The doorbell chimed, announcing yet another customer.
It seemed like everyone from the the island of Manhattan had come to Just a Cuppa to get a hot drink on that cold January day.
“All Too Well” by Taylor Swift flooded the tea shop, setting a cozy mood. Fragrant blooms overflowed old tea cups used as vases set on each table. A sweet aroma filled the room, a mix of spicy chai tea and the famous Just a Cuppa lemon olive oil cake.
Meredith Porter-Benoit balanced four tea cups and saucers, two dessert tiers, and a china tea pot, as she walked from the kitchen to the tea room. She deposited the items at a table of two young women and their little girls, saying “Enjoy!”
Suddenly, a loud beeping filled the room, causing the customers to look around, trying to find the source.
Meredith groaned; something must be burning.
She jogged back to the kitchen and saw a thin layer of smoke. She rushed to the oven to pull open the door. Sure enough, the three olive oil cakes that Meredith had prepared an hour ago had been burned to a crisp.
Just great, she thought.
In the two years that Just a Cuppa had been in business, it had become wildly successful. People were flooding in from all over the Upper West Side to try things like passionfruit eclairs with a cup of hibiscus tea from Madagascar, vanilla orange scones with earl grey bergamot from Italy, and Meredith’s personal favorite, fluffy honey lavender cake doughnuts with creamy matcha tea.
Meredith was grateful for the success and welcomed it, but it exhausted her. She only had one part time worker, a local high school student named Dean Miller. He worked at the shop most afternoons for a few hours, helping Meredith out as much as possible.
Even with Dean’s help, Meredith still had no time away from work. She lived in a studio above Just a Cuppa, coming down every morning at 6:00 AM to start baking and preparing the shop for an influx of customers. She sold only the freshest of her baked goods, giving any leftovers (a rare occurence) at the end of the day to a food bank ten minutes away.
Saturdays were always the busiest for Just a Cuppa, and that January day was no different.
Meredith spent the day bustling around the shop, serving slices of olive oil cakes (not burned this time) with the afternoon tea service and tending to a book club in the front corner, constantly refilling their pots of lemon ginger tea.
That night, after wiping down the last table and cleaning what felt like hundreds of teacups, Meredith curled up with a steaming cup of chai masala on a small sofa in her apartment. She propped up her laptop onto her legs and opened Netflix. Downton Abbey was Meredith’s comfort show. She had first watched it during her time at UC Berkeley, sneaking in episodes between English Literature classes.
As a struggling college student trying to please her tough-as-nails mother, she found herself relating to Lady Edith in the show. Meredith was never truly happy at UC Berkeley, only being there to please her parents. They wanted her to excel in school and become a partner at the family book publishing firm, Benoit Inc.
But that wasn’t what she wanted.
Meredith dreamed to open a tea shop filled with teas from around the globe. She had studied abroad in Japan during Senior year and found her love of matcha tea. That’s why it was the single most popular drink at Just a Cuppa. Everyone loved the slightly vegetal, yet sweet, creamy taste.
Meredith woke up to her alarm beeping loud enough to wake up all of Manhattan.
She had fallen asleep watching Downton. Again.
She forced herself off of the couch, shuffling into the kitchen to get some caffeine into her system. As much as she loved tea, all Meredith desired at such an early hour was coffee. Black coffee.
The morning and early afternoon weren’t too busy in the shop that day, with the main rush at about one o’clock.
Just after closing time at six, the door chimed.
Meredith was washing dishes in the back when she heard it, and, without looking up, she called out, “Sorry, we’re closed! Please come back tomorrow!”
“I most certainly will not come back to the city for tea.”
Meredith’s head whipped up at the sound of the voice. She looked at the figure, taking it in.
Claudette Porter-Benoit had quite the large personality in a petite body. She wasn’t more than five feet tall, but was as imposing as a skyscraper.
Fluent in four languages, an Oxford graduate, and CEO of a major publishing company, Claudette prided herself on being the best. And she expected her only child to be the best. (Well, the second-best, since Claudette occupied the first place position in everything.)
Claudette was born and raised in France, moving to the United States to marry her first husband and Meredith’s father, Scott Porter. After their divorce when Meredith was a toddler, Claudette completely re-vamped her life. She took a job at a small publishing company, then switched to a higher job, and another, another, until starting her own company, Benoit Inc.
