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Red Rose Tea with Grampy

January 4, 2014

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough
or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis


The highs today have only reached, if we round up, about ten degrees Fahrenheit. It somehow feels better knowing that we were in the double digits today, at least for a few minutes. I was out this morning long enough only to collect the papers off the front steps. That was more than enough time outside. What’s worse, though, is that we are expecting it to get far worse over the next number of days. Today may in fact feel thirty to fifty degrees warmer than what they are predicting with the wind chills on Monday. Schools are already cancelled in advance of the arctic blast. I may never get the opportunity to be outside and breathe fresh air again. I am grateful though for the projects I have going in the basement right now; plenty to get done in anticipation of warmer days, or the month of March, whichever comes first.

Right about when I was heading off to Middle School, we had a particularly cold Maine winter also. As always, the frigid temperatures gave way to the warming days of spring and things seemed to return to a more comfortable norm. Mom was working at the woolen mill that spring; I was watching too much daytime television. In an attempt to get me a hobby, my Mother packed me off early that summer for a number of days to visit with my Dad’s folks over in Stetson. Dad was one of eight kids and Dad’s youngest sister, Grace, and perhaps his kid brother, Scott, must have still been living at home then, so I was given the fold-out bed in the couch to sleep on during my stay. Aunt Sheila lived not far away and she had just had her first baby that March; despite the feedings, she would spend a day or two with me also.
Grampy Wilson, or Lyfie as everyone called him, had been retired for a few years by this time. He had spent much of his life working the family farm, or tending to the State of Maine’s roads as part of a faithful crew of men who patched holes and other tasks intended to keep us safe. He loved people and enjoyed talking with anyone who would listen. In short, Grampy was an all-around good guy.

Grampy Wilson had a long and documented reputation for a fantastic sense of humor too. One afternoon a hopelessly lost tourist pulled his car over to the side of the road to inquire of Grampy as to some directions to Newport and the highway. At the conclusion of their brief but meaningful conversation, the man asked if Grampy had lived in Maine all his life; Gramp replied dryly, “Not yet.” He wasn’t lying; he wouldn’t pass away until 1993. Born in Mars Hill, Maine (otherwise known as “The County”), Grampy had moved to his Stetson home in 1954. Before leaving the potato fields of the north, Grampy was a 1937 graduate of the Zion Bible Institute in Rhode Island. He seems to have been absent the day of his class picture, though, but there was a character sketch about him in the small-paperback, in-house yearbook. The sketch read in part: “Lafayette Wilson: Every circus has its clown, but not every class has a comedian. Here is one, in every sense that the title conveys. At the beginning of the term who could look at Laffy and not be wreathed in smiles? And who could create a greater stir by their wit and humor?” Lyfie was, as the sketch continued, a “most zealous altar worker”, and was “always so earnest for God and ready to pray at all times”. His love of God was steadfast; I admired him for the dedication.

Grampy was a devoted fan of Red Rose tea as well. A simple orange pekoe tea blend in little sachets, Red Rose was nothing too extraordinary. It was a good tea for the price, and worthy of a decent man who worked hard all of his life. Grampy drank a cup or two of tea every afternoon I was there. I loved him very much; I insisted on having some with him. A good cup of tea, served in a little porcelain cup and saucer, really warms from the inside on frosty days.
I never did develop a taste, or even a liking, for coffee which has always seemed bitter to me. Gregory keeps hoping against the odds that I will come around and see that his afternoon mug of black tar doesn’t, as it always seems to me, smell burnt. He isn’t having much luck. My parents never drank coffee either. Mom might, with enough sugar added, but not the kind you would write home about—she always had a Taster’s Choice instant coffee on hand for the guest who might request it. Dad, as recently as the other day, told me that when he is invited to share some time at neighbor Ralph’s place, he prefers a mug of hot cocoa to coffee. A good molasses doughnut, and he is all set.

In any case, Grampy had his spot at the head of the family table, right by the window overlooking the driveway. He occupied his chair, sitting in it with an imposing posture. His family was well trained. He could just point at things and the article desired made its way down to his end. Dad tried to get this level of compliance out of us kids when we were small too, but what he didn’t realize was that he had brought a group of wisenheimers in to the world. When we kids needed something at the table, we had to ask politely for it. Mom insisted on it. “Please,” we would ask; “Thank you,” we would respond. Dad seemed to follow a different set of rather unjust rules than the rest of us. One day, I organized a mutiny with the other kids. We agreed before dinner that night that if Dad pointed at things and expected them to be passed to him, that we would sit silently and do nothing. True to form, Dad first pointed to the salt. Nothing happened. Missy budged, but then thought better of it. Todd and I gave her the evil eye. It was a matter of solidarity or nothing. Dad seemingly gave up. He later pointed to the white plastic pepper shaker that Mom had bought at a Tupperware party some years prior, and still nothing moved. “Are you going to pass me the G-D pepper or not?” he shouted at us. “Oh, did you need something?” I replied, grinning. I was lucky not to have the smile wiped off my face since I sat closest to Dad, who was by then beside himself with frustration. Mom, seeing her teachable moment, stepped in to remind him that he could ask for things politely like the kids had to do. He was unamused, but the behavior was corrected. Dad never relied on pointing at things he wanted at the table again. We kids felt quite victorious.

