Social History of Tea

First Sip

My Absence

You will have noticed that I haven’t written anything on these pages since early June. My Google analytics numbers have plummeted. I apologize to my readers for my absence. I’ve had other concerns.

My bright and lovely Mother, Ruth, passed away in July at the age of 95. I’ve been gathering myself together since then. The passing wasn’t sudden – we had over 18 months to cherish our moments with her – it is however still surreal. As memories have bubbled to the surface I’ve selected one moment to share with you.

Ruth on the River

When Gran Sold the Cow

First, a little background. When my Mother was 10 years old living in Collingwood Ontario, her Mother had a marital crisis of sorts. We were never sure what prompted her dramatic decision but towards the end of the summer of 1927 she sold the cow, packed her belongings and left to “visit friends”. She didn’t return for 4 years, leaving her husband to raise the family. He relied on Ruthie to help raise a 5 year old sister and cheer up her sullen 13 year old brother. The 17 year old eldest sister went to live with close friends. My Grandfather called Mom “Sunshine” because she presented a sunny disposition as a child and throughout her life. Whenever she recalled in conversation, these 4 years, it was never with resentment or a sense that her Mother had stopped loving her. There were letters and gifts to remind them all that they were still in my Grandmother’s heart and mind. She eventually returned at the beginning of the Great Depression.

Aunt Nell

It wasn’t uncommon for families to endure crises in those days but it was usually the father who abandoned the family rather than the Mother. Extended members of a family would swoop in and try to fill the void. Spinster Aunt Nell, age 50, did no swooping but quietly welcomed the children for a month to her lodge on the Nottawasaga River near Collingwood. My Grandfather had arranged that his children could be absent from school for the month of September no doubt to spare them the embarrassment of having to recount “what I did this summer”.

Her lodge “Breezy Brae” was built by my Grandfather. It had a rambling porch with twig/bark furniture. The interior smelled of pine wood and fresh linen. The dining room had 3 or 4 tables for guests. In its heyday Breezy Brae entertained the upper class from Toronto and the US who were looking for rustic charm and the scenic beauty that the area presented at the time. My Mother waited tables and cleaned the chamber pots every summer during her teenage years. She had a very close relationship with her Aunt who taught her to cook and bake and clean house. Ruth learned to entertain, be hospitable, be a hostess – skills that served her well in her adult life.

Ruth with her Aunt Nell c 1935. She loved her summers on the Nottawasaga River
The Nottawasaga River Unspoilt c1935
Breezy Brae Auntie Helen’s sprawling lodge on the Nottawasago River

Tea At Breezy Brae

By the time I was old enough to recall Aunt Nell, she had become Auntie Helen, a tiny hunched-over eccentric but sweet lady who still used an outhouse and lived in her kitchen beside the stove during the cold winters. We spent a few weeks every summer visiting family in Collingwood. The itinerary always included several drives out to Wasaga Beach to visit Auntie Helen. There would usually be biscuits from a tin and milk for me. I would sit on a chair at one of her dining room tables my legs dangling and my chin barely clearing the table top. When I was about 5, Auntie Helen looked at my Mother and said “I think Linda could try some tea, don’t you Ruth?” I watched and waited. I felt neutral about the beverage itself but there was something about the moment and our 3 generations together that made a little girl take notice. Auntie Helen poured some tea into a delicate cup and suggested I taste it on its own. I don’t recall whether it was loose leaf tea but it’s safe to assume given her old ways that it was. I do remember the taste – it was probably a Ceylon tea – it had what I would now describe as a rich rounded taste, a bit strong but not so much that I would make a face. She said I could add milk or sugar if I wanted. I think I added both.

I’m sure I enjoyed cups of tea from time to time again in this same setting, but I have no recollection of them. It is always this first taste that comes to my mind. The smell of musty wood, the darling wrinkled little Aunt and my Mom and a small girl sipping and clinking in perfect soft harmony.