Long Story Short(ish): The World is My Teacup

Well, two posts ago (Video: Tea and Company), I’d said…

My journey in all things tea started centuries ago with the roots work of my indigenous African ancestors. It continued with the bush medicine of my Jamaican grandmothers (with which they adapted and elevated the hospitality traditions of their British colonizers). It carried on with my mother’s herbal healing traditions which she combined with her conventional nursing skills, plus her love of fine china and gracious entertaining, passed on to me. But that’s a long story for another day.

Today I’ll just share with you one milestone in my wanderings among the tea gardens, and that’s my four years at Wellesley College. This weekend I returned to my all-women’s Alma Mater, where the art of afternoon tea is steeped in 140-plus years of tradition.

So, at the end I said…

In my next post, I’ll share some highlight photos from the anniversary celebration, which included a Wellesley Alumni of African Descent reception, a networking brunch and an awards gala honoring achievements of students, faculty and alumni. In the one after that, I’ll share a little piece of the “long story,” the part where, while at Wellesley, I learn about diversity and becoming a global citizen, simply by sharing tea with people who are different from me.

So…here ya go:

Like every underclasswoman at all-female Wellesley College, founded in 1875, my twin Jeanne and I each had to work an unpaid weekly shift at the residence hall reception desk. Announcing visitors and deliveries there over the PA was known as “sitting bells.” Even with modern security systems, the tradition was maintained to help newcomers connect and get acquainted. Instead of signing up for bells, one resident could serve the Wednesday afternoon tea.

When I checked my dorm’s duty roster sophomore year, the convenient times were taken, but this slot was free. It must have seemed preferable to gossip in the lobby with friends rather than schlep saucers and cups. But that hour at the drafty desk had always dragged for me. I’d waitressed and sliced deli meats in high school. How hard could tea be?

That first Wednesday, I reported to the food service director for her instructions:

“Hi. I’m Claire and I’m here to make the tea. Where can I find the supplies I’ll need?”

“We’ll pre-measure the tea and water into an electric urn. Just ask for the tea cart.“

“How do I prep the bakery items?’’

“There will be cookies and pastry set up on the top tier of the cart. Over here…see… plus sugar, lemon and milk. Cups, saucers and spoons are on the middle shelf and bins to collect the used china are on the bottom one. Come get this cart at least 45 minutes before teatime starts, push it upstairs into the great hall, and plug in the urn so that the water will heat in time. Oh—and pull the plastic wrap off the cookie trays.”

“OK. Umm…so by what time do I need to get this stuff cleaned up afterwards?”

“The custodians handle that.”

Push. Plug. Pull. The entire “job” took three minutes seventeen seconds. Four minutes tops if the elevator was slow. After that, I was free to cram for an exam or watch “All My Children.” If I cared to return and enjoy the refreshments with my housemates and their guests, my only duty was to be gracious and congenial.

Turns out, my ticket out of answering phones and checking IDs all year was to host a weekly tea party organized by a large kitchen and cleaning staff!

As I pushed the plug into a wall outlet in the sitting room, I scanned its impressive architecture and faded, but elegant furnishings. Parquet floors. A lofty, Austrian Gothic ceiling with carved beams. Scrolled ironwork chandeliers. A massive carved stone 15th Century French fireplace. Tall windows offered leafy views of one of the most beautiful

Historic Caz

Residence Hall, Wellesley College

Highclere Castle AKA %22Downton Abbey%22

Highclere Castle, AKA “Downton Abbey”

Fireplace

Residence Hall Living Room

Tower Great Room

Residence Hall Great Room

 

college campuses in North America. The grounds had been co-designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of modern landscape architecture and a visionary behind Central Park. Enough oversized sofas and upholstered Belgian armchairs clustered to seat 60 guests intimately.

Later, when the bell desk announced Afternoon Tea, that room would fill with art-history majors and athletes; cosmopolitan girls from Manhattan, New York and small-town ones from Manhattan, Kansas. Foreign students from Nairobi and from Naples. Young women who grew up in penthouses and in projects. They’d wear Gucci, Gap and grunge; blowouts, buzz-cuts and box braids. Each woman would serve herself, and thank me warmly for my hospitality as we’d sip and mingle.

I presided over these gatherings like the mistress of a great manor. Now and then, I wore pearls.

Love and Work

My college boyfriend and first real love (after I’d wised up and dumped that other guy) graduated the semester before I did. I missed him. He had returned from a vacation to London, and arranged to meet me at his dad’s house over a break.

Upstairs, where he’d dropped his bags and where the good TV was, we kissed and embraced eagerly. Then he presented me with a special souvenir. The large, dark-green tin of Earl Grey from its purported 19th century originator, Jackson’s of Piccadilly, had golden lions emblazoned on its opulent seal. I smiled and thanked him with another long kiss. Then he casually shrugged out of his Alpha Phi Alpha sweatshirt and I peeled off my acid-wash jeans.

Entangled on the shag rug of the master bedroom, hearts thumping and breath ragged, we didn’t hear the car door slam. Or the keys in the lock. But he nudged me anxiously when he picked up footsteps on the lower landing.

We scrambled into our clothes and he switched on the tube. I grabbed for the tea tin as if I’d been admiring it, and clumsily pried off the lid—with too much force.

Just as the door cracked open, the contents of the oversize tin exploded in a wide arc across the bedroom. Perfumed, loose-leaf tea blanketed every surface. “Oh, I’m so clumsy!” I moaned. My embarrassing accident explained the flush on our faces and the nervous excitement in my voice, while the citrusy scent of bergamot and the sweetness of the tea masked the musk of illicit amour in a parent’s boudoir.

“That was brilliant,” my boyfriend later whispered after he’d finished vacuuming. A brilliant stroke of dumb luck is what it was. We parted amicably after I graduated.

…And that, my teahearts, is all the tea I’m spillin’ today. Thanks for sharing it with me.