I learned to drink tea at a very early age. My Scots-Irish grandmother owned a small neighborhood bakery, and for the first five years of my life, my mother and I spent our week-day mornings in the working area of that establishment. I learned early on that I was to stay out of the way of those who worked at the high tables, and that the sales area of the bakery remained forbidden territory.
Many was the time that I crept to the doorway and peeked into the room where glass cases held the delectable treats my grandmother created. Cakes and pies, bread and rolls, coffeecakes and cookies lined the shelves, I watched with interest as a young Czech girl served customers. More than once, a firm hand circled my arm, pulled me none too gently away from the doorway and scolded me on the way to the long picnic table that ran across one end of the workroom. The pale green oilcloth cover served as background to white cups and saucers that waited to be filled with the strong, hot tea brewed in a plain brown teapot. "You can only make good tea in a plain brown pot," Grandma remarked on many occasions.
Grandma served the tea, but when she came to mine she poured only half a cup. Then she added a spoonful of sugar and filled my cup to the top with milk. "English tea for you," she'd say. Never would our tea be savored all by itself. Grandma always had a plate of something fresh from the oven. Cinnamon rolls, or sliced coffeecakes or a muffin. To this day, I like a little bit of something sweet to go with my tea. The scent of yeast and spices surrounded us as we sipped the tea. In wintertime, we enjoyed the waves of warmth from the ovens, and in summer, we put up with the combined heat of the outside temperature and those never-empty ovens while we had our everyday tea.
I lifted my cup with both hands and sipped at my 'English tea' and listened to Mother and my uncle chat. I nibbled on one of the goodies Grandma passed to me, and I knew only contentment. I liked sitting at the long table during the tea break swinging my legs, waiting for the time when they would all return to work and I could plan my next peek out front.
One Saturday afternoon after the baking had been done, Grandma came to our apartment. She was dressed in a tailored suit and wore a hat that had big pink roses on it. She carried white gloves and a handbag. She wasn't the grandma I knew, the one who wore a Mother Hubbard apron over her plain cotton dress every day. "We're going to Marshall Fields today to have our tea." she told me. I looked at my mother to see what she thought about this new situation. She smiled and repeated the oft-used phrase of all mothers in the early 1940's, "Be a good girl."
Grandma and I rode the elevated train to downtown Chicago. The conductor called out the stops, and finally, Grandma tugged at my hand. We stepped out onto a wooden platform where we were greeted by a symphony of traffic sounds. Pigeons strutted nearby, pecking at peanuts tossed on the platform. I was fascinated by the soft, grey birds and would have stayed to watch them, but Grandma whisked me through a set of double doors that led into the famed Marshall Field's store. We walked straight into the china department. Glorious china, crystal, silver and linens were displayed on dining room tables. But there was no tea here.
My little-girl legs worked hard to keep up with Grandma as she led the way to the elevators. "Seven please," Grandma said to the operator, and up we went. The doors opened, and we stepped into the magnificent Walnut Room. Dark paneled walls, soft carpet and potted palms surrounded us. A hostess led us to a small table draped with a snowy linen cloth. Other ladies with suits, hats and gloves sat at similar tables. I felt a tickle in my tummy for I knew now that this would not be an everyday tea. Something special waited for us in this elegant dining room.
Grandma spoke softly to a uniformed waitress, then settled into her chair and graced me with a warm smile. Her face looked softer than it did at the bakery where she spent so many hours. Even at my young age I knew my grandma worked hard.
Soon, the waitress returned to our table. She placed a small plate, fork and spoon, a china teacup and saucer in front of each of us. A linen napkin finished the setting. Ladies nearby sipped tea and nibbled at tiny sandwiches and small iced cakes. Oh if only we were to have the same. The tickle in my tummy started up again, and I wiggled on my chair in anticipation.
Sure enough, the waitress brought a lovely flowered teapot and two plates. One held dainty open-faced sandwiches, and pastel iced cakes filled the second one. I waited for Grandma to tell the waitress that good tea could only be made in a plain brown teapot, but she never said a word. Instead, she poured my half cup of tea, added sugar and milk. Then she placed a sandwich and a cake on my plate. I watched her lay the napkin on her lap, and I followed her example. Just as I was to take my first bite, piano music interrupted the sound of spoons on saucers and ladies conversing. Soon, several tall, slender women strolled through the vast Tea Room stopping momentarily at an occasional table. "A Fashion Show," Grandma whispered to me. The models wore the kind of dresses and hats we saw only in the movies. They glided and pirouetted, faces looking like they were set in stone, but a strange thing happened as they approached us. Each one that stopped at our table looked right at me and smiled. One even winked. Now the tickle in my tummy felt like butterflies chasing each other.
All too soon the Fashion Show ended, and we'd had our fill of the tea, sandwiches and cakes. We rode the train home where I related the events of the day to my mother and father.
I had tea with Grandma at the picnic table in the bakery many, many times, but she never took me to the Walnut Room again. Long after my grandma was gone, I returned to Marshall Fields for tea on my own, and sometimes I�d look across the table and see my grandma in her rose-covered hat smiling at me. She taught me the difference between everyday tea and special tea. That little something sweet came with both kinds of tea, but sweetest of all were the memories my grandma created. I feel her near each time I pour my everyday tea from my plain brown pot.
graphics by LinGrafs,Inc. specifically for The WordSmith Web Site Grandma's Tea Party graphic by: JD Hillberry Charcoal and Pencil, Deviant Art Site: Modified for use on this web site JD Hillberry