Catherine Young

February 15, 2017

A Cup of Tea

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Catherine Young Essays

Photo credit: Celeste Thahammer

I take the thick-walled porcelain cup into my hands. Words from my childhood spin inside it—Grandma’s words:

“But for the blink of an eye, you wouldn’t be here.”

The tea cup is a scrying bowl. When I peer in, memory takes me through a veil of sulfurous smoke to Pennsylvania’s anthracite country in the 1960s—a place of uncertain ground, collapsing and emptied of coal. Fires burning beneath streets; flames flickering on mountains of coal waste; sad and sick people sitting helpless in each grimy house; Grandma in her house, waiting for my visit.

A train rims the mountainside as I make my way through the cindered alley in our hollow. Above the soot-covered houses, coal cars rattle and screech. White letters on black cars pass, Erie, Erie, Lackawanna . . . All day, the trains take our coal away and come back for more.

I pass through a blackberry patch, walk along the creek and willows, and shuffle through the grasses to an empty lot. There I climb the field of rocks that jut out from the grasses like steps and pass the blooming wild apple trees to the last alley behind Grandma’s garage.

I push the unpainted gate open and step down into her yard. The arbor frame, which held the grapevine is falling down, and the coop and the dovecote are simply piles of wood. Old wooden barrels rot in the yard among the wild and untrimmed bushes and fruit trees. Over and over Dad told me about how it used to be.

“During the Great Depression, we had grapes and apples, a garden, and chickens, and even pigeons.”


“Budacoo, budacoo,” Dad cooed deep in his throat, guttural like rolling the German r’s. “That’s the female call. Budacoo, budacoo-wonk-wonk. That’s the male. You try it.”

Grandma always tells me, “He felt so bad about killing those birds. He always had a soft heart.”

Grandma’s yard is a terrible mess, and so sad looking, but today in spring, the yard has flowers everywhere: mock orange, lilac, apple, and the bright red of quince along the fence. The gray, worn wood of the garage is hidden. Now everything seems happy.

Grandma’s house, like nearly everyone’s, has peeling paint from the coal smoke. Her back porch stands much higher than I do, and it has nothing but skeleton railings on it—nothing to keep us from slipping off. It stands above ground because our rocky hillside does not let us sink our basements in—sometimes the coal mines under us collapse and do that for us. At least in our hollow, there are no mine fires below us as there are in Minooka, but we breathe the smoke from their neighborhood anyway. At the back door, I freeze. I don’t want to turn around in case I might be sucked backward off the edge.

Through the black mesh of the screen door, I can see the big electric stove. It’s late morning, and Grandma hasn’t had breakfast yet.

“Grandma!” I shout as I bang on the rough wooden frame of the door. I go into the kitchen and sit down at the table.

Grandma’s kitchen smells like old meals: cabbage, tomato, and vinegar; sharp with sulfur and dusted with coal. Underneath all that, cloves and lilac perfume the house.

Behind me, the refrigerator hums a cheerful perfect fifth. I know if I open the refrigerator door I’ll find only a very few things inside: a bottle of milk, a pound of lard, a carton of eggs. Sometimes there are a few strips of bacon on a silver tray beneath the freezer compartment. Early in the month, when the welfare check comes in there may be a few pork chops in the freezer. Grandma cooks more then and when we pick up the commodity cans in the relief line.

On the other side of the kitchen, in the corner, are two small cupboards. There is not much in them: a box of tea bags, a box of saleratus, a jar of honey. Sometimes it seems that Grandma is like Old Mother Hubbard. Poor Grandma. That’s what we say. But we aren’t much better off. At least Mama can still cook and dust our house and walk for groceries. Grandma can’t walk to get groceries. The men we still have take turns shoveling coal into her furnace to keep her warm.

I lay my cheek down on the cool enamel surface of the table and peer into the length of Grandma’s small house. It’s so different from my Italian grandma’s house—the house of my mama’s mama, who is my Little Grandma because she is so small. In her house, the wainscoting is kept varnished and the walls painted. The doors all have pretty glass handles. Each dresser has a fresh clean doily. Both the upstairs and downstairs in Little Grandma’s duplex are filled with family who help her, and the neat lawn and gardens make her house seem like a mansion.

