The Tea Cup Collection

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
“Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Today, I unwrapped ten cups of my mother’s tea cup collection. The cups had been tucked away in wadded newspaper and in a cardboard box in our attic for nine years. In total there are eighteen vintage cups with saucers. Of these, eight favorites reside in my dining room corner cabinet. The remaining ten will soon be with my daughters.

In comparison to my husband who has collections of quarters, stamps, antique tools, and wooden toys, I am not a collector. I am a closet stuffer, an under-the-bed hider, and a procrastinator. I overbook everyday of my life. My home looks neat, but look out when you open a closet door. A gorilla might come bursting out just because I had planned to deal with it later.

Understand me here. I would have never, on my own volition, collected tea cups — except for my mother and Mother’s Day gifts.

Just before each Mother’s Day, our father would take my brothers and me to a local department store where we would purchase a gift.  Our mother had started collecting bone china and porcelain tea cups in the 1940’s, so Dad’s shopping excursion was easy as long as we cooperated with his enthusiasm for Mom’s collection.

Memory, or the lack thereof, requires a little imaginative arithmetic. We have eighteen cups. My parents had three children. Our mother died in 1954 when I was 12, when one brother was sixteen and the other brother was eleven. It’s possible that for six years we each selected a cup for her on Mother’s Day; however, my older brother remembers our buying her the tea cups together one at a time.

I recall standing on tiptoe to see over a glass case while a sales lady lifted cups down for us to view. Dad managed to create for us an air of magical anticipation and awe. We were to look only with our eyes.

My brothers and I could be rambunctious. One of our favorite activities was to careen in wagons down our steep driveway into the garage and fly through the basement until we coasted out an exit door into an adjoining alley. We climbed trees, rode bikes, played football in the street, and built forts. Bath time was a major scrubbing event.

But the tea cups — these were for our gentle mother, who loved flowers, music, and art; for our mother whose eyes would flood when we disappointed her, whose devotion in the kitchen and the laundry had not escaped our attention. Our mother, who salved our oozing poison ivy eruptions, who taught us not to put our elbows on the table but allowed us to read surreptitiously at the table, who protected us from our father’s unpredictable temper, and who advocated for us at school. Our mother, whose day rose and fell for us. Our quiet mother, who would rest from her chores by sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and looking out through a bougainvillea draped window.

And so, out of respect for and with recognition of her motherly ways, for a short spell we behaved. We chose a favorite pattern, had the tea cup and saucer wrapped, and carefully carried our gift home to her.

I unwrapped more than tea cups today. Had our mother imagined she might visit the scene in the Royal Albert pattern “Silver Birch”? Had she wished to serve a friend tea from her Gladstone china cup with its laurel blossom motif? Did she hope to have a tea party when life quieted?

In our innocence, we children could never have foreseen the endowment embedded in our gifts. To a seven-year-old, childhood is forever and adulthood is something that happens to grown ups. How could I perceive the faraway day when I would write my daughters about the tea cup collection and say, “Please make a space for them in your life, on a shelf somewhere…out of love for me and respect for the grandmother who would have doted on you had she lived.”

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