day the cabinet was delivered to our house in post-war Canada. Because of rationing, we had no phone or refrigerator, but, wow, we were able to buy this cabinet for the teacups. To Americans who trace their lineage back to Colonial America, this might sound quaint and politically incorrect (coffee might be more American, I suspect). But even now, two hundred plus years after throwing off the ties with Britain, those of us who entered America via its northern border cherish some of the mother country’s culture.

            But there were logical reasons to override sentimentality and think twice about bringing the cabinet to my house. How much use would it be? My neighbors do not take much interest in tea with fancy saucers. If they agree to tea, it’s usually after dunking a tea bag into a pottery mug of micro-waved water, a process that sends shudders down my tea-party trained pinkie. My grandkids might be content with such a ho-hum recipe for tea, but the idea left a bland taste in my soul. Yes, I more than wanted this heirloom. My desire to haul a 60-year-old breakfront across three states during tough economic times boiled hot in me.

            It was probably caused by the same thing that made pioneer women tuck a china plate or two inside their trunks before they endured the Oregon trail in covered wagons. As a grace note to the rough and ready life of western hardship, a salve for the more austere life to which they were moving. Most of all, with the future uncertain, it would have been a valuable investment in the past, a nod to their roots.


            I felt the same things now. Even though we hadn’t moved that far (two hours south of the border), we were still immigrants to this country. I had to shed my Canadian accent at school and salute a new flag. And like so many immigrant families, we had a treasure from our former life, a keepsake that traveled with us every step of the way to Americanization. At ages seven to twelve, the cabinet went with us up and down the Pacific coast, blanketed in the U-Haul trailer and pulled by my dad’s secondhand Ford, while we moved from lumber mill town to paper mill town, from rental apartment to duplex and finally house. Each time my dad and mom carried that cabinet in and out, up and down, never once debating its place with us. The cups and saucers that were carefully packed by my mother in old newspapers and stacked in a wooden china barrel survived each trip intact. Not one ever broke, nor did my parents dreams of a better future. They also gave us class and dignity. We might live paycheck to paycheck, but we owned one precious and beautiful thing that made up feel “rich.”

            Once we finally bought a house, the cabinet oversaw many celebrations, gracing the living room corner and presiding over tea parties for holiday company, graduations, and yes, naturalization as American citizens. Every time my mother sent me to select the cups for a special occasion, I was touching my past and my future all at one time. I knew that someday I would set out china of my own and show my children and grandchildren how to brew tea and set the table, how to handle sugar tongs and what not to do with the spoon (you don’t leave it in the cup when you sip). Someday, I might have a finer life of my own, fine enough that maybe I’d have not just a kitchen and living room, but a real formal dining room of my own.


In the end my son and grandkids offered their pickup and met me and the china cabinet in Seattle. It fit just right in the bed of the truck, cushioned by old quilt and a lot of tlc. I never added up what it cost to haul it here to Idaho--the roundtrip gas, the motel in Montana, the food along the route, souvenirs for the grandkids (big pink cowgirl hat), the bottle of glue to repair the dowel once we got the cabinet to my house. Priceless as the commercial goes. It goes without saying that traditions and continuity are not always free. But in the process of making a statement about taxation without representation, I’m glad the revolutionaries did not toss the baby overboard too and outlaw tea forever. Or my right to preside over a proper family tea party now and then.


Copyright by Karen Finnigan 2011
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