Have you ever spent too much time in the card aisle of a pharmacy? Rifled through the cheesy designs and the overused well wishes, trying to find a decent note for a celebration? And by some miracle, did you strike greeting card gold? Because for one time & one time only, I found a card for my Nana that fit her absolutely. It said,
"Grandma always made you feel she had been waiting to see just you all day, and now the day was complete." - Marcy Demaree
The quote rang true of my Nana, who I always felt was waiting on us. Every Sunday, we'd head over to her huge Victorian home on the southside for tea at precisely 3 o'clock. We didn't have to dress nice or bring anything, but we had to be on time for tea. As a kid, Nana's mom always had afternoon tea at precisely 3 o'clock, and she and her siblings could never be late. And even though my parents were reliably early, I always felt that Nana had been on stand-by for hours.
Why afternoon tea every Sunday though? Well, my Nana's a full blooded Brit, but she moved to the US when she married my grandpa. They had a whirlwind romance, were married within the year and moved to Florida by the following summer. But, even though she loved living in our tiny beachside town, she sometimes missed the cool climates, the bustle of London and of course, afternoon tea. So when my mom & her siblings were very young, Nana started having teatime every Sunday. She wanted her kids to feel connected to her home & heritage. The tradition continued on with me, my siblings and our cousins.
And even though we were on a small island in South Florida where everyone drinks their tea iced and sweet as can be, the parties were a big hit with both family & friends. I personally think it's because staples of these events were always finger sandwiches, scones & a great deal of iced pastries. However, the bread & butter of the entire gathering was my grandma's tea & the drawing room it was served in.
The drawing room was a beautiful Robin's egg blue, with white trim and huge white bookshelves built into the walls. The couches, chairs and loveseats were in varying shades of blue, and as plush as the red & gold patterned rug they sat on. Portraits of birds, landscapes and people hung from every inch of free wall space. It never felt crowded though. This was mostly due to the huge windows that filled an impressive section of the westward side of the house. As a kid, I loved this room with all my heart, & would spend many a Sunday evening reading and drinking my Nana's tea here.
And what a brew Nana's tea was! Everyone loved it because it was like magic. It somehow made you feel warm in your soul, from the top of your head down to your toes. Every sip made you happier than when you came, and had you feeling light as air by the time you left.
I always took her magic tea with a bit of milk, a cube of sugar and piping hot - just like Nana. Together, we would sit & drink our tea while everyone else waited for there's to cool. My Nana always loved that I liked my tea just like her, and in some ways, I think it made her feel closer with me than her other grandkids.
When I turned eighteen and was about to head off to college, I begged my Nana to show me the recipe. I didn't know how I would survive months without her earl grey, but she refused. It was a family blend that her mother had shown her right before she left for Florida. She said she would tell me how to make the tea when I was older.
Older was apparently yesterday, at the reading of her will.
She died last week of a heart attack, but I honestly think it was a broken heart that killed her. My grandfather unexpectedly died a year ago in a car crash, and my whole family was rocked by Pop Pop's absence, but not like my Nana. They were inseparable until the day he died, and when he passed, Nana was never quite the same.
Still, when I got the call, I couldn't do anything but cry at my kitchen table for hours. I was twenty-four now, and I hadn't been home to see her in a long time. I just got so caught up with school, work and my own life that I only saw her for Christmas once a year. I still talked to her often, but I could tell she missed me. Really missed all of us.
Once all of my siblings and our cousins grew up & went to college, only the parents came around to Nana's. Slowly, they stopped coming too and then three years ago, Nana stopped throwing her tea parties. It broke my heart, but she was getting older and she said it just wasn't the same without all of her grandkids there. "Especially my favorite grandkid," she would always say to me.
And even though I knew I was Nana's favorite, I had no idea she was going to leave everything to me. Her house, her money, the earl grey recipe and a letter. In it she writes:
You're older now. I hope this recipe brings you warmth, happiness, family & maybe even a memory of me every now & then.
As I sat there, rereading her letter for the hundredth time, all I could think about was how I missed her so badly. How I felt so immeasurably guilty for not coming to visit her before she died. And finally, how I really needed a cup of earl grey.
Ten minutes later I found myself in her kitchen, all the supplies needed to make her tea before me. I took a deep breath, wiped my still brimming tears and began.
