I wasn’t a tea party kind of girl, back before the term was appropriated by right-wing politicos. When we played house as kids in the early 1960s, I portrayed the husband, pecking the wife on the cheek and jetting off to work or adventure as I imagined men did. A beautifully set table with dainty cups and manners to match held little charm for this tomboy.
I suspect my neighbor might not have been a tea party kind of girl either. Did girls stage tea parties where she grew up in Montana? As long as I’ve known her she has been constantly training for some arduous trek on a bike, across mountain passes, in challenging races. One summer her wet suit lay draped across chairs to dry in the front yard following her first triathlon. Her arms are deeply browned and muscled and she has the calves of a marathon runner.
In May, I received a beautifully hand-written invitation to a June afternoon tea in my neighbor’s garden. I knew she was a great cook and a master gardener, so I looked forward to a leisurely afternoon next door following weeks of rebuilding my own garden after early summer hail storms laid it flat. My neighbor and I compared notes daily as we assessed the damage and did what we could to keep ailing plants alive.
As the Sunday afternoon of the tea party approached, I saw her through her dining room window, all day every day, hunched over the table like a monk restoring a medieval manuscript. The garden was healing well. On the east side of her house, a magnificent rhododendron that completely covered the front window erupted in large fuchsia blossoms.
The weekend came and the weather that had been scorching on Thursday turned blustery and chilly. On Saturday, tents arrived next door from a party rental truck.
Finally, the day of the tea arrived. On our morning walk, the dog sniffed around the tents on the neighbor’s lawn. I rushed up to shoo him away before he made his mark and was amazed by what I saw beneath those plain white shelters. Round tables draped with pastel tablecloths and cross-draped in white. Chairs wrapped and tied in gauzy covers. At each table, three exquisite settings of china plates, cups and saucers in a variety of elaborate patterns. In the middle of each table, a bouquet of tea roses and baby’s breath arranged in a china cup.
Overhead, clouds mounted and to the west the sky blackened. Just before teatime, the radio announced a tornado touchdown in the mountains just 30 miles away and severe weather watches for the entire area.
I walked next door and into my neighbor’s house to the tinkling of a harp. In the warmly lit dining room, an ethereal looking woman in a long pink lace dress plucked at her instrument with arching fingers. Beyond her, a table piled high with delicacies fit for a spread in Martha Stewart Living. No, better than that. Fit for a roomful of Colorado gals, momentarily released from their daily lives.
Six flavors of mini-cupcakes piled high with icing and topped with individual flowers — violets, snapdragons and roses — each brushed with egg whites, dipped in fine granulated sugar and candied. A coconut cake as tall as a top hat on a glass pedestal, ringed with whole strawberries. Radishes carved into roses and filets of red, green and orange melons cut in heart shapes. Quiches in tiny brown crusts. Shrimp salad on puff pastry sprinkled with parsley and tarragon. Sugar cookies in the shape of teapots, hand-painted in loops and dots and garlands of piped frosting. Every single bite handmade by my neighbor.
We filled our plates and retreated to the tents where pots of steeping hibiscus tea sat beneath plump cozies at every table. In each tea cup, a red hibiscus blossom preserved in simple syrup. Raindrops began to fall, the afternoon sky grew darker and the temperature dropped, but inside the white tents the glow of bright colors, spicy scents and the tinkling of silver on china plates warmed us. For an hour we sipped and nibbled and talked and lived somewhere else, inside the rare, delicate tableau of my neighbor’s imagination.
I wasn’t a tea party kind of girl growing up, but out here in the middle distance I’m grateful for beauty in the face of storm clouds. So, pinky up and cheers to my neighbor who can summon an artful wonderland out of the ordinary on a cold and rainy June afternoon.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.