My mother taught me about tea when I was young. How chamomile soothes. How herbals heal. How black tea warms a body up from the weary bones to the stretched-out skin.
The first time I drank a mug of tea, if I remember correctly, I was ten, in the fifth grade. It was perhaps 11 o’clock in the evening, or maybe later. I would stay up late reading most nights, even though my teachers complained I fell asleep in class, or had read every book in their classrooms before midterm. But I ignored their displeasure, and so did my mother, for the most part. I usually had my work and homework finished or turned in before most kids had even packed up their school books or gathered their lunch boxes.
This evening, I had no book to read. I’d finished every single one I owned, and rereading my old favorite – Charlotte’s Web, by E.B White – sounded less than stimulating. I couldn’t sleep. The kids at school teased me often for being a teacher’s pet, or being too smart, or being a loner. I let this nonsense slide off my back during the day, but at night their words would creep in under my door and whisper to me, floating like dustmotes caught in the beam of my flashlight.
I picked at a hole in the plastic tablecloth in the kitchen of my childhood home and complained my mom about the other kids. During evenings like this, she’d advise me to ignore them, or talk to a teacher, or even just make friends instead of spending my recess time in a nook in the school library. I would nod and agree, even while I knew I couldn’t do that. Mice don’t make friends with the big, loud cats. They get eaten by them.
Still, it reassured me that she wanted to help. Other issues in our lives were not so easily bonded over, or repaired. This particular evening, however, her usual reassurances fell on deaf ears. I switched from picking at the hole to scratching the various mosquito bites on my arms. My mother saw my anxiety, tilted her head, and sighed.
“What you need, my reader, is tea.”
She meant, of course, Sleepytime Tea, from Celestial Seasonings. I’d watched her make it for herself often enough. First, she’d boil a saucepan of water, and then pour the hot liquid into one of the hundreds of mugs she and my dad collected. Then she’d get a stool and place it in front of the refrigerator. Her tea boxes lived in a wicker basket up there.
She would plop the little filter bag into the water, and soon the herbal bouquet of chamomile, spearmint, and lemongrass would rise with the steam. She took hers with milk, and so this evening I also took it that way.
We sat together at the table, each with our own mugs, sipping and talking about nothing. I went to bed soon after, with a warm belly and a warm heart to match. From that evening onward, if I ever had a bad day at school, or life at home became a little too tough for my sensitive heart, my mom and I would share a cup of tea late at night. Eventually my sisters would join is, one after the other, though never all together, and never regularly.
Years passed, and I grew up, got married, moved overseas. In a country where I didn’t speak the language and had no friends, I missed my mother, and how she reassured me that it didn’t matter if I was abnormal.
She confessed recently to me that, back then, she’d actually had no hope of me ever fitting in, or making friends. She despaired of me ever being a “normal” child. And, to my own surprise, this pleased me greatly. I have long held pride in being abnormal, or odd.
I think, as children, we find our identities however we can. Some of us take our identities from the people we surround ourselves with. Some of us find identity in rebellion. And some of us savor our solitude. I took comfort from being left alone with my books, and my papers, and my journals. It was the only peace I found in a motley six-person family of adopted special-needs children.
Often, teen years can be characterized by rifts between girls and their mothers, and perhaps the same could be true of us. But tea proved to be one of our bridges back to one another. No matter what kind of day we’ve had, or what fight, when one of us suggested tea, the other would never refuse. Recently, gin has insinuated itself into our lives. Usually accompanied by a binge session of Outlander. We watch it for the landscape, of course. Definitely not for the kilted men.
The power of tea has followed me into adulthood, burgeoning into a love of coffee and cafes. I worked as a Barista for several years in my early twenties, and co-managed a cafe overseas for a year before I became a mother myself.
If tea has followed me, then so has the penchant for owning numerous and myriad mugs. I jump from one style to another often, never using the same mug. Although recently I’ve been collecting hand-made stoneware. I find them appealing to my rustic and old-fashioned interest in medieval history. I recently shared this with my mother on a trip back to Texas. “I got this habit from you,” I’d told her, but she only smiled and reminded me again I left two shelves of tea when I moved overseas six years ago.
I haven’t forgotten. My home boasts three shelves full of a variety of tea. Assai, green, chai, spearmint and lemongrass, earl grey, and so on. It’s almost unhealthy, if it weren’t so nourishing for my soul. I can’t pass up a tea shop while I’m out shopping. I’ll overpay for a sub-par green tea from a paper cup at a cafe. It’s more than an antidepressant, or a nostalgic salve. Perhaps I collect teas and mugs as a way to feel connected to my mother, despite the ocean between us.
Tea fixes everything. This has become a mantra in my life, and is something I repeat often to friends. My son is growing up with a mother who often has a mug of tea in her hand, and a book in the other. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I still drink Sleepytime. Only now I drink it with honey; my mother still drinks hers with milk. And if we’re in the same place for just a while, digitally or physically, we smile, sip our fragrant favorites, and talk of nothing.