I’m sure they were as nervous as I was, meeting this stranger from the antipodes, but once they’d welcomed me into the parlour and said, “I’ll put the kettle on and make us a cup of tea”, I breathed a sigh of relief.
It was an icebreaker, that cup of tea.
An everyday commonality that bridged the strangeness of sitting opposite someone I knew all about, but had never met.
I visited six homes in the ensuing days, in those beautiful lush green valleys in South Wales, but one stands out in my memory, the home of my grandmother’s youngest sister, Florrie. She was in her eighties by then and she greeted me with tears. She’d never imagined she would get to meet me and found the moment overwhelming. I’d heard many stories about her and was often told I was like her, but for me she was the lady who sent a Christmas parcel to me every year all through my childhood.
Without fail it would arrive a week or two before Christmas. Once there was a Welsh doll in traditional dress with a high top black hat and red cloak that seemed so special to a little girl. And always there were chocolate English shillings wrapped in gold paper that sometimes suffered as they navigated the December heat and the Australian postal service. It always came with a card attached, “With much love from Auntie Florrie”.
There’s an indescribably quality about a cup of tea. It has a power to comfort, calm, relax and cheer that makes me think it’s less about the tea and more about the experience. Somehow it provides a safe place to share my heart, to connect me to you, to say, “I care”. It opens the door to listening and being heard. In some strange way it touches us emotionally.
We comfort one another over tea after a funeral, network over tea at conferences and build relationships over tea after church. There’s morning tea, afternoon tea, tea parties and High Tea. It weaves its way seamlessly through our lives and maybe it's become so commonplace that we’ve forgotten its power.
It’s no surprise then that my mother followed her family traditions and whenever folk came for afternoon tea she set a table that would have made her mother proud. She made tea time an elegant and memorable affair.
As she got older and folk didn’t call much, she would ring her next-door neighbour and say, “June, come and have a cup of tea”. June tells me she couldn’t decline my mother’s ‘royal decree’ so the two of them would while away an hour sharing stories over the best china and warm milky tea.
At some stage my mother acquired two small wooden tea trays, painted in a shade of clotted cream, to which she added embroidered linen doilies. These took the place of the more formal table and fitted neatly into someone’s lap, with just enough room for a cup, saucer and plate. Right to the end of her life she was a lady who relished well-served tea.
June was at the nursing home with me the afternoon my mother died. When the end came, the nurse offered to make us a cup of tea. I was too upset to make a decision but June said, “Oh yes, a last cuppa with Edna”. Somehow it seemed right, this parting memory of a lady who had made teatime a living memory for us all.
Its such a small thing, isn’t it, to make someone a cup of tea. But when the cups sit empty, the hearts have been shared, the tears wept, the dreams dreamt or the conflict resolved, maybe this simple offering is the greatest ministry of all, and the memories can last forever.
It reminds me that hospitality doesn't have to be elaborate, expensive or time consuming but can be as simple as inviting someone for a warming cup of tea and giving them the gift of your time and yourself ... and therein lies its power.