Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Power of Tea

There are no less than three tea shops in the neighborhood where my new job is located.  My favorite is a rather plain little spot that is wonderfully quiet and peaceful.  A young man waits on me everyday and he has been looking at me with growing curiosity.  I sense he wonders who this newcomer is but I am not quite ready for friendly small talk or introductions.  I like being anonymous in this unfamiliar place where I am still unsure of myself.  I order a decaf English Breakfast tea that is delicious and brewed in a hand tied tea bag.  I steal a place by the sunniest window where I sit and sip and try to get the lay of the land of my new workaday world.

I learned tea drinking from both my grandmothers.  One honored the three o'clock tea hour by gathering mismatched china cups and then let us have potato chips and pickles in a disarray at the kitchen table while we slurped.  She also didn't care how many spoonful's of sugar were emptied into our cups from the sugar bowl.  It was the best of times.

When I was a young wife I had the opportunity to stay at Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel in the winter while my husband was attending a seminar.  Feeling cold and lonely one afternoon, I ordered tea from the room service menu.  Soon a waiter arrived with a large silver tray which held a silver tea service with milk and lemon slices.  On the tray was also a petite silver basket overflowing with plump green grapes and juicy oranges cut in quarters.  The repast was rounded out by delicate water biscuits and perfect triangles of subtly piquant cheeses.  I had never beheld such a banquet for one and it forever raised the bar for creating tea trays at home.

Tea is often put into the hands of my favorite literary heroines, and writers have always romanticized the tea hour in books.  Tea has been part and parcel of many a children's story too, such as the fanciful classic, Alice in Wonderland.  Whenever a book I am reading has a character that drinks tea, he or she is suddenly elevated.  Tea is a true seal of elegance and refined living.

I like black tea with milk best but I am not opposed to a fragrant jasmine with honey when I am feeling fickle.  Sometimes I try to recreate my hotel tray but for long afternoons with a book, a mug is my favorite vessel.  The one I currently use has a lid which keeps my tea hot during page turning.  Tea is consoling and takes me back to the days I spent with a grandmother who shamelessly and magically indulged our whims.  Tea comforts and cheers - it's the pause in the middle of the day to gather thoughts or sift through cobwebs.  And tea helps us find our feet just before we step out anew.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

What Would Cissy Do?

Do you remember them?  They are the Davis family from the sitcom Family Affair.  Naturally, I aligned with Cissy, the eldest sister.  Family Affair was one of those shows that I only saw in reruns when I was home sick from school.  Twins Buffy and Jody were adorable and Mr. French so very debonair, if a bit put out by his new charges.  But it was Cissy whom I studied carefully.  Her colorful mini-dresses were neatly tailored with Peter Pan collars and trimmed sleeves.  I loved her striped skirts, chain belts and bouncy flipped hair.

As for a big sister, Cissy was benevolent and loving to her siblings and tried to explain their new world to them.  The Davis' landed on Uncle Bill's doorstep when they became orphaned suddenly.  I clearly remember the night Cissy went to the mother/daughter dance in a beautiful chartreuse gown on the arm of loving and stoic Uncle Bill, her tawny hair attractively piled on the top of her head.

Thankfully, the Davis' were well-to-do because the family resided in a toney New York City penthouse that had nickel doorknobs in the center of its doors.  And Cissy had a splashy mod bedroom with daisy wallpaper. 

I was a pre-teen when I watched Family Affair and it was at that time that I began to be drawn to youthful muses to emulate.  I was also experiencing a passionate and blossoming interest in clothes and Cissy had plenty of them, all with that quintessential late 60's vibe I still find so appealing.  Her pale tights, small boxy handbags and pastel spring coats made my heart leap with joy and the fact that she was just so nice.  There was a soft ladylike vulnerability to her face and I imagined she was my older sis too.

Our heroes and icons give us blueprints for living and help us hone in on the kind of women we want to become, not just in appearance but also in grace.  "What would Cissy do?" was something I asked myself often and then acted in a way I thought she might, which always seemed sunnier and more pleasant.  Cissy taught me that it was ok to be soft-spoken, considerate and that it was also ok to love and wear clothes that were unabashedly feminine, with hues plucked from summertime. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Of the Commonplace