Here at Grandma’s house in my own neighborhood, her yard is filled with rusting things from the past forty years. All the wallpaper is peeling and stained with coal. There aren’t any glass door handles because there aren’t any doors—just curtains hanging in the arched doorways between rooms.

I watch Grandma as she makes her way to the kitchen, leaning on furniture as she comes. She wears her flowered housecoat with big buttons down the front, safety pins dangling from the placket edge so she won’t lose them. Her stockings are turned down below her swollen ankles. She smiles to find me resting my head on the table. Grandma leans over and, putting her arms around me, squeezes me in her hug with a sweet grunt.

“Would you like some tea, Honey?”

I nod.

Mama lets me have tea sometimes when we go downtown. One time after shopping in the bargain basement, Mama and I went to the mezzanine restaurant in the big department store. We couldn’t afford to buy any food there, but Mama and I each had a cup of tea, just so we could sit at the pretty tables and look down through the windows at the shoppers.

“How is your mama today?”

“Okay, I guess. She told me to tell you that she’ll come over later.”

Grandma depends on my mama, her daughter-in-law, to help her clean her raggedy house, and she counts on me to walk to the corner store to get the supplies she needs. Like teabags.

Grandma sets her cup and saucer down on the table end nearest the stove and places my favorite cup beside hers. It’s a thick porcelain cup like the ones at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—a perfect white bowl of a cup with a perfectly round porcelain finger ring. Mama says it’s like railroadware. “Heavy, like the kind used on trains. They don’t tip over so easy.” Mama got to ride trains, when she was a girl, when the railroad that Grandpa worked for in the shops fixing locomotives gave Grandpa’s family free rides. I wish I could have gone on a passenger train, but there aren’t any running anymore.

The cup is edged in rose red. The heavy saucer beneath it is edged in green. None of Grandma’s cups or plates match. None of the furniture in her house matches, either. Most of it has arrived on the Goodwill truck. The only things that match are her knick-knacks on a wooden shelf: pairs of saltshakers shaped like pineapples, penguins, a Dutch boy, and girl.

Sometimes I wish Grandma were part of a pair—that I had a Grandpa, too. When I asked Dad, he told me his dad died during the 1940s. Dad was sad about it, because he came back from war to say goodbye, but he didn’t make it. I knew my Italian grandpa, the one who had no legs because he got poisoned working on locomotives, but he died last year. Mama says we’re just a valley of widows, but I tell her we still have kids, too.

A few things in Grandma’s house are her very own—pretty things—a few pieces of silverware, some really nice dessert dishes, and an oval frame holding an old photograph of her parents dressed in beautiful old-fashioned clothing. Her mama wears the kind of dress women wore in the 1800s—the kind with puffy sleeves and a long full skirt. The faces from that photograph are in each piece of jewelry Grandma’s family gave to her: her locket, choker, and a few hat pins. The people in the photo seem so fancy, and look at us in a happy way. Neither Grandma, nor my parents, nor I have ever had such a fancy photo taken of us. Sometimes I stare at the photo, wishing I could see those people in color, for real.

I used to like sitting in the rocker by the radiator at Grandma’s house when I listened to Dad or my uncles. With just Grandma and me, I like sitting here at the kitchen table, facing the stove, watching Grandma’s broad back as she cooks, as she moves, so slowly.

Grandma sets aside the hardboiled egg pan from the burner and puts on another small one to heat water. The smells of old meals rise strong whenever an electric coil is heated, and then there’s a strange, sweetish smell of lye.

“You know, I’ll give you some cameo tea,” Grandma tells me.

“Cameo tea?”

“Girls like you can’t drink regular tea. It’s too strong. This’ll be mostly milk with a little flavoring of tea.”

Grandma brings the small water pan to the table, filling her cup. She reaches across the table and fills my cup only halfway.

“Watch out,” she says gently, “this is very hot.”

From a jar high on the corner cupboard, she takes a tea bag with a rose on the paper label. After dipping the bag in her cup, she dips it in mine. Then she pours milk into my cup to fill it and stirs in some sugar.

