I close my eyes and listen
To the impeccable silence of a January day.
Only it isn’t silence,
Just absence of human noise—
Except for that one small propeller plane
Droning across the blue sky.
The breath-fogging air is filled with bright pockets of sound.
In front of me the rapid flutter of chickadee wings,
Followed by a shrill chirp announcing safe arrival in the spirea bush.
Behind me a hairy woodpecker’s rhythmic rapping
Up and down the trunk of the maple,
Probing for insect larvae stunned into stillness by the cold.
Above, one long keening call from a red-tailed hawk,
A triplet of croaks from a raven,
Their swirling flight paths intersecting over my head.
In my right ear, a squirrel rasping the shell off a black walnut,
In my left, the wind riffling through a cluster of persistent oak leaves.
And let’s not forget the cat,
Mewing around my boots,
Complaining of hunger
The thread of sense memory runs deep.
My mother scoops dry black shrivelings
Of Lyons tea
Out of the red and black tea caddy.
The rippling rope of amber
Pours from the spout of the
Battered aluminum pot.
A ghost of steam
Rises above the rim of bone china.
She would not think to start the day
Without her cup of tea—
Milk, two sugars.
Mimicking the grownups,
Three little girls sit in three little chairs,
Teddies perched on laps,
Around the low wooden table,
Sipping sweet milky tea from miniature cups.
Granny wreathed in
Roses and fat bumbling bees,
Labrador dozing in the shade.
Teapot resting under the knitted cosy
Beside a plate of warm shortbread.
Sugar lumps in the silver bowl.
Milk in first, one sugar.
Grandfather’s breakfast ritual:
Small gold teapot for one
And a half.
If you were lucky and early to the table
He’d save those soupy black dregs for your cup.
A fond gesture from a man at a loss for words.
Splash of milk, no sugar.
Banging in the door at four o’clock,
Tongues hanging out
For McVitie’s and afternoon tea
Strong enough to trot a mouse across it,
As my aunt would say.
Dreaming in the firelight,
Staving off homework,
The pet rabbit munching on Gingernut biscuits,
Between the paws of the great yellow dog.
The interior hush of the car
After a rain-lashed buffeting down the beach.
Hot tea poured into tannin stained mugs.
A stew of dogs and tea and humans,
Steaming up the windows.
The wind keening and rocking,
Trying to get inside and share the family picnic.
Waking to dull yellow light filtering through the wall of the tent
And the hiss of the gas burner boiling the kettle.
The milk bottle resting in the dew of the morning grass.
Or the sip of wood-smoke from a fire blackened pot.
The taste of tea at once so familiar
Became strange and exotic
With the sharp bite of Greek lemons,
Or a handful of crushed mint and orange blossom
Sweetness swirled in small glass cups
In a Tangier souk.
Bewleys of Grafton Street,
Cathedral of stained glass windows and dark wood,
The place to take the pulse of Dublin
While sipping tea and eating gobfulls of sticky bun.
Thought too, the site of betrayal
Of my college coffee drinking years.
But the tonic effects
Could not be banished beyond the realms of coolness.
In the wee dawn hours,
After a late gig and too many pints,
Bleary-eyed under the buzzing strip lights of the all-night caf,
The table strewn with plates,
Fag butts put out in the runny remains of fried eggs,
Life saving pots of scalding tea to ward off the inevitable.
In my new homeland
That anemic thing dangling on a string
Was no substitute for the stuff that would
Put hair on your chest and fur on your tongue.
But old habits and all that—
If not the tea, then the age-old ritual
Of sipping and sharing
Passed on to my husband—black, two sugars.
My daughter’s first phrase—will you have a cup of tea?
Getting straight to the heart of the matter.
I sit in the green chair, cradling the yellow mug,
Warmth seeping into my palms,
Thinking and not thinking,
Each honeyed sip of green tea
Bringing flesh to my bones.
My own ritual.
Three thousand miles away my father
Shuffles from the bedroom
In the predawn hours,
His head a cushiony place
Familiar with rote patterns—
Set the kettle murmuring on the stove
Scald the battered aluminum pot,
Reach for the red and black caddy,
Pour the boiling water over the tea bags,
Shuffle back to bed
Carrying my mother’s first cup of the day
And his own—milk, one small sugar.
It struck like a Nor’easter
Barreling up the Atlantic coast,
Thriving on converging air masses.
And I was sucked in,
Bowled over by a freak wave,
Spitting mouthfuls of salty words,
Birthed out of me
As though a pair of rope-worn hands
Shoved them onto the page.
This virgin birth
Left me laughing with astonishment.
But on reflection
The seeds were buried deep and dormant,
The labor pangs, years in the having.
It was time
For those ripe, slippery phrases
To gush out of me.
Now I gaze at that mewling creature
Let loose on the world,
Cradle it to my chest,
Relish its earthy scent,
Scared of its vulnerability,
And take ownership:
The proud mother.
The first kiss of warmth on my face
Like a returning lover,
Sends a glow deep into my core
I stand, eyes closed,
In the oldest human ritual:
Greeting the sun.
Her ultraviolet energy
Travels through space
Seeps into my skin, my blood
My liver, my kidneys
Sparking the parts of my brain
That hold primordial messages—
Seek food, share, mate,
Laugh, take joy, create.
No wonder I bask in her glory
She balances my world,
Propels me forward
To greet the day.