When I was a child I practiced tea parties with my sister in my grandmother’s entrance hall. We balanced tea cups on a mushroomed brass stool while kneeling on oriental rugs. Puckering our lips gently around the edge of the teacup, we sipped and then lowered the cup onto the saucer, letting it land hard on purpose until we got the “clink” just right.
We wanted to be grown-ups, like my grandmother Alicja’s friends who visited for afternoon tea. Inka came by often. Her skin was as moist and glazed as Alicja’s. Gold bangles jingled on her wrists as she waved her hands about. Her large loopy earrings swayed from side to side whenever she turned her head. Picking up her cup, she splayed her fingers gracefully like a ballet dancer. She sipped gently, lifting her top lip away from the cup a little, so as to not lose her lipstick. She placed the cup back onto the saucer on the table. Lipstick still perfect. Clink clink.
Sipping tea helps me through the long afternoons, when I’m staring into my computer screen wracking my brain for words to describe things; my mother’s reunion with ‘her’ nuns in central Poland, or what it feels like to sit at a table in the German archives inside the gates of the former barracks of Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit.
Sometimes I’ll throw a tea bag into a mug, let the tea steep for a minute or two, then toss the bag into the trash. On rare occasions, (I hate to confess to anyone British who might read this), I leave the tea bag in the mug and sip until the last drop, when the bag lurks on the bottom like a dead frog.
But when I’m truly stuck and wrestling with my manuscript (revision six, but who’s counting), I spoon loose leaf tea—Fortnum & Mason’s Countess Grey a favorite — into an infuser, lock it, pop it into a china teapot, pour over boiling water and carry the pot to my office upstairs or wherever I am working, along with the Wedgewood teacup and saucer Alicja gifted me on my twenty-first birthday. I pour the tea, pick up the cup, breathe in the steamy orange spices, poke out my pinky finger, sip, and let the tea cup settle on the saucer. Clink clink.