On Tea Parties and Reading

I leaned over my kitchen sink, the wholesome smell of Palmolive soap tingling my nostrils, and washed the dust off my fine china. Blue rubber gloves enclosed my hands, protecting them from the extra-strength suds. I could feel the warmth of the water even through the rubber. I hoped the soap would not strip my dishes of their gold and purple and finery.

My tea cups are an eclectic bunch. Normally, they are are kept on a high shelf with my other china, displayed behind paneled glass (I don’t know how the dust still manages to gather on them). I took them down to prepare for a tea party.

This moment of washing my tea cups is somehow set apart from the humdrum of everyday life, drastically different from the daily rush of dishes I must get through before getting on to more pleasurable things. Instead, I slowed down during this act, one which felt almost ceremonial, an event in itself.

As I handled the dainty tea cups and perfectly matched saucers — carefully, awkwardly, gloved hands gripping their smooth surfaces — my mind drifted.

Memories of a thousand tea parties came back to me, not in specifics but generalities, for the most part. I recalled the countless tea parties I had as a child with my best friend, pouring boiling water into our mugs over mint leaves we’d gathered under my back porch. Or the other childhood tea parties I’d had with my porcelain dolls, which I’d finally given away in my twenties, a regret.

I washed the antique tea pot with a yellow rose and gold trim I’d received from my great uncle, and I recalled the tea parties for one I’d had for months, brewing herbal tea in this pot in the evenings as I wrote my thesis in a third floor apartment.

I washed selections from two tea sets with pointy handles and golden trim I’d inherited from my grandma. And ones from the cream coloured set with soft edges I’d chanced upon at a rummage sale in the basement of a Presbyterian church, and when I asked how much they were, I was told “One dollar per, and I won’t take anything less!” (I bought all eight.) And the half dozen un-matched collector’s tea cups of vibrant colours I’d received from my aunt as my wedding present, which she’d received from her mom.

I washed the odd ones I’d picked up here and there: the one with tiny pink flowers from a thrift store; the heavy, brown patterned one from a place I once lived, my roommate taking the other matching one, connecting us; the light one with delicate flowers from my grandma’s personal collection which I’d been permitted to choose when she was alive.

I recalled the tea party I had for my wedding reception, in which that same childhood friend I’d had tea parties with, who I’d not seen in years, came with her two daughters who were around the same age that we were when we’d played together. For a wedding present, she gave me camomile tea and a pink tablecloth she’d sewn herself with pictures of tea sets on it.

This I placed on the table, quite fittingly I thought, and arranged the tea cups on it, which caught the light of the afternoon sun. I placed the tea pot on a white crocheted hot-pad given to me by my grandmother, which had belonged to an ancestor I can’t now recall.

As I admired the beauty of a nicely laid tea party before my guests arrived, I realized this event was somehow distinct from, but also conjured up all the tea parties that I’d previously had. The tea cups and tea pot were physical reminders of them, even the ones from before I’d acquired the dishes. A single event can be so complex, so layered in memory and meaning.

And I thought about the ways in which reading is so often like this. I cannot begin to count how many books I’ve read, even though I’ve tried keeping track over the years with various lists, and currently keep a commonplace book.

And yet, even if I can’t remember all of them, each experience of reading is somehow present when I read. Whether for the first or umpteenth time, reading a book is always a new experience. It’s like having a tea party; it’s an event which somehow conjures up all the other events like it, even if they cannot be recalled in distinct, vivid detail.

The day following my tea party, I balanced on a kitchen chair to place the tea cups back on their shelves, returning them, changed, from what they had been before, with new memories, new associations attached to them.

And I thought of my books, on different shelves in another room, taken out and put back again, changed because I was changed for having read them. Not every book I’ve ever read is on my own shelf, but they still stand as physical reminders of the experience of reading, just as my tea cups are not every single tea party I’ve ever had.

When I see the tea cups when in the kitchen, and the books on my shelves as I write, I’m reminded of a thousand tea parties, a thousand events of reading. They’ve become a collective unconscious in my own mind.


Question: What do you think of when you see the physical books on your shelves?