Tea Bags from Shaw’s

The habit started in Maine, the tea drinking, I mean. Massachusetts, where I live mostly, is more of a coffee kind of place – busy lives, kids, jobs. But on a wintry Saturday afternoon in Owls Head, when I’m alone in the house and writing, or supposed to be writing, the act of sitting with a cup of tea in the rocking chair next to the wood stove is a cultural imperative. The Dutch have a word for it, gezellig, which describes a complex state of warmth and intimacy and friendliness and belonging that has no English equivalent.

I worked for a British company for many years and that should have done the trick with the tea (or maybe that’s exactly why it didn’t do the trick – it was not a pleasant company). During that time I drank tea occasionally: the obligatory “cuppa” during afternoon breaks in Oxford; while playing Scrabble with my mother; infrequently in Maine. Now that I’m working for a Dutch company and life is more leisurely and predictable, tea has equaled coffee in quantity, and will quite surpass it once I retire. Not in quality, however: I drink Starbuck’s from the bean, Shaw’s brand from the bag. Clearly, tea is a state of mind.

It reminds me strongly of my grandmother, for example. The tea bag was made for frugal people like her (for loose leaves must be difficult to re-use). Wikipedia claims that the tea bag was invented around the turn of the 20th century, the same time that Effie arrived from the Netherlands; a New York merchant named Thomas Sullivan inadvertently commercialized it when his customers realized they could easily brew a pot or a cup by pouring hot water over the little muslin bags he used for tea samples. Thomas Lipton then came over from London a few years later and gave the tea bag the full American marketing Monty. This all seems to fit: Britain and Holland; ambition; efficient thriftiness.

I think about my Grandma as I contemplate retiring (she never really retired). Famously, she saved her tea bags from day to day. I teased her about it, of course, being from a joshing kind of family on both sides, hers and my father’s, but it was circumspect and never went so far as to count the times of their re-use. She kept them in a little yellow covered cup next to the stove, and she must have had a rotating disposal system because there were never more than two or three bags in it at a time. In the afternoons, if I didn’t have a late class or wasn’t due for a shift at the hospital, she’d make me a cup, always a fresh bag for me, or a pot for the both of us. I don’t remember if she saved those bags or not (she must have); worse, I don’t remember our conversations.

Effie was, I guess, about 70 years old in 1969. I was 19, with a certain self-centeredness that went with the times, and knew little about hers, except that she crossed the Atlantic at a very young age, without her parents, who had died. She didn’t dwell in the past, at all. It was much later when I heard the stories from my mother of Minnesota farm life during the Great Depression, and the death of the grandfather I never met, and Effie’s move to Grand Rapids, Michigan with the money from the farm sale and all her children with her except Neal who had escaped to the University of Chicago. Effie kept body and soul together during the war and afterwards by buying a large old house and boarding students from Calvin College in the several bedrooms upstairs. By the time I became one of those boarders, the upstairs rooms had been turned into a separate apartment, so I slept in a tiny room off the kitchen for the first half of my sophomore year, and then, when my bachelor uncle Henry at last succumbed to his devils and was remanded to the straitjackets of Pine Rest Christian Home, in his larger room at the front of the house. I was not overly embarrassed by living with my Grandma in the year of the Chicago 7. Reason and parsimony swayed me even then: I had disliked freshman dorm life at Calvin College; sophomores could live off campus with a family member; 1056 Bates Street was near my job at the hospital; the money I paid Grandma was considerably less than the cost of room and board in Vanderwerp Hall. Besides, she allowed me considerable freedom with late nights and odd hours, so much more than parents, in loco or otherwise, would ever have done. That’s why I didn’t dare to tease her too much about the tea bags. I didn’t want to see what she must have been underneath, a hard woman, tight with money, morally demanding, a devil to those of her children who would not believe in God. I just wanted her to be my Grandma. And she was. Fortunately for me, her loving and generous spirit skipped a generation and any discussions we had about politics or religion must have been gentle. The trials that were her lot in America made her strict with her children, not me.

I saw the steel at the very end. It seems that she suffered silently with stomach cancer long before she told anyone. I came back to Grand Rapids for a few days before going off to Peace Corps; she had refused hospital care, and lay shrunken and rigid in her bedroom off the dining room when I visited. I don’t think she even recognized me. She was too busy preparing to meet her Maker.

I received the news two weeks later in Cheong-ju, South Korea. My mother wrote in one of those blue, fold-over aerograms of the 70s that Grandma had died three days after I left the country.

I knew I would never see her again when I left her bedroom in 1975, and I was guilty for a while and saved the aerogram until its flimsy paper fell apart. But she would have wanted me to go, to start my own trials, to grow up. I wonder now what she would think about the person I became. She probably wouldn’t tell me in any case, but I hope she would at least nod silently when I microwave my cup of tea rather than light a slow and costly burner to heat a full and wasteful kettle.