DSCF6075The 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,
Schoolbags dumped,
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.

And now?
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.



34 thoughts on “A HISTORY OF TEA

  1. jacob gendelman

    Beautiful-and full of familiar warmth. I’m also happy to have been mentioned, in passing. Now for black, two sugars.

  2. writesalone

    Gorgeously done… An intensely personal poem that crosses effortlessly into the universal, as only true art does. You managed to my life in those lines too, genius. Its greatness is beyond words.

  3. Argus

    Spouse is insulted by tea-on-a-string. But then, she was brung up proper, like … I have eclectic tastes myself; coffee from habit (and strong enough that your blessed mouse can tap-dance without getting his feet wet) but always tea when needing the comfort that only ancestral ritual can bring. And I love those photos …

    (Afterthought: tea should only be drunk from your very own personal well battered mug, or from the finest white bone china—in which case it should be sipped) (and the life expectancy of anyone breaking that mug can be measured in milliseconds).

    1. Melissa Shaw-Smith Post author

      So true–the vessel is a highly personal–and frequently idiosyncratic–choice. But oh-so important. Thanks for reading.

      1. Argus

        I’m allowed to swish ours out with cold water, sometimes. Wash it out? No way—! Suicide. Has a lovely coat of fur within … golden black and matt lustrous … 🙂

  4. Murtagh's Meadow

    Wonderful memories. I love the way you come full circle at the end of the poem. Love the “strong enough to trot a mouse across it” – haven’t heard that one before – “strong enough to stand a spoon in” seems to be the common one around here.

    1. Melissa Shaw-Smith Post author

      Thank you. I’m sure you could write a book about the traditions and phrases surrounding tea drinking in Ireland.

  5. neverest1

    This is really good, as it stands I would prolly cut it by half or change the configuration of the lines, make it easier to enter, but there are excellent lines in this that make if poem like and of all the posting, my favorite that you’ve posted. Nice!

  6. charissagrace

    I think I’ve read this a dozen times, since it fell from Mama’s artful hands so casually into my inbox. I climb inside, and it is a time machine, or is it a place machine?

    The words swim before my eyes, as I behind tears that came of their own volition like rain falls of its sought to keep reading those squirmy sirens of longing…my fingers wipe wipe wipe wipers and me sniffing in time, retracting unruly trickles…

    and my heart…god, Melissa, my heart. Can it take the pounding of your poetry? WIthstand the thundrous delicate wonder and beauty? You tear it so carefully open with meter and words placed just so, and then hold the cup of poetry over that rip and pour communion wine in to my hungry heart, my protesting heart that says no more no more, I cannot take that ache, that longing, that “want to have been there/I am there and cannot bear that it has passed behind”.

    you make me hurt so deep…so long.
    you make me hurt so good.

    and you heal me, too…zipping up the tear behind you as you go, knowing wry smile alternating with solemn sighs.

    i want to be like you when i grow up, melissa…though you are so humble you likely snorted when you read that in not a little derision at my maudlin comment, and i giggle when i imaging that snort and small toss of your head (hey, you are the granddaughter of “splash of milk, no sugar”…

    …but you are not at a loss for words, alas for my wounded heart filled with your precise arrows.

    but i do…want to be like you…a poetess true and insistent on showing what is there without being a clamouring pom-pom shaker of undisciplined blathering.

    i mean every word of this. sometimes people fail to take me serious, because i am blatant in stating my feelings (the blatant layers of silks and velvets that I wreath my wary heart it)…i am open in my praise and unabashed if i see truth, quality.

    i mean every word to you…i am by far the richer for having been blessed to read you. i often think of them, you know, the things you wrote. they have sunk into the rhythm of my bones and occasionally that soft throb excites unexpectedly from the song of this bird or the smell of the soup i am making.

    and at last i reach the border between praise and blather, so i will cease, desist, and sign off as your deeply grateful reader and distant devotee,
    Charissa Grace

    1. Melissa Shaw-Smith Post author

      Charissa, I’m speechless. The fact that my ruminations can move you so is the highest form of praise. Thank you so much for reading and rereading. Now wouldn’t it be lovely if we could sit and enjoy a cup of tea!

      1. charissagrace

        Yes…it would indeed.

        And I am a splash of milk, 2 sugars please, with a whole lotta silence peppered with homey comfortable talk punctuated by firepops.


        Grace and Peace, Charissa

      2. Melissa Shaw-Smith Post author

        Ah, yes, nothing better than sitting by the fire, tea or no tea. I’m working on a poem about that. All the best, Melissa

      3. charissagrace

        Oh PS: I love the word ruminations, and what it is derived from (the chewing of cud by pasture animals)…and still I feel the need to underline my genuine appreciation and admiration for your poetry…poetry, and it just gives me those lil shivers I get when something really hits that bull’s-eye inside my heart of hearts.

        Your poetry. Umm, yes please.

        Grace and Peace, Charissa

  7. teacupsandtyrants

    I love this post. It brings back so many memories of my mother and sister and all the days we spent sipping tea and talking before school, after school, anytime at all. It’s a beautiful poem and I will cherish it.


    1. Melissa Shaw-Smith Post author

      Ah, so nice to hear of that strong family tradition, and so glad I could jog that memory. Thanks for letting me know.

    1. Melissa Shaw-Smith Post author

      I’m so happy that this poem inspired you to take a tea break! Some of the best moments of the day are spent with a cuppa. Cheers!

  8. aussiebirder

    Magnificent poetry, I so love your style Mel, it has such heart and arouses the feeling and senses to actually small the tea. That is good poetry and phrase. Thanks again I always love what you write!


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