I remember, one time, when Grandma used the cup to serve my mama tea, the teabag broke in Mama’s cup, and Grandma said, “We can read our fortunes!” Grandma had a crumbling booklet from the 1920s that told what kind of fortune you would have by the shape the tea made in the bottom of the cup. The booklet also told what dreams meant. Grandma sent me to get it from her bedroom. Mama sat quietly at the table and smiled to herself. She didn’t believe in any of that stuff.

After swirling leaves in the thick porcelain cup, Grandma waited for them to settle, and we peered inside. “It’s a bird,” she called out. “Noo, it’s a teapot. Maybe we’re supposed to have more tea.”

When we looked up “bird,” it said something about travel. “Teapot,” said something about having guests.

Mama looked up like she was trying to decide about it. “I like the bird one,” she said. It made her smile, and then she drank her tea.

For each of us, Grandma prepares a small plate with a hardboiled egg. Knowing that I don’t like the rough sandpapery feel of eggshells, she peels mine, too. The egg looks small in her big hands, and her fingers move stiffly. It’s hard for her to do this, but she does it for me anyway.

Grandma lifts her cup. “Now you can sip your tea like this . . . hold your pinky up,” she demonstrates. “Just like the blue bloods.” She smiles and sips. I do the same. It’s so grown up.

Grandma, what are ‘blue bloods’?”

Grandma gets a wistful look on her face. She smiles. “They’re the rich people, Honey.” She pauses. “Not like us. But we can pretend, anyway.” She sips her tea and holds out her little finger. I look her in the eyes and do the same. Her blue eyes are lighter than my dads were. I try to remember his eyes.

Dad didn’t last long after the heart attack and asthma attacks that happened while he was on duty at the fire station. At the hospital, I remember seeing him stretched out on a bed inside a cloth tent. “So he can breathe,” they told me as they held my hand.

And then there was the day at home, the last day when his eyes rolled back. The ambulance men, the ones who worked with him at the fire station, carried his heavy body out of our house. The next time I saw Dad, his lips were blue as he lay in the coffin, but I couldn’t see his blue eyes anymore. Grandma came up to the coffin and started wailing, “My boys, oh my boys . . .” She cried so hard and loud, Mama took me out of the funeral home. That was the last I saw of Dad.

“Grandma, were your dad’s eyes blue?”

She nods and looks down, thinking.

“Tell me, again, Grandma, about your dad’s mom in Germany, the one who died . . .”

“But for the blink of an eyelid, you wouldn’t be here. Or me.”

I hold my breath. Now she’ll say it . . .

Grandma sips her milky tea. “My grandma in Germany died. My father’s mother was being laid in the grave. My grandfather and the children were there. He was taking it hard because he really loved her. But before they closed the coffin, her husband wanted one last look at her. He leaned over to kiss her . . . and he saw her eyelids move.”

“He saw her eyelids move?”

“He saw her eyelids move. They fluttered, like this,” Grandma closes her eyes and blinks them. “She wasn’t dead. The doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat or breath. But she wasn’t dead. There they were, at the funeral and grave and all . . .”

“And she wasn’t really dead!” I finish for Grandma.

“No, she wasn’t. She was almost buried alive. And . . .” Grandma pauses for both of us to consider “. . . my father was born after that.”

Grandma sips her tea. Then she lifts her face but does not see me. Her pale blue eyes look beyond the chrome-edged table, beyond the thin and skewed walls of the house, into some other field of time.

In this field of time far from the mountains and coal, the thick-walled porcelain cup is cool in my hands. Grandma’s words spin around in it and settle. I wonder how fortunes let the cup, the girl I was—any of us—survive.

I place a pinch of loose leaf tea into the cup and pour in boiling water. The tea rises like a flock of birds, then sinks. I lift the cup in both my hands and swirl it. Before the first sip, I am warmed through.

Tea cup photo credit: Celeste Thahammer

Catherine Young is fascinated by perception of landscape and how it shapes our movements in the world. After having worked as a national park ranger, teacher, farmer, and mother, she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essays, poetry, and children’s fiction have been published in Imagination & Place: Cartography, Hippocampus, About Place, Wisconsin Review, and Cricket, among others. Catherine is currently seeking a publisher for her landscape memoir of coal country.


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