While my Dad too occupied the head of the table, Grampy did so in a way that was quite distinct. Sometimes, Grampy would sit with his chair at an angle to the table, with one foot raised on the rung of his chair. He always appeared to be holding court. He would often lean on one elbow and prop himself up with his other hand firmly planted on the edge of the “board” as he called it. It rather gave him the same kind of stance as a sympathetic judge might have at the bench. Grampy was in charge, at least for a while. Laughter filled the little dining room at tea time in the afternoon. Like Dad, Grampy would practice his own jokes before sharing them with the rest of us assembled. Tea time was a raucous and special time of day. I am glad to have gotten the chance to participate in it.

As a side note, Mom would never have allowed Dad to sit at her table with the same posture as Grampy was allowed. It seemed smug to her, and off putting. Once, we had dinner with a pair of Dad’s brothers, who both behaved as Grampy did. They held their forks like shovels, Mom pointed out. Mom was quite pleased with the result of that mutinous meal we shared all those years ago. Her husband, she liked to remind us, had manners that she perceived the other men in his family as having lacked.

When I returned home from Gramp’s place, later that summer week, I set myself to counting the little green stamps that my Mother had collected as a part of her weekly shopping in the Corinth village. I carefully glued the little stickers in to the booklets until I had enough to buy a “poly hot pot”. I had read the catalog. I had my eye on an electric tea pot which I could use in my room in the new house. I didn’t want anything too fancy, just attractive and functional. It just had to boil water safely. (The 1970s were known for the greens and oranges in decorating, as well as a stylized floral pattern. We even had green and orange flower-shaped refrigerator magnets. The poly hot pot which I purchased at the Green Stamps store in Bangor was a much softer color—beige, and has on the side three of those stylized flowers painted in shades of brown.) With some money that I had saved, I bought my first mug (and still my favorite) to go with the hot pot. I have it here in my office–an eight ounce porcelain mug with a brown base and adorned with a row of painted striped birds. It is an elegant mug in its simplicity of design.
Mom thought me a curious kid, but she always supported me. The day I picked out my hot pot, and my mug, she allowed that I could buy a box of Red Rose tea too. Up in my room, behind my bed where there was an electrical outlet, I sipped tea that I had steeped with water boiled in my Green stamps’ pot. I sat on the floor, alone, grasping my little bird mug in my hands. My Red Rose was just as tasty as the tea I had shared at Grampy’s place. I sat and reminisced.

As time went on, Mom helped me to get a tin canister in which to store my tea. We had saved the UPC codes off the tubes of Quaker Oatmeal and bought a tin with the Quaker Oats man (and a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies) painted in bright red and blue on it. She filled it with little packets of Bigelow tea. My favorite of all the flavors that came in that initial variety pack was “Lemon Lift”. It was a nice pekoe tea, with a hint of lemon. I always have some on hand, despite my affinity today for the loose leaf teas we now buy.

Those Middle School years were particularly difficult for me. Prior to getting to the sixth grade, our activities with the other kids at school were rather limited. That also meant that we weren’t all focused on being “cool” and keeping up some appearance of independence, even if we didn’t really have any in the literal sense. I was picked on relentlessly and wished quite sincerely that things would change; if they wouldn’t change, I wanted to make things happen on my own. On television, reruns of Bewitched with Elizabeth Montgomery and I Dream of Jeannie with Barbara Eden came on at the four o’clock hour, hosted by local star, Eddie Driscol. I never missed an episode. In 1984, we were building our house and Mom and Dad let us have quite a lot of control over what we wanted our rooms to be like. I secretly harbored the desire to have a wall with a moving panel, and a small room or nook hidden behind it so that I would have a place to which I could escape. Dad let me know that that simply wasn’t going to happen. I also wanted a small kitchenette in there, but I was informed that the plumbing for that sort of project would be stopping on the first floor rather than the second. I also practiced earnestly twitching my nose (which I couldn’t do) so decided that wiggling my ears (which Mom and I both could, but the other kids couldn’t) would have to do. I also tried focusing my energy in to a good blink just in case the odd spell I would cast didn’t work out. Grampy Wilson, for his part, encouraged me to put my faith in God. He assured me that God had everything under control and that I would never be given more to handle than I could manage if I just put my faith in Him. I wasn’t particular. Whichever method worked the best and first was good enough for me.

