I never respected the time it took to sit for a proper cup of tea. There’s a science behind steeping dried leaves and turning them into a delicious drink that will delight the tongue and soothe the soul.
But my mother had immense respect for tea.
She was a master gardener and member of the National Herb Society. She understood plants and most importantly, she nurtured life.
In the last days of her life, in the confines of her bed, Earl Grey tea represented freedom, comfort and feeling almost human.
In May, 2017 I purchased herbs as a Mother’s Day gift for mum. I had a plan to make a hanging planter from a teapot I’d purchased at a local second-hand store. I’m not a collector of china or cups and saucers, but what I saw on that store shelf was a beautiful lacy blue herb container. It was a set complete with sugar and creamer. I decided to fill each piece with dirt and plant the herbs inside. My original plan involved drilling holes and blacksmithing a hanger for this to become an ornamental part of her gardens. I was hesitant to drill holes in the fine china and it’s a good thing I didn’t.
My mother had immense respect for tea.
Mum wasn’t home when I delivered her Mother’s Day gift. She was out on an adventure of her own so I wrote her a love note and tucked it beside the potted gift. She called me later that day to say thank you and we decided to sit down and use that set to celebrate motherhood. She was beautiful and thoughtful that way. I gifted her two containers of tea with the herbs, a quirky box called “Nana Mint,” and a very fancy tin of Earl Grey.
I hadn’t thought about the teapot until mum texted me at work the next day. The message was simple and sweet. My gift to her had more value than expected. She asked a few questions and when I shared my original plan she told me to look up the value on the Internet.
My thrift store tea set present to her was apparently worth $400.
When I went to her house later, the plants were gone and the pot was on display as a treasure.
The sweetest conversation happened in our text exchange. My mother was guilt-ridden over receiving this set. She asked me where it came from and how I’d acquired it. Did the thrift store understand what they’d sold to me?
In my defense I paid $20 for the set with the intention of drilling holes in it. I was focused on the gift of herbs and gardening. Mother made a donation to the store. She felt that would balance the exchange of goods. She wanted to look at her tea set and see the joy that was meant to come from receiving it.
We drank Earl Grey tea from that pot. We spilled sugar and cream over the table as we joked about me drilling holes in the four hundred dollar set. Neither of us knew at the time, but it would be our last Mother’s Day celebration together. In December that year, mum was diagnosed with GBM (Glioblastoma Mutliforme) - brain cancer.
We drank Earl Grey tea from that pot. Neither of us knew at the time but it was our last Mother’s Day celebration together.
Her treatment happened in a flash. Less than 24 hours after seeing a shadow on an x-ray they’d removed a huge section of her brain. I wasn’t thinking about tea or teapots. I was wondering if she’d open her eyes and when she did, if she’d remember any of us who loved her.
She slept for two days and when she opened her eyes she knew who we were. She was still there. Mum didn’t take food by mouth for days and when liquids returned they were thickened like jelly. She wanted coffee and she wanted tea. I brewed Earl Grey tea in my kitchen and carried it into her hospital room. I wrapped a beautiful teacup and saucer in folded cloth and laid out tea for her in the morning. I was determined to keep it special. I wanted her to feel human during the long days in nursing care.
Mum died a few weeks before Mother’s Day. I’d purchased a new teacup and a new tin of that same Earl Grey tea. I took it to the cemetery and poured a cup that sat until it was cold. I tucked a single tulip against the grave marker and poured the tea against the stone.
Our teapot takes up space in my dining room. I brought it home the week after mum died. I haven’t made tea in it yet and I’m not sure when I ever will. It's just not the same. I understand now that the treasure wasn’t in that glazed ceramic, but in the moments we giggled over herbs, drill bits and the hot perfectly-steeped Earl Grey tea inside the pot.
Sharon Angelici is a freelance writer.