A Cup of English Tea

A Cup of English Tea

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms

A Cup of English Tea

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.

Sir Winston Churchill

“Oh, for the words I might have said, the things I might have done.” My eyes were riveted to the inscription beneath the oil painting. Unlike the light and airy Impressionist paintings my mom and I had seen that day at the Art Institute of Chicago, this masterpiece depicted a somber funeral wreath on a glossy black door. The Monets receded from my memory, but this poignant inscription seared its way into my consciousness: “Oh, for the words I might have said, the things I might have done.” What finality!

On the subway ride home, I thought about Mom. She sat close beside me, yet she was so distant. There were many things I could have said to Mom or done for her, but I didn’t. Now that I’m in college, I wonder if it’s too late, I thought.

Storybook vignettes of the past flashed before my mind. As a young daddy’s girl, every night after dinner I sat on his lap and proudly slipped the paper ring from his Roy Tan cigar onto my finger. Instead of helping Mom with the dishes, Dad and I worked a picture puzzle. When my girlfriend slept over, Dad played a prank by putting Jell-O in the foot of my bed. After he got the surprised reaction he wanted from me, he tried to clean up the strawberry delight with a towel. But it was my servant mom who wiped my toes, changed the linens, and laid out fresh towels. Funny, I don’t recall thanking her for her services.

As I grew older, Dad and I, each with a long stride, walked quickly down the street, while Mom, with her shorter legs, lagged farther and farther behind. Occasionally we paused to wait for her, but never long enough for her to catch up.

At a recent big gathering, I tucked my arm in Dad’s and stayed close by his side, while Mom was the furthest thing from my mind.

The subway jolted to a stop. From now on, it’s going to be different. I want Mom to see how much she means to me. I stole a glance at her seated beside me, prim in her suit and hat, her mind somewhere else.

“What are you thinking, Mom?”

“Oh, just about the troubled girls at my school.”

Mom was a devoted teacher, and I knew she helped disadvantaged children in a number of ways. But I hadn’t realized before now how deeply she felt for these children. I wonder if I really know her. I guess I only know about her.

That night, I gave Mom the hug usually reserved for Dad. She stood somewhat awkwardly, almost like a child who didn’t know how to respond.

Lying in bed I asked God, Please show me what I can do to reach her with my love. Then it occurred to me that perhaps her British heritage was the key. After all, she likes everything English. Maybe I can even try to change my tomboy persona, which often conflicts with her ladylike preferences.

I asked the next day, “Mom, could we have a cup of English tea together this afternoon?”

Startled, she replied, “Why, yes . . . of course, dear.”

I noticed how carefully she laid out her best china with silver teapot, pitcher of cream, and bowl of sugar, even adding a plate of Scottish shortbread, my favorite. She set the tea service on the low table and poured the tea she had brought back from England. As we held our cups and saucers somewhat stiffly, we talked about her recent trip to Cornwall to search out her relatives.

From that day forward, our tea party was repeated, each afternoon at three, just like clockwork. Soon formal talk became relaxed chatter. She gave our chat time a name, “girlie gab,” and giggled like a schoolgirl when Dad came around to see what we were up to. She even unlocked the longings and secrets of her heart. Each day our lives were woven together more tightly.

Throughout the summer, we took an oil painting class, planted geraniums in big pots, shared our favorite historic novels, and excitedly discussed the book she was writing. But no matter how full our days, every afternoon we took time out for our cup of English tea.

In later years, and for too many of them, my marriage took me miles away from her—that is, until the autumn of her life. Dad had passed on, she suffered a mild stroke, and I longed once again to intertwine our hearts like the branches of a vine. So I brought her back East with me. This was the summer to delight her with the laughter of children and the playfulness of puppies. It became the autumn to shuffle through leaves, feed the ducks, and picnic by the brook. It turned into the winter to snuggle by the fire, carol at the piano, and peruse family photos. It broke into the spring to sniff country lilacs, hear the mockingbird’s song, and most important, to sip a cup of English tea—together.

Then it was over. My brother wanted her with him, and I agreed it was fair. I steeled myself for the looming finality of her departure for the Midwest. The book of the things I might have said and the things I might have done was closing. There was nothing more I could do.

“Good-bye, precious Mom,” I said at the airport, through tears. Her soft and radiant smile of thanks was all I needed.

Another summer came and went before I laid a wreath at her gravesite, a personal wreath interlaced with bright memories. How transformed it was from the cold wreath in the Art Institute painting because I’d heard the plea of the artist to love before the hour had passed.

Margaret Lang

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