Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors. — Alice Walker
Mom had been exercising her pinkie for three days. She told me the exhaustive sets of pinkie-extensions were in preparation for her first “high tea,” an event to which I was taking her. Married with children before she turned 21 and soon the mother of four girls with a Navy husband often on deployment, Mom didn’t have time to experience self-indulgent luxuries, those little extravagances to which at least one of her daughters has grown accustomed. She was well into her 30s before she got her first manicure, and she had never been to a spa (or received any spa treatments, like massages or facials) before I took her to Estancia in La Jolla three years ago. Prior to my invitation, Mom had never even heard of high tea — a traditionally English, late-afternoon meal composed of bite-sized savories, scones with clotted cream and jam, petit fours, and of course, tea.
Though her exposure to pampering is minimal, Mom has what seems to be a hereditary predisposition toward living the high life. Just as taking a kid to Disneyland might reawaken a parent’s childlike wonder, lavishing my mother with deluxe services prompts me to appreciate how splendid is my average day. Because I wanted Mom’s introduction to this historically aristocratic pastime to be relaxed and unpretentious, I researched high teas countywide and finally settled on Tea-Upon-Chatsworth in Point Loma.
Contrary to the English custom of taking tea in the afternoon, I figured we’d do more of a brunch thing and made reservations for the first seating at 11:30 a.m. Mom was giddy from the moment she arrived at my place; as I drove us to Point Loma, I wondered if some of her exuberance might be attributed to nervousness. We talked about manners, and Mom said, “When someone asks for a tissue, I throw the roll of Bounty at them. It’s not like we sit down and I have linen napkins — we don’t even do that at Thanksgiving.” She refers to the notorious propriety of David’s parents as “dainty manners” and added, “That’s just not the way we were brought up.”
Mom grew up in a three-story Brooklyn house with a family on each floor. The three families, all related, constituted 6 adults and 13 children; chaos was as much a member of the family as any of the 3 dogs also residing there. Mom is proud of her resultant ability to thrive in an environment in which many otherwise-competent people would surely falter. “You could put 90 people in my home right now, and I’d be absolutely comfortable with it,” she said. “Just don’t ask me to choose which fork goes with the salad.”
In her own home here in San Diego, Mom carries on the traditions of Brooklyn — between her grandchildren, guests, and the television, the house resonates with a relentless din. Not in all of my childhood or teen memories can I single out any one moment I could define as “quiet.” Lively is more like it. But regardless of how fun and exciting such a loud and bustling environment can be, it is my belief that the body and mind require some down time, lest one become unhinged. For someone like me, who is perpetually teetering on the edge between sanity and madness, it is important to balance the manic with the calm, just as a conscientious eater might follow a decadent evening of steak and cake with a night of tofu and broccoli.
We arrived at Tea-Upon-Chatsworth with ten minutes to spare. Because the door was locked, Mom and I wandered into the nearest open store, which happened to be a baby boutique. When the word “cute” became unbearable, we headed for the exit. On the way we spotted three women approaching the tea joint from across the street, so we casually picked up our pace to beat them to the locked door. Despite our principal entrance, tea patrons were led to their preassigned tables in some mystical predetermined order that left us as the last to take our seats.
The sound of chamber music inspired Mom and me to lower our voices. Over our table hung a wreath, affixed to which were real porcelain teacups. Mom acclimated to her surroundings, handling and commenting on every object within her reach. She marveled at the delicate linen and was astonished at the feathery weight of her fork and knife. When she’d finished with her side of the table, she surveyed mine. Clucking her tongue and looking around to make sure no one was paying attention, she leaned forward and said, “Your plate’s not as pretty as mine.”
I began to object, but after examining the illustration on my plate — a potted green plant above the word “DILL” — and then scanning the wispy pink flowers that adorned the edges of my mother’s antique eggshell dish, I could only sigh and say, “Yeah, you’re right. Yours is much prettier.”
“I’ll get you a prettier one, baby,” said Mom, the protective nurturer in her roused by the fleeting look of disappointment she’d caught on her daughter’s face.
“No, please, don’t,” I said, with a hint of panic.
Thinking my resistance was simply a matter of wanting to spare her the trouble, Mom insisted on hunting down a suitable dish for me. But when she finally realized doing so would not only cross some invisible line of etiquette but also cause me great embarrassment, she agreed to stay seated. Forgetting my unsightly plate for the moment, Mom’s face lit up, and she said, “This is just like a tea party!”
“Right,” I said, allowing sarcasm to seep into the pause before I continued, “because it is a tea party.”
Mom laughed and said, “This is so much fun!”
An ornately painted teapot was set on the table, and our attendant, Carol, explained that it contained a freshly brewed white tea called mutan, which is the Chinese word for peony. I took a sip and commented on the delightful floral subtleties; Mom looked at the liquid in her cup and asked Carol for Splenda. “Don’t you even want to try it first?” I said. “Maybe take a few sips and see how the flavors open up on your tongue?”
Mom took a tiny sip and said, “It’s a little bitter.”
“Well, try taking another sip, and keep in mind that it will probably pair well with food.”
Carol set a small dish on the table between us. Employing the silver tongs used for plucking sugar cubes, Mom selected one of the yellow packets. She dropped the packet into her other hand and laughed at her lark as she tore off the corner and shook a bit of the white powder into her cup. She sipped her adjusted brew, smiled with satisfaction, set the cup down, and then startled me by breaking into hysterical laughter. In answer to my baffled expression, Mom said, “My finger is stuck,” and indeed it was, as she’d somehow gotten the tip of her index all the way through the narrow end of the handle.
When she’d finally wriggled free, Mom giggled her relief. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said, her laughter tapering off and then regaining its momentum. “I think the tea is making me high. Ah! Get it? High tea? Tea high?”
A sucker for puns, I chuckled and added, “You better watch it, you could become a teahead. Take it from me, you may be all tingly scalped now, but the comedown sucks.”
Mom’s perma-grin grew wider and she relaxed into her chair. She cut a cucumber finger sandwich in half and used the fork to taste it. “What would these people think if they could see us eating at home? Because it’s not like this,” she said.
“Who cares?” I answered.
I refilled Mom’s cup and then raised mine to her before taking a sip. A brief moment passed during which no words were spoken as we applied a dollop of fresh cream and rose-petal jam to our scones. “Oh my God, this is amazing,” Mom said after taking a bite.
“Yeah, pretty tasty,” I agreed.
“I really like this, Barb,” said Mom.
“The scone? Yeah, great stuff, huh?”
“Is that what this is? I’ve never had one before. It’s delicious. But no, I mean this. Being alone, just talking. Nobody yelling or arguing with each other. I really like this.”
I set my cup down and dabbed at the corners of my mouth with the linen napkin. I swept the room with my eyes, taking in the English country decor, the curios displayed on shelves, and, returning my gaze to my mother’s face, I said, “I had a feeling you would.”