My daughter’s house smells like a cup of London Fog. Black tea leaves and orange bergamot kissed with vanilla. The scent permeates everything, even her clothes, so she carries it everywhere. When people ask, she excitedly explains that it’s her favorite tea. My husband and I joke that she has been called to preach her doctrines to the coffee drinkers of the world. She’s already had a number of successful conversions.
I watch as she spoons sugar into a porcelain teapot as the leaves steep. Bright purple violets decorate the body, and a thin vine curls its way around the ornate handle.
“You’re going to love this!” she assures me.
I sit patiently at the kitchen table. She’s been after me to have a cup of tea with her for a while. I don’t know why I waited so long. She goes to the built-in shelf next to the window and pinches the rim of two saucers, carefully balancing the cups that rest on top. None of the cups make a set. They are all individual treasures she has plucked from various thrift stores and antique malls across the country to create what she calls her “Collection.”
Today, she’s chosen the Dogwood and Sunflower cups.
Once the tea is poured, she sits across from me, the skirts of her dress fluttering as she rests in the wooden chair. Her palms wrap gently around the cup, and she raises it towards her face, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. I watch this ritual with some curiosity, and decide to try it, myself.
The warmth of the teacup reaches from my palms all the way to my chest. I shudder slightly as I move it just above my lips, letting the fullness of the scent reach me. I feel a tingle beneath my eyes, deep in the skin, and then I take a sip. When my eyes open, Elsie is staring at me intently.
“This is good,” I admit. Her exhale is loud, dramatic, and filled with relief.
“I told you! Isn’t it so deliciously rich?” she prods.
“I don’t know why I expected it to taste like coffee,” I reply. “It’s not bitter.”
“Exactly! And did you know…”
I drift somewhat as she begins to remind me of the health benefits, but I keep sipping on the tea. A few leaves sit at the bottom of my cup, and I swirl them amid the last drops of the London Fog before setting the cup back down on the saucer.
Elsie reaches for the plate, and her sleeve pulls back, revealing her more recently acquired tattoo along the underside of her forearm. I gaze at the sparrow outlined in deep blue ink, and the iconic phrase of “Matthew 10:31” underneath.
You are worth more than many sparrows.
“Has Dad gotten used to the idea yet?” she asks. I must have been staring for too long.
“You know your father,” I remind her. “When he makes up his mind, it’s hard to change.”
She sighs, and crosses to the sink, setting my empty cup down inside.
“It’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it?” she says, quietly. “Sparrows weren’t anything valuable in ancient Israel. Yet something humanity deems so worthless still has the attention of God. Not a sparrow falls from the sky without His knowing. But we think somehow He will forget us.” Her eyes reveal she’s on a journey now, albeit a short one. There is a peaceful happiness that washes over her face. It gives her a glow. “So don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
I bite my lip a little nervously. “Why did you have to get it on your skin?”
“What’s wrong with that?” she poses to me.
I hear my own mother’s voice resounding in my head. Something about Leviticus, and not cutting yourself for the dead or marking your body. But I don’t offer that. Elsie has heard it before. Somehow, she’s gotten past it.
“You know the type of people who get tattoos,” I say, instead. The look she gives me makes me wish I could take it back. It says you know better and here we go at the same time.
“I’m the type of people who get tattoos, Mom,” she tells me, gently. “What does that mean to you?”
A myriad of thoughts barrage me, and I can’t voice any of them. I don’t want to voice any of them. But they still come.
“It means you’re slipping away from what we taught you.”
“It makes me worry about your soul.”
“Are you unhappy? Is this for attention?”
“Did you do this to rebel against me and your father?”
“Where did we go wrong?”
But when I look at her face, it makes me question everything I have believed.
“I don’t know,” I manage.
She gives me a nod, and sits back down. I can tell we’re not done with this conversation. She’s just gathering thoughts. I’m not surprised. This girl spent two years on the debate team at school. Her brain can back you into a corner faster than you can recall what you just said.
“Did you know Jesus has a tattoo?” she opens.
I blink. This has to be some crazy, new age, mega church madness that a tv pastor pumped out. How can my daughter, who was in church from two weeks old, who led her youth group, who went to Bible classes every week, be pulled into that? How?
“Elsie, you’re being ridiculous,” I reply.
“I’m serious! In Revelation, John says that he sees Jesus in Heaven, and,” her voice pitches down. It always does when she is quoting scriptures. “On His thigh is written, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.”
I blink again. I’ve read that passage hundreds of times sitting in my den. I’ve read it inside three different Bibles. My children’s Bible that my father gave me when I was in First Grade. My Study Bible, which I purchased as a college student. And my Mother’s Bible that came home with me when she left us last Christmas. But I have never reached Elsie’s interpretation before.
“I don’t think that’s what it’s saying,” I try.
“Really? It sounds like it to me. What else do you call something written on someone’s skin?” she asks. I don’t have an answer, and she knows it, so she continues. “But more importantly, why does He have it?”
She pauses to pour herself another cup of London Fog. I can almost see her pupils dilating from the caffeine that is surely hitting her bloodstream. Her enthusiasm is palpable.
“What do you mean?” I sputter. I need to buy some time to attempt a true response.
“Why would Jesus need to have King of Kings and Lord of Lords tattooed on his skin?” she repeats. Luckily, she doesn’t give me the chance to try and respond. “Doesn’t He know who He is? Doesn’t He remember? Of course He does!”
Now, she takes a breath, and stares back into her teacup. Her finger reaches up and runs over the words on her arm. Those sweet words that remind her how much she means to Him.
“The message isn’t always for the person who wears it,” she tells me. “It’s for the people who read it. And trust me, people read tattoos. They can’t help themselves.”
I had to admit, that was true. I was guilty. When the girl at the checkout line in the supermarket reached for my items and revealed a phrase across her wrist, I would pause to see what it said. Or the teller at the bank, or the stranger with his sleeves rolled up. It seemed like my eyes were just drawn to the words.
“And maybe when they read it, it’s a reminder that they needed. Or maybe they’ve never seen it before, and they come up and ask,” her voice pitches again, “Hey, what does your tattoo mean? I’ve had so many random conversations with so many random people about this verse. And you know what? I think God is just fine with that. Maybe He wanted me to talk to them. Maybe I got to be the first person to let them know, Hey! Guess what? You are valued!”
I just stare at her. There’s a red mark on her neck that darkens when she gets excited. Only a few people know to look for it. And right now, it’s flushed crimson.
Her words permeate a wall of doctrine that has stood so firmly in my mind, it had surely grown moss along the ridges of its stones. When was the last time I told someone they were valued? Not in the supermarket, certainly. But now, I imagined my daughter on the bus, or in the park, or getting popcorn at the movies, and stopping to remind someone that they were worth something to God.
And it was a beautiful thing.
I reach out to her, and she takes my hand. I know we’re done. She doesn’t need a concession. She doesn’t want me to admit defeat. That’s not her way. But we both know, we have reached a place of understanding that we haven't explored together before. But we’re here now. And it feels good.
“I’d like another cup of tea, if you don’t mind,” I tell her.
She smiles. “I was hoping you would.”