Her recipe reads:
Mama's Earl Grey
- First, a ½ cup of loose leaf black tea. Must be Yorkshire loose leaf, specifically Harrogate blend.
- Next, exactly 7 drops of organic bergamot essential oil.
- Add the final ingredient of 2 tablespoons of dried bachelor button petals.
- Screw on the lid of the mason jar, shake vigorously until well combined.
- Let steep for 26 hours before using.
After I had made the tea and cleaned up, I went to the drawing room to sit & rest. On my way in though, I noticed a new wall of photos hanging to the left of the entryway. I stopped to look and felt my grief well back up inside, only this time so very much stronger. It was a collection of photos of her Sunday tea times.
Beginning from when it was just my Nana, my mom & her siblings, the photos progressed through the passage of our family's tea party history. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings & family friends were all pictured on the walls. All of the photos were incredibly emotional, but what made my grief so acute was the very center photo. In a very old metal frame, there was a picture of me & my Nana when I was little. We were sitting on her couch and laughing as we drank our tea, two peas in a pod. As I looked at these preserved memories of grandma's, I had a sudden realization of what I had to do. Fortunately, tomorrow was a Sunday.
Driving to Nana's from the grocery store the next day, I began to make a mental tally of everything I needed to get done. I had a house to clean, an ass ton of food to assemble and a lot to prepare before everyone got here. Thankfully, my A-Team had arrived by the time I got back. My crew consisted of my mom, my sister, my two brothers and my seven cousins waiting in the kitchen. Apart from our solemn hellos when I entered, we didn't say much else. Grief is funny like that.
Besides, we had work to do. My mom & I started on the finger foods, meanwhile, my sisters handled the production of the scones & petit fours. Since my grandma hadn't had anyone over since Pop Pop died, the front & back yards had fallen into disrepair. So, my two brothers handled the outdoor clean-up. The rest of my cousins were tasked with cleaning the house from top to bottom.
As we settled into our work, my family slowly started to come out of our somber silence. It began with my mom & I quietly telling stories about Nana, Pop Pop and the rest of our brood. Then my sisters started to hum old British folk songs Nana would sing while cooking. Eventually, you could hear my cousins singing along or laughing as they worked through the house. Their footsteps & voices became a steady hum that made the house feel alive. Maybe that's why my grief felt a little smaller - because as the house came back to life, a piece of Nana came alive with it.
Finally, 2:45 PM rolled around - time to brew the tea. So I sent my mom & sisters out to help with setup, took a deep breath, and began my grandmother's tea ceremony.
For Tea Parties
- Heat electric kettle to exactly 208°. Exactly 208°.
- Whilst it's heating, pour the entire mason jar into the large tea strainer.
- Place strainer into industrial sized coffee urn. You'll find the urn in the pantry.
- Once the kettle has reached 208°, immediately pour the water into the coffee urn over the strainer. Close the lid.
- Let steep for exactly five minutes, fifteen seconds.
- Pour the tea into the two large, matching tea pots in my China cabinet. No one wants tea from a coffee urn.
I followed the list to a tee (or a tea, I guess). It was the last part though that wasn't really up to me. Everyone else would determine if I had made the tea right. As I waited for everyone to drink, I realized no one was even holding their cups. When I was about to ask why, my mother said, "Honey, Nana would've wanted you to have the first cup. Go on Hon."
I felt my voice catch with emotion, but I quickly forced my feelings back down as I walked to the tea serving table. I grabbed one of Nana's China cups and began to assemble my cuppa:
A dash of whole milk,
A cube of sugar,
And piping hot.
I took a deep whiff of the tea and was pleased that it at least smelled like Nana's. When I took a sip though, I felt the dam I had been using to hold back my tears break. The earl grey was a perfect replica of my grandmother's. And somehow that was worse, because it solidified to me that Nana was really gone.
Sobbing now, I felt my mom take my cup from me and embrace me in a bear hug. And as she held me, I felt arms wrap around my waist, my shoulders and my legs. My aunts, uncles, cousins and their little ones were holding me - no, holding each other through our shared grief. And as we stood there, I thought back to the letter from Nana. How she wished the tea would bring me happiness, family, warmth and a memory of her?
Even as I wept, I couldn't help but smile to myself.
I think you got your wish Nana.