My Irish Inheritance

At six, my daughter is all wide blue eyes when the owner of the tea house hands her a delicate china cup of steaming amber liquid.

“Wait,” she tells my girl. “Breathe it in. You see, every cup has only one first sip.”

At that moment, the presence of my long-passed grandmother Rheta Belle, for whom my daughter is named, is palpable, the veil between us so thin I think it might evaporate like the steam from the surface of the cup. She shared her love of tea with me, and I in turn with my daughter, who is so like her.

Tea had a prized place in Rheta’s family story, as her fondness for it came from her beloved Irish mother. She told about the two of them having decided one year to give up tea for Lent. They went piously to bed on Ash Wednesday without their usual evening cup. Minutes later came her mother’s gentle tap on her bedroom door, and they were soon back in the kitchen with the kettle on.

It was tea that helped bring my grandfather Ron to her attention. A war widow living at home with her parents, she first knew him as the nice young man who worked at the grocery. In the era of wartime rations, Ron always seemed to have a box of her mother’s favorite tea set aside.

Rheta taught me to prefer tea from a porcelain cup. And she’s right, the flavor is best that way, but delicate teacups don’t stand up to my practical use, so these days I drink my tea from thick bone china mugs or insulated glass. She drank Lipton’s, in a variety of flavors, for which she can be forgiven because a) it was an economical household and b) they were also British. I often wish I could share with her some of the more magical blends I’ve enjoyed in recent years. I think she would be amazed by frothy, jade-colored Japanese matcha.

But the lessons I hope I’ve passed on matter more than the flavor: the rituals of comfort and self care; the knowledge that one small thing can make the big things better; being fully present for the span of a breath or a pour. And also, that Jesus definitely does not want you to give up tea.

Each cup has only one first sip. Enjoy every one.

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