I crouch to look for the enamel pot in the lower cabinets. The edges are a bit chipped and the inside has yellowed with time. It seems lighter, like the metal has been thinning out over years of usage. I keep it under the tap and eyeball enough water for 2 people, then put it on the stove, medium heat. All that's left is fishing for the plastic box from the upper cabinet. There’s variety now, that’s for sure. There’s green tea and black tea in plastic bags, there are some store-bought cardboard boxes of herbal mixes, and then the crumpled old paper bags, unlabeled, but it doesn’t take much rummaging to find it. The dried flowers, spread like pale spiders, of the linden tree. When I was a child, my grandma would make linden tea with flowers from the tree in front of our 4th floor apartment’s kitchen.
My coughs are so terrible I am almost gagging. I am exhausted despite having slept all day today and yesterday. It’s normal for that to happen, mom says, when you have the flu. She brings me a steaming cup of linden tea. The mug is hot and bulky and I am too weakened by the fever to hold it properly so she has to help me up, tells me grandma squeezed lemon in so it will certainly chase the aches away. It burns my mouth so I refuse, but mom urges me gently, blowing on the liquid for me.
Sweating it out has been the obvious method of battling colds in this household. It's the same reason I’ve been force fed soup earlier that day. The soup was made by my grandma too. It was uncommon for anyone in my family to drink tea unless they were sick. It will help me develop a pavlovian reaction to meet any cough, shiver, or headache with a scorching mug of tea and yield under as many duvets I can. Works more often than don’t.
I’ve seen grandma make tea countless times. She refills a cup with tap water as many times as people need to be served, emptying it every time in one of the white enamel beak pots that she keeps in the kitchen cabinets. When water boils, she turns off the heat, adds a handful of leaves and covers it with a plate, and later strains it. She always puts honey in tea, never sugar. Tea is supposed to be healthy, so sugar is only used in coffee and baking. Her decisions are definitive, none of us has any say over grandma in her kitchen.
Every July, when summer is most thorough, grandma opens wide the kitchen windows and reaches out to bring in a linden branch, rich in leaves and yellow flowers. She ties the branch with the end of a white cord and fixes the other end on the knob of the door, and she proceeds to pluck every prosperous flower off it. That’s the time to do it, she says, during Cuptor. July is Cuptor. Oven month.
And it was the best time indeed, for which I see many households doing it. The apartment buildings, 5 floors each, stood parallel, and between them, long and narrow, a one-way street, guarded on each side by imposing linden trees, as tall as the buildings themselves. And those trees were in such proximity to the buildings that one could just open their window, reach out to grab a branch, and drag it into their home. They are advantageous, those trees. They keep a nice shade and are dense just enough to diffuse the stinging sunlight of summer. The only unfortunate ones are the ones living on the 1st and 2nd floors because they don’t have any branches in each and I think it’s unfair that they don’t have what to make tea from.
I watch my grandma dutifully gather the flowers, bringing in branch after branch. If mom is free she will help. I am not allowed to, she doesn’t like me being in the proximity of the wide open windows. I protest that the three set windows are too high and the windowsill too wide for me to reach over. I eye the frames unconcerned. The white paint of the wood frames is scorching again. No doubt my grandpa would give them a new coat soon and call them the best type of windows one could have, unlike the modern ones neighbors have been installing.
It’s futile but I am allowed to carry the already plucked flowers into the living room where there’s old newspaper spread on every flat surface: the dining table, the old armchair, the sofa, any shelf that's unoccupied. A few days later grandpa pours it into paper bags and writes the name of the plant in capital letters, shaky but legible. It’s the only time I see his writing. By the time autumn comes we have a whole array of bags, all crinkled, all labeled.
TEI. MUȘEȚEL. MENTĂ. SUNĂTOARE. GĂLBENELE. SOC.
Linden. Chamomile. Mint. St John's wort. Calendula. Elderflower.
We had the elderflower because one morning grandma woke up earlier than usual and went to a nearby field to collect elderflowers with a friend that had told her about it. She would rarely leave the home and even when she did it was for the sake of procuring things. Even if times had changed and scarcity has diluted, people kept being resourceful like that. She went picking berries. Picking mushrooms. My grandma would buy fabric and mom would sew our curtains from it. They would buy wool and knit scarves and hats for winter. I’m sure that if they could keep a sheep in the apartment, do the shearing, spin the threads just to make the wool themselves, they would. Survivorship has been sewn into their fabric just like mom has sewn those awful lace curtains. But especially in my family, we seemed to fully embody the disposition to do things by ourselves.