Not too long ago, I happened upon a notebook I kept when I was a young married wife.  It was tremendously fascinating to me.  And although it had lists of homekeeping things such as cheeses to try, it also said a lot about its author.  I had great fun pouring over a list of items to bring on a Junior League retreat in 1982 to a remote farmhouse:  good pens, notepaper, knitting, and a Topsy Tail - that odd ponytail maker that was so popular then.
 A few years ago, my library had a small exhibition of commonplace books, those notebooks filled with poems, songs, lists, and sketches that people often kept in the 19th century.  They were captivating to me as I thought about all the hours that went into maintaining such notebooks.  I can certainly see why they are so valuable today as they capture lives lived so well with their array of entries.  Some reminded me of the notebooks kept by Leonardo Da Vinci which are famous for his drawings of the human body.  I always keep a small "Da Vinci" notebook in my handbag to jot down thoughts or reminders of things that I suddenly realized I forgot.  My notebook is most likely not very interesting with its notations to remember to pick up a wool skirt at the dry cleaner or a box of dishwasher soap. 
Yesterday as I waited for my mother to finish her grocery shopping, I noticed an older bearded gent scribbling away in a composition notebook in the store's cafĂ©.  His pages were filled with lists, prose, drawings, and business cards attached with staples.  It became almost unbearable and finally I crept up to him, apologizing for the interruption but asking what his notebook was for.  He told me it was filled with all the things his brain forgets:  things to buy for the properties he owns, lists of items for his boat, examples of tools that may work for a certain project, etc.  He turned a few pages for me and I could see that this Da Vinci was filled with a man's life.  I asked if he knew he was creating a commonplace book and that if discovered, say 300 years hence, may be of real interest to someone.  He seemed amazed at the possibility and then told me that he was a former college professor and had kept several such diaries over the years.  Soon I was showing him the small notebook I carry in my purse and we laughed over the fact that literary people often do keep journals and notebooks.  I then found myself asking him to enter his name on one of my notebook's pages.  He did and underneath, he wrote "The man of the commonplace book".  Our exchange was lovely and filled with humanity and humor.  We bade each other goodbye and best wishes.
Currently I am reading A Lady of Fashion; Barbara Johnson's Album of Styles and Fabrics which is a fashion diary that was kept by an unmarried English woman who lived in the 18th century.  All her entries are about her clothes:  where the cloth was bought, yardage, how much it cost, the seamstress' name, and where the dress was worn.  Beside each entry is a scrap of fabric from the garment.  The swatches come to life on the page in all their glorious colors and prints.  But Miss Johnson also included clippings of fashion plates from the lady's magazines of her time.  Although she lived far from London, she had a passion for clothes and must have brought true flair and glamour to her rural village.  I wouldn't call Miss Johnson's album a true commonplace book but it certainly offers a birds eye view into an obscure life that I would never have known. 
Page from Barbara Johnson's Album

Unknown Scrapbook 
I set about filling my notebooks with odd facts, recollections, and all sorts of other things, including the most trivial stuff.  Mostly I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and worthwhile, but my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.  I am sure that when people see my book they will say, ‘It’s even worse than expected — now you can really tell what she is like.
     — Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Point me toward tomorrow

I love reading about pioneering women.  How brave they were to leave all they knew and loved back East and head out into the uncivilized unknown.  They often brought cherished talismans from home:  china, candlesticks, a quilt or two.  Ever-hopeful for a new life, they did the best they could, sometimes creating primitive yet comforting homes to keep their loved ones safe from the brutal elements.  I often think about these strong resourceful women when change is coming in my own life.

I am about to leave a job I've had for twenty years.  I have a mere five days left in an environment that I've hinted at before, has been very grueling and at times cruel.  I'm convinced I have the mentality of someone who is institutionalized and it will take time to change that.  My doctor claims I have saved my own life.  The nature of my work has prevented me from talking about it publically.  But I am leaving now and soon I will be employed in a place that I have no doubt, will be very nice indeed.

My eyes are dry - I know I gave the very best I had and have no regrets.  Well, maybe one - I should have left five years ago.  What is so astonishing to me is that my captors were so surprised.  But I can no longer care any more than they do.  I will be going to a place where respect rules the day - being gun-shy, I have completed my due diligence and my homework. 

The tipping point was a meeting I was called to on a false pretense two weeks before Christmas.  It left me so distraught, my daughter offered to sleep with me so I wouldn't be alone.  That was the night I began to look for a new position.  I lifted my arms up to the heavens above and they were filled.  Fairly quickly too.  I won't be looking back.

Those I am leaving will soon find another victim.  And so, they must...  The other night I dreamed I was riding in the back of a wooden wagon led by three wild horses.  I glanced down at my leg which was clamped tight in a thick iron bear trap.  As the wagon pitched and bumped in the dark, the trap fell away leaving my ankle bruised with a wide crimson welt.  It was tender and it hurt.  But when the wagon stopped, I limped away.  Whole.  And standing.