All in a cup of tea

Remembering last summer…

“You want to have everything clean before serving tea,” says my great-aunt Anna as she brushes crumbs from her kitchen tablecloth and sets out the tea stand. She moves slowly, using her cane as she shuffles to the refrigerator to pull out the cream. She’s 98 years old – maybe the only person I know who’s more than twice my age. She’s the only person on this planet allowed to pinch my cheeks. I ask if I can help her with anything, but she shakes her head and keeps pulling dishes out of her cupboard.

IMG_2353We are in northern Germany, in the house she has lived in for more than 60 years. The house her husband built in the years after the war, in the mid-1950’s, when they needed space for five children. I’ve been here before – this is my fifth time here, I think. During my first visit, back in 2001, I spoke no German. I remember Anna dialing up her brother, my Grandpa Gus, still living in California, so that he could translate for us. At that point, he couldn’t hear well, so my grandma ended up doing the translation. My grandparents have been gone for years now. Anna speaks slowly, but I speak enough German that I understand everything she tells me.

We were sitting in the garden earlier when she told me she wanted to serve me tea. More specifically, she wanted to show me the Ostfriesan tea ceremony.  Ostfriesland sits on the far northern coast of Germany, bordered by Holland and the North Sea. It’s a land of broad, flat plains, wind mills, and farms. Anna and Gus were born there, to a farming family in the aftermath of World War I. Tea drinking is the local custom, three or four times a day. In fact, it’s said that only the Irish drink more tea than the Ostfriesans. During World War II, the Ostfriesans were given extra tea rations to get them through the day.

Anna says she drinks tea twice a day and always has – first thing in the morning, then in the afternoon. Sometimes in the evening. I wonder if it’s part of her secret to long life. She tells me her good health and longevity is just plain luck. So funny how we all look for the secret to a long life in exercise, diet, community, vitamin supplements, etc. Maybe those play a role in health. But none of us really want to think about the role of luck, or role of serendipity. We don’t want to think about the role of something we simply can’t control.

She pulls out her rose-decor Ostfriesan tea cups, plates, and the tea pot, then shakes her head. “I don’t have any cakes. You should always serve tea with cakes, but I can’t go to the store anymore,” she shakes her head again , then says, “Let me see what I can find.” She leaves the room, heads down the hall, and I hear her rustling around in cabinets in her living room. I wonder if I should help her – she’s gone awhile. But just as I’m about to go look for her, she returns with a tin of Christmas shortbread cookies under her arm. “This will have to do,” she says.

She sets her electric kettle to boil, drops two large spoonfuls of black tea in her teapot, and strikes a match to the tea light setting inside the tea kettle stand. This warms the pot before adding the water. We don’t really have a name for these things in English. In German, the word is stövchen. I have one at home I’ve never used. Grandpa Gus gave it to me years ago, given to him by his mother. It supposedly dates back to the 1880’s.

IMG_2348Anna adds the boiling water to the tea, and we wait. She plops a crystal sugar chunk (called kluntje) the size of an ice cube into my tea cup. “Do you want one or two candies?” she asks. I look at the large sugar crystal and the tiny cup. “One is enough,” I say. She peers into the cup, then adds a second crystal, “Two is better,” she says, and smiles.

After a few minutes, she pulls a tea strainer from a drawer near her chair. I hold the strainer and she pours the tea into our tiny cups. The kluntje crackle in the hot liquid. “Now,” she says, “We pour the cream like this.” She takes a tiny spoon in the shape of a ladle and scoops cream from a tiny bowl. Carefully, she drops the cream in a circular pattern in my cup. The cold cream disappears for an instant as it sinks to the bottom of my cup, then blossoms back to the surface on a miniature convection current, and creates white, then creamy brown floral patterns on the surface of my tea before it’s diluted further. I think this was what she wanted to show me.

I take my tiny spoon and stir my tea as she adds cream to her own cup. “Normally, in Ostfriesland, one wouldn’t stir the tea,” she adds. Although, I notice that she stirs her own. Not stirring the tea creates a layered tasting experience, with the taste of cream at the first sip, the bitterness of the tea as you reach the middle of the cup, and the sweetness of the sugar on the bottom. I taste everything together: tea and cream and sweetness.

This is different from my normal, daily tea-drinking experience. My days start with a large mug of some black tea flavored with vanilla or cinnamon, and doused in honey. That’s what I use to wake up in the morning. This tea is actually stronger, but instead of waking you up, it fills up your heart like an empty gas tank.

In this moment, I feel such sweetness and gratitude at being able to spend this time with this lady. But I also miss my grandparents – and my mom – so very much. I feel them all here with us, in this tiny kitchen. I remember Gus telling me about the Ostfriesan tea ceremony. I have one of these ladle-shaped spoons for the cream. But Grandpa Gus was not a tea-drinker (see photos below).

I feel my Mom here. She was here with me on my last visit to Germany. Ever since she passed away, I’ve wanted to come back and visit Anna. Somehow, a hug from Anna is like a hug from my mom, my grandma, and my grandpa  all at the same time. It helps to fill up that lonely spot in my life – the spot always reserved for mom-hugs and grandma-kisses. The spot that’s filled with sorrow and sweetness and light and dark that form layers in your cup, and as you drink, you take them in one by one. Or, sometimes, when you stir the cup, all those emotions come in all together.


Anna and my Mom in 2010.

Being able to spend this time with Anna is like reaching back and touching my past. Later, back in the garden, we sort through a shoebox of old photos. There was a photo from Anna’s trip to California in the mid-1970’s. Ana, in her mid-50’s, looked slim and trim and vibrant, stylishly dressed in her skirt and blouse and sandals. My brother and I sit on her lap. Me in my pig-tails and overalls and bright red shirt. I feel the passage of time. How quickly it all goes. This is what my Mom said the week before she died. Forty years breeze by in the blink of an eye. Anna has lived more than twice that.


Anna and Mom, looking through what are probably some of the same photos in 2010.

I try to imagine myself, should I be lucky enough to live to Anna’s age. It’s hard to see. Nearly all of her friends, and her siblings, are gone. I will have no children to check in on me. No grandchildren, nieces or nephews. If I live to the cusp of 100 years, my life will look very different from hers.

Ostfriesische Gemütlichkeit hält stets ein Tässchen Tee bereit.

She teaches me an old German proverb. She has me repeat it over and over until I can say it without swallowing my tongue, as I tend to do when I speak German. Ostfriesische Gemütlichkeit hält stets ein Tässchen Tee bereit. There’s no direct translation. But it essentially says that coziness (best translation of gemütlichkeit) and East Friesland go together – and that means always having a cup of tea ready.

She wants to give me an Ostfriesan tea set. I tell her that I have one, in the collection of teacups and unused China that my brother and I inherited from our grandparents, and then shortly after, from Mom.

Now that I’m home, I think about that tea set. I want to drink stronger tea. And maybe add some non-dairy cream. I want to touch that past again – that ritual, on a regular basis. The ritual that keeps the sweetness with the sorrow of days and loved ones gone by.

2020 Update: Anna celebrated her 99th birthday this summer, and she is still strong enough to push her son around in her wheelchair for good sport.

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