She became a multi-millionare, being mentioned in Forbes multiple times a week, and having her company’s books on shelves everywhere, from Barnes and Noble to teeny tiny bookstores in the middle of nowhere.
Because of all of this success, Claudette was very hard on her daughter. She loved Meredith and wanted her to follow in her footsteps as the sole heir of Benoit Inc. Unfortunately, Meredith never took an interest in the business, running off to open a silly little tea store instead.
And now, just before her daughter’s thirtieth birthday, Claudette was going to make one final attempt to steer her in the right direction.
The two Benoit women stared at each other for a moment, neither saying anything. Finally, it was Claudette who spoke. “Let’s go somewhere.”
And so they did.
Half an hour later, Meredith found herself sitting at a table in the middle of a crowded dim sum restaurant, talking to her mother. The mother that hadn’t seemed to take an interest in her until she needed her to start learning the publishing business. The mother that handed her daughter over to a nanny so that she could jet off to exotic places and make million-dollar book deals every day. Books that eight year-old Meredith had had no interest in.
Meredith took a sip of her water, eyeing her mother. The two of them had been exchanging small talk for what felt like forever, yet the conversation fizzled out after they chatted about the weather for five minutes.
Meredith cleared her throat.
“To be honest, I don’t understand why you came to ‘visit.’ You haven’t wanted to come to my shop since it opened. You’ve always steered clear of it for the past two years. Why do you suddenly want to see it now?”
She put her menu down on the table and folded her hands in a way that told Meredith she was about to go into “CEO mode”.
“Well, Meredith, I suppose it is time to get down to the real reason that I’m here. Your thirtieth birthday is in three weeks.”
Meredith slowly nodded, wondering where, oh where, her mother was going with this.
“When I was thirty, I had just started Benoit Inc. It was just a miniscule dot in the ever-growing novel of the New York publishing world, but it grew. It grew because I had a dream for it to become huge, and, other than your happiness, it was all I wanted.”
Was this yet another opportunity for Claudette to gloat about her success? Had she really flown from her home in California to gloat? Meredith was so sick of it. She had purposely left home and college to be her own person, not just an employee in Benoit Inc.
Sensing that she was losing her audience, Claudette continued, “I achieved my goal. I made my company huge. It was my dream. I’ve always hoped that you would follow in my footsteps, yet you chose not to a year before graduating college. And so, I’ve always wondered why. Why would you choose a life lived in a studio apartment, selling tea for a living? Why wouldn’t you reach for the stars? You have the capability.”
That hit Meredith hard. It uncovered past wounds. She had tried to patch them up over the years, telling her mother the least about her career as possible. Whenever Meredith replayed the scene in her head from when she told Claudette she was dropping out of Berkeley to move to New York, the word disappointment echoed through her ears.
Claudette had never called her one, but Meredith knew from the look on her face during that conversation that that was what she was thinking.
It was the same look on her mother’s face during this conversation in the dim sum restaurant.
I am done, thought Meredith, Done feeling like a disappointment.
And so she stood up, shoved her jacket on, and walked out of that restaurant.
The cold January air felt freeing. The wind whistled and it began to rain.
Meredith didn’t care.
Just as she started to walk towards home, she heard a voice.
“I watched you.”
Meredith sighed and turned around, ready to defend herself and her shop to her mother.
“I watched you all day today. I saw you interacting with your customers. I saw their smiles and excitement over your goods. I watched your art. I’ve always seen tea as a simple, hot beverage, but today, I watched how you see it as. You see it as an art. Anyone who looks at your store could see that. The amount of time, effort, and talent that you put into that place is remarkable.”
Meredith was speechless. It was the first time her mother had ever genuinely complimented her work. The compliment was warm, maternal, personal; adjectives that Meredith wouldn’t normally use to describe Claudette.
“I came here today to persuade you one more time to leave New York, but now, I understand why you never could. You are an artist, an entrepreneur, a free spirit. And I am proud of you.”
Claudette nodded, satisfied, and turned away to hail a taxi.
Claudette glanced up, scared for what her daughter would say.
“Would you like to have a cup of tea?”
Tea. The drink that was meant to fuel gossip sessions, soothe one after a stressful day, and, most importantly, bring people together.
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Beautiful, simple, and yet reflecting the complexities of life that are hardest when physical needs are met. This was a beautiful place to curl up. Thank you.
Thank you so much for the kind words!
Good story. Family wounds run deep. I hope that Claudette’s said yes. Thanks for this.
Thank you! Claudette definitely said yes!