From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

A Perfect Pot of Tea

There are high spots in all of our lives and most of them have come about through encouragement from someone else. I don’t care how great, how famous or successful a man or woman may be, each hungers for applause.

George M. Adams

An impatient crowd of nearly 200 diehard bargain hunters shoved their way into the huge living room of the old Withers homestead. The sweltering ninety-degree temperature didn’t deter a single one, all in pursuit of the estate-sale find of the summer.

The lady conducting the sale, a long-time acquaintance, nodded as we watched the early-morning scavengers. “How’s this for bedlam?” she chuckled.

I smiled in agreement. “I shouldn’t even be here. I have to be at the airport in less than an hour,” I admitted to her. “But when I was a teenager, I sold cosmetics in this neighborhood. And Hillary Withers was my favorite customer.”

“Then run and check out the attic,” she suggested. “There are plenty of old cosmetics up there.”

Quickly, I squeezed through the ever-growing throng and climbed the stairs to the third floor. The attic was deserted except for a petite, elderly woman presiding over several tables loaded with yellowed bags of all sizes.

“What brings you all the way up here?” she asked, as she popped the stopper out of a perfume bottle. “There’s nothing up here except old Avon, Tupperware and Fuller Brush products.”

I drew in a long, cautious breath. The unmistakable fragrance of “Here’s My Heart” perfume transported me back nearly twenty years.

“Why, this is my own handwriting!” I exclaimed, as my eyes fell upon an invoice stapled to one of the bags. The untouched sack held more than a hundred dollars’ worth of creams and colognes—my very first sale to Mrs. Withers.

On that long-ago June day, I’d canvassed the wide, tree-lined avenue for nearly four hours, but not one lady of the house had invited me indoors. Instead, several had slammed their doors in my face. As I rang the bell at the last house, I braced myself for the now-familiar rejection.

“Hello, ma’am, I’m your new Avon representative,” I stammered, when the carved-oak door swung open. “I have some great products I’d like to show you.” When my eyes finally found the courage to face the lady in the doorway, I realized it was Mrs. Withers, the bubbly, matronly soprano in our church choir. I’d admired her lovely dresses and hats, dreaming that someday I’d wear stylish clothes, too.

Just two months before, when I’d traveled to a distant city to have brain surgery, Mrs.Withers had showered me with the most beautiful cards. Once she’d even tucked in a Scripture verse: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” I’d carried it in my red vinyl wallet. Whenever my teachers told me I’d never make it to college, I’d take it out and study it, repeating its promise softly to myself.

I’d believed that verse, even when my teachers kept saying, “With all the school you’ve missed, Roberta, you can never catch up.” Perhaps they felt it was kinder not to let me dream too much, because I was afflicted with neu-rofibromatosis, a serious neurological disorder.

“Why, Roberta dear, come in, come in,” Mrs. Withers’s voice sang out. “I need a million and one things. I’m so glad you came to see me.”

Gingerly, I eased myself onto the spotless white sofa and unzipped my tweed satchel filled with all the cosmetics samples five dollars could buy. When I handed Mrs. Withers a sales brochure, suddenly I felt like the most important girl in the world.

“Mrs. Withers, we have two types of creams, one for ruddy skin tones and another for sallow skin,” I explained with newfound confidence. “And they’re great for wrinkles, too.”

“Oh good, good,” she chanted.

“Which one would you like to try?” I asked as I started to adjust the wig hiding my stubbly, surgery-scarred scalp.

“Oh, I’ll surely need one of each,” she answered. “And what do you have in the way of fragrances?”

“Here, try this one, Mrs.Withers. They recommend that you place it on the pulse point for the best effect,” I instructed, pointing to her diamond-and-gold-clad wrist.

“Why, Roberta, you’re so knowledgeable about all of this. You must have studied for days. What an intelligent young woman you are.”

“You really think so, Mrs. Withers?”

“Oh, I know so. And just what do you plan to do with your earnings?”

“I’m saving for college to be a registered nurse,” I replied, surprised at my own words. “But today, I’m thinking more of buying my mother a cardigan sweater for her birthday. She always goes with me for my medical treatments, and when we travel on the train, a sweater would be nice for her.”

“Wonderful, Roberta, and so considerate. Now what do you have in the gifts line?” she asked, requesting two of each item I recommended.