Mothers of school friends would show off their dyed hair and their manicured nails, but at home mom just made sure our nails are short and clean with nail scissors and a metal file. My grandparents used just a nail clipper. Once in a while mom would paint her nails in light pink nail polish. Mom cut the whole family’s hair. She would cut grandpa’s, grandma’s, and then her own. She used to cut dad’s hair too before the divorce. Sometimes when he comes over she’ll go over with a quick trim. Mine is the most time-consuming because I am the only one in the family with long hair. After I grew up I cut my mom's hair for her. I cut mine too. I think about how when I will be a mom I will cut my child's hair for them. I don't know why, but I imagine a daughter.
One spring they come to groom the trees, but it’s more akin to an execution. Men wearing reflective vests with big vehicles and noisy chainsaws. Their buzzing reverberates in the neighborhood for three days. The trees, once with abundant and lush crowns, are now decapitated stumps. Besides the lindens, there were fruit-bearing trees: cherry, cherry plum, white mulberry; their fruit so bountiful no matter how much we children ate from them it would still drop and end up crushed under people’s feet. There were acacia trees, birches, and a stray willow here and there. But yo no trees they’ve been as unkind as they’ve been to the lindens. Fear sprouted in me, that they would never grow back, or if they did, it would take so long I’d never get to see them bloom ever again. I cried when they cut the trees. I did not cry when grandma died.
Grandpa takes daily trips to the cemetery and sometimes brings home leaves out of which he makes mud tea. It has no smell but tastes awful and he’s convinced it keeps his diabetes under control. Stores it all in the upper kitchen cabinets that he installed a few years prior. He purchased them all by himself, confident that they matched the color of the lower ones. They didn’t and grandma was furious but the additional space was much needed. For a few years there’s no shade in the kitchen. There’s less bird chirping because there’s no tree for the sparrows to linger in. In July, I would pluck linden flowers if there were any. I ask mom to teach me how to knit. The linden trees are slowly growing back but not enough to reach our window by the time I leave for university.
The apartment I rent is also on the 4th floor. There’s no tree against my window here either. There’s barely any on the street and they’re short, decorative. I don’t see them bearing fruit. My roommate drinks coffee and smokes. We bond over smoking. As a child, I was never one for the bitter, burnt smelling adult-only coffee. I had a brief stint with it in high school, where I picked it up for socializing purposes. At the same time I picked up smoking, but it was out of my own volition.
But I still wasn’t drinking it at home. Coffee at home was water boiled in an identical pot to the one tea was made in. Grandpa prepared beans through an electric grinder and grandma added them to boiling water and took it off heat right before overflowing. Coffee in university can have any form as long as it paints you as sociable and agreeable. In a way it does make me feel like an adult, having coffee and smoking at the same table that I eat at. Pretending to like things I don’t also feels very adultlike.
At my first job I met a girl who, although smokes more than I do, doesn’t drink coffee but tea in which she mixes milk. It’s black tea and comes in sachets. I’m curious about it so she prepares it with milk and sugar for me. When she hands the cup over observes it’s too hot to drink so she blows lightly over it.
She makes the same tea for me many more times after that, even after we move in together. She goes to a hairdresser to get her hair cut and dyed and sees a manicurist for her nails. I offer to cut her hair for her. She laughs saying that it’s too much work but I suspect she doesn’t trust me with it. She grew up with store-bought tea and a coffee machine after all. We talk about families and end up discussing marriage which neither of us is interested in. We can’t get married here anyway.
Mom calls to say that grandpa died. I tell my girlfriend I have to travel home. Funny how I refer to it as home when it’s not anymore. Now it’s just a place to go and come back from. She offers to come with me but I decline. I stop by the church’s mortuary chapel first thing to pick up the keys from mom. She tells me to go straight home and wait for her as she'll be there shortly. Asks if I can make some tea meanwhile. As soon as I get in I wash my hands and hurry to get the water boiling.
It’s July and I don’t even notice that the linden tree outside our kitchen window is in full bloom.