Through all of that, though, I did drink many a solitary cup of tea in my room. I used that time alone to meditate on my problems, find solutions that were a bit more practical and consider ways to implement them. I would read back there behind the bed, in the alcove created by the dormer in the roof, and drink my tea. While I didn’t have a moveable wall, I did have a space to call my own and to which I could escape o afterall. If only, though, I could have achieved the level of power that Samantha and Jeannie enjoyed, I could have made all the other mean kids disappear. That would have been bliss.
My little poly hot pot, bird mug, and Quaker Oats tin joined me at college. My best friend Dan and I enjoyed many an afternoon of conversation and laughter over mugs of tea. If I ran out, we’d bring bags of tea back from the dining hall. Middlebury also served Bigelow teas, it turned out. Since then, of course, I have lived in places with proper kitchens and stoves and haven’t needed my electric tea pot. It mostly sits and collects dust in my office now.

The poly hot pot, and little bird mug, remind me though that with faith, there really isn’t anything that can’t be overcome. I sometimes pour myself a mug of tea in winter and just sit, and think. I sip my tea and reflect on the past as well as the future now. I am not focused any longer on making the hurt stop, as I was in 1984 when I shared my first cup and saucer full of Red Rose tea with Grampy Wilson.

It is cold outside, but deep in my heart, I feel the warmth of those first cups of tea that Grampy and I shared. Grampy would have been 98 this year, had he survived; his widdow, my Grammie Avis, is 95 years old. (My Aunt Sheila wrote to tell me after Christmas that she and her family had begun their holiday at the nursing home with Grammie, who was up finishing her breakfast and very alert! The only way she could have been better was if she had a donut, Grammie had told them. I am glad to report that they were able to make that happen for her.)

I think tonight I will enjoy my tea in a cup and saucer, for a change. I’ll be thinking of Grampy as I refill the cup and sip.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Olinick, Judy permalink
    January 4, 2014 4:01 am

    Thank you James! This is really lovely. It gives the most wonderful picture of your family and your life in Maine. It’s really a privilege to share it. I loved drinking tea with my grandfather too. He drank it Russian style, from a glass, sometimes with jam in it and sometimes with a lump of sugar in his teeth. (That seems like a terrible idea now, but it didn’t seem to do him much harm.) We still have his old kitchen table.
    We collected S&H green stamps too. Mike’s mother was a great collector. She got red twin bed “summer blankets” that we used on the kids’ beds until they fell apart. And our big green stamp purchase was a 30-cup coffee maker which we still have. They use it in the math department every year at commencement when they have breakfast for the seniors and their parents. Recently the Japanese department used it to heat water for tea at a sushi party.
    I think I know the hot pot too.
    Nowadays you don’t have to lick the stamps or use a sponge on them. We just collected 80 self-stick Rachael Ray stamps at Shaw’s and got four bright new dinner plates—two red and two green.

    Happy New Year! I hope you had a lovely Christmas and that all is going well for you and Gregory.

    Keep warm

  2. starwalkr permalink
    January 4, 2014 12:40 pm

    Delightful walk down memory lane. You brought your grandfather, as well as other members of your family, alive to someone who never met them!

    One thought, on the coffee thing… you might try taking a mild roast coffee (some of the dark roasts DO taste burnt, regardless of how they are made) and try “brewing” in cold, as one might a batch of sun tea. I put a cup of loose grounds into a fat round glass jar… probably less than a half gallon but definitely more than a quart… of tap water. Just let it sit on the counter for at least 24 hours, more is ok, then strain it through a paper coffee filter and cut 50/50 with boiling water. I store the strained brew in the fridge and just fill my morning cup with the mix and “nuke” it. I started this as it supposedly makes the brew less acid and easier on the stomach, but I have noticed that regardless of the roast, the resultant product is much more mellow than even the lightest roast made by a conventional hot brew.

    I doubt if it will ever replace your cuppa tea, with all the wonderful threads there that tie it to kith and kin, but it might allow you to share an occasional special moment with your guy.

  3. Randi permalink
    January 4, 2014 4:21 pm

    James, the Red Rose in your title caught my eye. Honestly I don’t always read every blog I see but I do have fond memories of the Red Rose Tea and donuts at Grammy and Grampy Wilson’s. Grammy would keep the little figurines that came from the tea box and pile them in tea cups in the china closet. Every visit she would let me pick one out to take home, on special occasions she sometimes would let me take two along with a little sneak to her room where she would pull out a wod of cash from her top dresser drawer and sneakily hand me some money. When Grammy moved into the nursing home and the house was cleaned out I was given the last of the collected red rose figurines.
    On another note I’m pretty sure the end of the table where Grampy sat leans down a little, now I understand why. Thanks for the detailed memories, as you being older than me and Grampy dying when I was a 12(?) I only ever remember him sitting at the end of the table yelling to Gram saying “Avis where is my dinner?”

  4. Sheila permalink
    January 5, 2014 8:57 pm

    What a wonderful memory to share at such a time of year where the Red Rose will warm your heart along with fond memories.

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