Her extravagant order totaled $117.42. Had she meant to order so much? I wondered. But she smiled and said, “I’ll look forward to receiving my delivery, Roberta. Did you say next Tuesday?”

I was preparing to leave when Mrs. Withers said, “You look absolutely famished. Would you like some tea before you go? At our house, we think of tea as liquid sunshine.”

I nodded, then followed Mrs. Withers to her pristine kitchen, filled with all manner of curiosities. I watched, spellbound, as she orchestrated a tea party, like those I’d seen in the movies, just for me. She carefully filled the tea kettle with cold water, brought it to a “true” boil, then let the tea leaves steep for “exactly” five long minutes. “So the flavor will blossom,” she explained.

Then she arranged a silver tray with a delicate china tea set, a chintz tea cozy, tempting strawberry scones and other small splendors. At home, we sometimes drank iced tea in jelly glasses, but never had I felt like a princess invited to afternoon tea.

“Excuse me, Mrs.Withers, but isn’t there a faster way to fix tea?” I asked. “At home, we use tea bags.”

Mrs. Withers wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “There are some things in life that shouldn’t be hurried,” she confided. “I’ve learned that brewing a proper pot of tea is a lot like living a life that pleases God. It takes extra effort, but it’s always worth it.

“Take you, for instance, with all of your health problems. Why, you’re steeped with determination and ambition, just like a perfect pot of tea. Many in your shoes would give up, but not you. And with God’s help, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, Roberta.”

Abruptly, my journey back in time ended when the lady in the hot, sticky attic asked, “You knew Hillary Withers, too?”

I wiped a stream of perspiration from my forehead. “Yes . . . I once sold her some of these cosmetics. But I can’t understand why she never used them or gave them away.”

“She did give a lot of them away,” the lady replied matter-of-factly, “but somehow, some of them got missed and ended up here.”

“But why did she buy them and not use them?” I asked.

“Oh, she purchased a special brand of cosmetics for her own use.” The lady spoke in a confidential whisper. “Hillary had a soft spot in her heart for door-to-door salespeople. She never turned any of them away. She used to tell me, ‘I could just give them money, but money alone doesn’t buy self-respect. So I give them a little of my money, lend a listening ear, and share my love and prayers. You never know how far a little encouragement can take someone.’”

I paused, remembering how my cosmetics sales had soared after I’d first visited Mrs. Withers. I bought my mother the new sweater from my commission on the sale, and I still had enough money for my college fund. I even went on to win several district and national cosmetics-sales awards. Eventually, I put myself through college with my own earnings and realized my dream of becoming a registered nurse. Later, I earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D.

“Mrs. Withers prayed for all of these people?” I asked, pointing to the dozens of time-worn delivery bags on the table.

“Oh, yes,” she assured me. “She did it without the slightest yearning that anyone would ever know.”

I paid the cashier for my purchases—the sack of cosmetics I’d sold to Mrs. Withers, and a tiny, heart-shaped gold locket. I threaded the locket onto the gold chain I wore around my neck. Then I headed for the airport; later that afternoon, I was addressing a medical convention in New York.

When I arrived in the elegant hotel ballroom, I found my way to the speaker’s podium and scanned the sea of faces—health care specialists from all over the country. Suddenly, I felt as insecure as on that long-ago day, peddling cosmetics in that unfamiliar, affluent neighborhood.

Can I do it? my mind questioned.

My trembling fingers reached upward to the locket. It opened, revealing a picture of Mrs. Withers inside. I again heard her soft but emphatic words: “With God’s help, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, Roberta.”

“Good afternoon,” I began slowly. “Thank you for inviting me to speak about putting the care back in health care. It’s often said that nursing is love made visible. But this morning I learned an unexpected lesson about the power of quiet love expressed in secret. The kind of love expressed not for show, but for the good it can do in the lives of others. Some of our most important acts of love, sometimes, go unnoticed. Until they’ve had time to steep—for their flavor to blossom.”

Then I told my colleagues the story of Hillary Withers. To my surprise, there was thunderous applause. Silently, I prayed, Thank you, God, and Mrs. Withers. And to think it all began with a perfect pot of tea.

Roberta Messner, R.N., Ph.D.

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