One of my childhood hobbies was finding and saving pictures of ornate, heavy silver tea services like this one. I'd never actually seen one up close, but the ones described in stories about England dazzled me. My mom encouraged this, as it was less destructive than other hobbies of mine, like digging deep ditches in the backyard in hopes of striking oil or a vein of gold.
To the kid me, that silver tea service equaled the proverbial spoon. I knew I'd never have one; you had to be born to things like that, but I dreamed. In my fantasies, that tea service commanded almost mystical admiration and respect. You might live in a single-wide with a rusted-out Impala up on cinderblocks in the weed patch of your front yard, but if you used a silver pot to pour your Lipton, you still had Some Class.
My mother, knowing my secret daydreams, stunned me years later when she gave me a silver tea service as a wedding gift. I almost fainted when I opened the box. That first year, I used my silver tea service with the aplomb of a New Wife With Some Class. I invited my girlfriends over for an English high tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and crumpets and real butter and cream. I poured for everyone, just like the wonderful English ladies in the books I'd read.
The girlfriends were a little mystified by the cucumber sandwiches ("You put butter on them?") and one compared crumpets to naked Egg McMuffins, but they seemed suitably impressed. They came for another tea or two, but then they made excuses not to. Tea was okay, but it was more their speed to go shoot pool and drink beer down at the local watering hole, and why didn't I come with them?
I resisted the dubious charms of the tavern and the cue, because I had Some Class. I started going to tea shops and tea rooms to ooooh over the expensive stuff, sit by myself and watch the lovely ladies of the silver tea service. I felt in awe of those finely dressed, elegant, obviously wealthy women, who demonstrated their exquisite manners, and engaged in small talk. Often they wore gloves -- real, white ones with pearl buttons at the wrist -- like little girls do at Easter for church. They never appeared agitated or angry or even mildly steamed. Their small gestures seemed as smooth and slow as if they were underwater.
I was never invited to join any of their teas (a few called me over now and then, thinking I was the waitress) but oh, how I wished I could. To be a part of those refined circles instead of eavesdropping on them. To have a reason to produce languid gestures and serene smiles. To know what they knew: the confidence only wealth, acceptance and respect bestows. So maybe eight-ball was a lot more fun; I told myself that was single-wide mentality. I could learn plenty from those tea room ladies. They had So Much Class, and it was all so pretty.
At home, I had to hand wash my silver service, naturally, and polish it weekly to prevent tarnish from marring it. Some Class required a lot of upkeep. Every person who came into my home had to be artfully guided by the hutch to see it. I never bragged, because the very presence of the silver service whispered for me: Hey, Baby, She's Got It.
The second year some odd little dark spots appeared on the bottom of my silver tea pot, spots that no amount of attention and care could remove. In fact, polishing made them bigger. Concerned, I mentioned this to the British lady who owned the most expensive tea room in town.
"If it's American made," she told me, "the silver plating is probably worn thin." She recommended a product that restored the look of silver to tarnished, cheap sets like mine.
I went home feeling a bit tarnished myself. Thin. Cheap. The look of silver. Silly that I hadn't ever realized my set wasn't the real deal, but I knew nothing about silver. That my mother couldn't have afforded to buy anything but silver plate had never registered.
Not Classy. Single-wide pitiful, really. And not my silver-plated service, either -- me. I'd assumed I had what I would likely never possess. I'd tried to go where I would never fit in. I'd been a tea room groupie, longing for acceptance and respect from women who mistook me for the help. I knew nothing about tea except what I'd read in books, and I'd probably gotten half of that wrong, too.
A very unpleasant lesson, served up on a silver-plated platter.
I might have saved up for a solid silver service (back then it would have only taken me seven or eight years) but the glitz was gone. After that I still used the service, but not to impress my friends. I used it for every day, ordinary teas. I stopped hanging out to silently gawk at the lovely ladies of the tea rooms. When I had tea, it was only for me, to be enjoyed while I read a good book, or listened to some music, or watched the rain fall.
The little teas I made for myself remained a habit. Over time I became more daring and, like an armchair voyager to unknown countries, I started trying out new teas. I sampled imported tea from England, and China, and India. I found real Irish black tea has ten times the wallop of Starbuck's coffee. I discovered delicate white teas, exotic flavored teas, and a few unhappy revelations, such as the Earl Grey tea so favored by Her Majesty tasted as if I were drinking perfume.
Despite my care (and I never stopped caring for it, even after the glitz had nearly worn away) the silver set slowly corroded over the years. Finally a weld broke on the teapot and it began to leak. I donated the usable pieces to a thrift shop and let my crafty neighbor turn the leaky pot into a "shabby chic" planter. I went out and bought a replacement service; an inexpensive but attractive set in stoneware to match my every day dishes. Dishwasher safe, durable, and not so much as a fleck of glitz. It kept my tea hot and looked nice on the table, which was all that mattered.
The girlfriends who dropped by my house weren't especially dazzled by my humble stoneware, but it didn't scare them off to the pool-hall, either. They giggled over my tales of Around the World in 80 Teas, and tested baking experiments, like my versions of Dundee cake, and tart cherry-vanilla scones, and Brazo de Gitano. We swapped stories and recipes and laughed a lot.
Tea is a daily part of my life now. This morning I drank my breakfast brew from a big mug with a Charles Wysocki cats-and-books design. Tonight I'm brewing a pot of green tea to drink from tiny cups like these before we go to bed. Both the mug and the tea cups are precious to me, not for their monetary value, but because they were gifts from friends.
As for the glitz, well, I no longer covet things that require endless polishing, or the wearing of white gloves, or the cutting off of crusts. Like so many things in my life, it's what I love that's important, not how impressive it looks, and the people who share it with me, not the ones who never will.