Five Tea Cups

cupRemembering a friend’s birthday, I wanted to share a story I wrote after her unexpected death several years ago.

A few days ago, I came home from Edmonton after visiting my mother. Each time I see her, she presses me to take a few of her good dishes, the ones with the pink roses and gold trim. I decided upon the cups and saucers. I wanted to serve tea to my friend Mary in delicate cups. Mary has difficulty holding full mugs because her hands are swollen from rheumatoid arthritis. And Mary likes to have just enough, not more, in tea and in all things.

A snowstorm had buried Saratoga. Tea might have to wait. I put away the dishes  while I listened to my messages. A sobbing friend had asked me to call. While I’d been wrapping dishes the night before, Mary was driving off the road coming home from her daughter’s house; Mary was dying.

I had thought that we had many years yet to drink tea, to visit museums, to talk about books, religion, our families, our lives. I had thought we would become old ladies together.

These words are my gift to her memory—or, more likely, these memories are her gift to me.

She loved the beauty of little things: three little vases on her kitchen table, five pieces of pottery lined up on her bookcase, more on her work table.  She said it was a leftover from the time she’d lived in Japan, a love, I suppose, of sparse and orderly beauty.

She was a painter though I never heard her call herself that. She painted mostly flowers, often lined up in those neat rows, often with blurred edges. Bright colors bloomed on the walls in dozens of  pictures in her serene, white home.

She was a gentle spirit. At election time, she changed churches because she couldn’t bear her minister’s passionate rhetoric—though she shared his liberal convictions.

Sometimes we went on nature walks.  Our favorite was Bog Meadows in late spring when May-Apples and trillium bloom in the damp places. She adored the yellow water lilies and  red-winged blackbirds; I loved the noisy frogs.  I  picked wild strawberries, but she fretted about eating the casual offerings of wild places. I checked my flower identification books.  She took notes or drew tiny sketches. We vowed to learn the names of every flower. Mostly I forgot. But Mary studied at home.

She wrote notes on little pieces of paper.  Suggestions for books she—or I–should read. Lists of arthritis symptoms, medications, her reactions. Memorable quotations.

She read mostly serious stuff: Dickens, Thackeray, Plato,  Dante. Books on art.  Poetry. A biography of Winston Churchill.  A book about the Middle East that she highly recommended. I meant to read it, but didn’t.  When she was too weak to lift heavy books, she read Elizabeth George paperback mysteries. After her death, her daughter showed me a thin, worn copy of Shakespeare’s poetry still in her  handbag. Waiting in doctors’ offices, she memorized sonnets.

Her favorite book, though, was Winnie the Pooh. She thought of herself as Piglet, not strong, vulnerable. She confessed to improbable fears, such as fear of bears in the park. Bears?! I didn’t take her fears seriously—probably because she never retreated from life. In the too short time that I knew her, she was often weak and  in pain. She might visit me only to rest on my sofa until strong enough to drive back home. Often she could not eat. Still, she lived with courage, love, and grace.

She tutored English, took it seriously and had an abiding affection for her student, a man from Thailand.   Yesterday I drove him to pay his respects to her daughter. As he sat stiffly, in a new suit, in Mary’s living room, his eyes filled up with tears.

The last time I saw her, she played Chopin on the piano for me.  She was trying to get over her fear of playing for others. We talked about the need to do what we loved, whether we were good at it or not.

We had plans. We were going to go to the Unitarian Church together. Maybe we’d find spiritual enlightenment at last. We were going to visit a Russian monastery, meet for lunch on Mondays before taking classes, walk new trails. I was going to have another piece of her Apple-Cranberry Crisp.

Last week I brought home some china from my mother’s house. Six saucers and five cups. One teacup is broken. And my dear friend Mary has died.

for Mary McCarty, who died on January 25, 2005.

Copyright January, 2005.